- I just finished watching Peyton Manning’s goodbye press conference with Colts owner Jim Irsay. It’s easy to be cynical about these types of things but everything Manning and owner Jim Irsay said really rang true to me and seemed very genuine. You’d be hard pressed to find a classier athlete who loved his city more than Manning. I attended the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis with my father and watched from a couple sections over as Manning spent the entire halftime of the Duke-Butler championship game signing autographs for anyone who wanted one. He even had his own Sharpie. The love between city and player was very obvious and very real.
- Anyway, today’s news conference got me to thinking a bit about the idea of one player being tied to one city for his entire career. In just the past three or four months, we’ve seen Albert Pujols and Peyton Manning leave their city either by choice or by release. These aren’t run of the mill players, they are genuine superstars at or nearly removed from the top of the mountain. Nobody is immune to the harsh nature of sports. When you hear athletes and management types say “it’s just the business side of this game,” they say it because it’s true. But there was a time when there was no business side. Or at least the business part hadn’t been developed and it was OK for athletes to form a never ending bond with one city.
- Growing up, my father always told me about his greatest athletic heros. The names he mentioned most were Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas. Mantle was a Yankee his whole career. Unitas very nearly played all of his career with the Colts, much like Manning himself. People choose to forget the one-off he had with San Diego and why wouldn’t they? Johnny U. was the original Colt.
- Point is, days like today with a big press conference announcing a parting of the ways never happened back then. If a guy switched teams, it was generally because he had hung around too long and was just looking for any place that would give him an opportunity. Now, teams and players can part ways for any number of reasons. While money is generally the usual factor (isn’t it always?), you have trades, emerging prospects, suspensions for steroid use or other transgressions, free agency and sometimes even good old fashioned stubborness as reasons that guys leave the franchise that they’ve spent most of their careers with. You even have guys putting their legacy up for debate by forming dream teams.
- I grew up in this era, the one where the one franchise player was almost a myth. There was the occasional Tony Gwynn or Cal Ripken Jr. but since the advent of free agency and salary caps, there simply isn’t much room for it. Right here in St. Louis, I watched Isaac Bruce, Mr. St. Louis Ram, end his career in the uniform of the team’s most hated rival. We all know what happened with Brett Favre. Even some of my own childhood idols, guys like Ken Griffey Jr, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley played in multiple uniforms be it in their prime or in the twilight days.
- I don’t want to say that I’ve been jaded by the business side of it. I still believe in some of the romantic parts of sports: things that aren’t real like the idea of being “clutch,” the idea of any given Sunday and the magic of a miracle comeback or upset. Those are the reasons we watch sports and at the same time, those things are easily lost in the shuffle of potential salary cap cuts, scouting combines and whatever the off the field scandal du jour is.
- The point to all of this is this: we no longer live in an era where we can latch on to the names on the back of the jersey. Embracing the name on the front is the far safer and much less emotionally draining move to make. It’s a reality that doesn’t make days like today any easier for Colts fans or even fans of the good old days where players stayed in one place their entire career. What it does do is serve as a reminder to enjoy what you have.
- Whether your team was 13-3 or 3-13 last year, there are at least a couple guys that you probably enjoyed watching and probably in some way made every game worth it for you. The lesson in all of this is that those times might be fleeting. Take a moment to enjoy it while you can because chances are, it won’t last forever.
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