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When Fandom Springs a Leak

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The Brewers' latest commitment to Francisco Rodriguez has by no means driven me off the cliff, but his incremental effect has me wondering about the nature of fandom.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Few things repel me more than a writer who scrawls from atop a moral pedestal---particularly in this medium, where armchair quarterbacking and red-faced, baseless spewing rides along AM frequencies and blog bandwidth throughout the sports talk world. Brewers fans are uniquely aware of this annoyance on account of the Ryan Braun debacle. Of course, a preface such as that is obnoxiously indicative of my own intention to engage in such rhetoric; nothing screams arrogance quite like, "Hey---I'm not racist/sexist/homophobic at all, but I must say, *insert frightening opinion here*."

Old yet new Brewer Francisco Rodriguez's picture splays across your screen just below the headline of this article. He is, no doubt, the inspiration for this commentary; but he is only one example of many athletes who have tested us in the recent past. Their condemnation has been done to death. My aim is not to preach morality or pass judgement here, but to assess their effect on fandom.

By now, most of us are well aware of Rodriguez's several belligerent off-the-field actions; most notably, the assault of his girlfriend's father in 2010 and the assault of his fiance in 2012. For those of you unfamiliar with the 2012 incident, the details are chilling (via Matt Snyder at CBSSports.com):

According to the police report, via Patch.com, police found Rodriguez's fiancee, a 23-year-old female, inside a closet and crying. She told the police he struck her on the head and her nose began to bleed immediately due to a history of physical violence against her.

She said she reached for a sweatshirt to stop the bleeding, and Rodriguez then grabbed her by the hair and threw her down to the ground, where he then allegedly repeatedly kicked her.

Later, police interviewed Rodriguez's maid, and she told them that this kind of behavior was "normal and known" for Rodriguez.

Two days later, Rodriguez's fiance changed her story. She cleared Rodriguez of all blame, and expressed her desire to return to her home country. The charges against Rodriguez were eventually dropped, as his fiance and the only other witness at the scene were in Venezuela, unresponsive to the prosecutor's attempts to bring the case to trial.

I do not know Francisco Rodriguez. I do know that the Francisco Rodriguez in the story above frightens me. However, I believe few souls are completely beyond repair. For all I know, Rodriguez has cleaned up his act. But, the most recent act is not in isolation---Rodriguez has exhibited a pattern of violence that cannot be ignored.

I will skip the macro sermon on the integrity of the game. We've all heard it. Ryan Braun helped to beat that dead horse. I want to attempt to refine my own perspective--to slip beneath the broad conversation and focus on cognitive dissonance concerning the nature of fandom in sport.

I have experienced a non-unique evolution as a Brewers fan. As a kid, Brewers players were heroes. They weren't even human beings. They were something else. Larger than life. The Brewers were absolutely awful when I was young. But, the fantasy persisted. I didn't care much for the pitchers (because they were all brutal), but I idolized some hitters: Jeromy Burnitz. John Jaha. Dave Nilsson. B.J. Surhoff. Kevin Seitzer. Fernando Vina.

Visiting players occasionally stirred my spirit. I recall sitting near the first base side foul pole at County Stadium when the Mariners were in town. Up in the nose bleeds, nearly eye level with the top of the pole. With the bases loaded, Ken Griffey Jr. launched a fly ball down the right field line, heading in our direction. The ball caromed off the foul pole directly in front of me, sending a booming clang echoing out among an awed audience, and a deep vibration up my spine. The grandiosity of that moment epitomizes my early quasi-spiritual relationship with the game. The baseball field was an idyllic playground. The players were, essentially, titanic, incomprehensibly talented children.

Delusions of grandeur trickled away as I grew older. I soon learned the players were humans. I learned that they did it for money. Social media sprung into existence. Exposure swiftly ripped away veils of anonymity, purging my naive mysticism for the game.

Soon enough, baseball players appeared no different to me than excellent computer programmers or air traffic controllers. Still in relative awe, but in a different way---awe in their near-superhuman excellence despite their being a human being. Somewhere along the line, I began to think of baseball players as human beings before baseball players. Because of this tendency, brushing off a Brewer's getting slapped with a DUI or a battery charge becomes a challenge, particularly when the offenses pile up.

Why is this a challenge? The uniform. The ball-and-glove logo on the cap. The name spread across the front of the jersey. If I identify as a Brewers fan, that player necessarily represents my team. Every fan's feeling of "representation" varies. As I've grown older, this feeling of representation has slowly disintegrated. Not only due to the nature of the team's players, of course, but simple questions, such as: Why do I determine my allegiances based on geography?Why do I continue to follow a team unconditionally, through constant personnel changes?; Why not just follow the team(s) with my favorite player(s)?

Many people are immune to such degeneration: Brewers fans, through and through. They're our guys. Regardless of off-the-field issues, if he plays well, and the team wins, nothing else matters. I envy that detachment, in a way. However, I find myself more and more often glossing over the jersey to the person who wears it.

But most often, the individual recedes into the background entirely. The game itself takes precedence. Nothing is lost there. I prefer the Brewers win, sure, but I find myself softening on that stance. On the fandom spectrum, I have shimmied away from the Brewers' end and toward baseball's. When the Brewers sign a pitcher that inspires me to root for the hitter, I shimmy quicker.

Francisco Rodriguez is not a person for whom I wish professional success, particularly in a vocation which has often had an influence in the incidents which haunt his past. The amateur psychoanalyst in me finds discomfort in encouraging him to indulge in a hyper-competitive activity that demands a determined will to dominate. Selfishly, my retroactive desire for serious formal discipline, such as suspension or banning from the league, burns far less than my desire for the Brewers' exercising of the choice to not employ him, sparing some of their fans persisting irritability. A choice is a statement. If the Brewers had made a different choice, I would more willingly pitch a tent in their camp.

The Brewers' front office doesn't seem to be too bothered. He assaulted his fiance as a Brewer in 2012. The Brewers re-signed him to a minor league deal in 2013. In 2014, the Brewers signed him again.

2015? Same story. This time, a two year deal. Two more years of awkward ninth innings---quietly hoping Francisco Rodriguez loses, and the Brewers win. To my discouragement, I find myself leaning ever so slightly more toward the former, and less toward the latter.