Each week here at the Toy Department, two Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they'll swap e-mails with one another and debate something that is in the news. This week, Kevin Van Valkenburg and Childs Walker discuss fan loyalty, and why Kevin suddenly loves Jay Cutler, and why Orioles fans are supposed to hate Mark Teixeira.

Childs,
 
A number of things happened last week that made fan loyalty the perfect topic for this week's Conversation. As you know, on Thursday, I was complaining about Jay Cutler in the office, and how I was pretty annoyed at the way he and Josh McDaniels were acting like Lauren and Heidi from The Hills. (How dare you ignore my calls! No, how dare you talk about me with Matt Cassell!) I believe I even went so far as to say that Cutler was a clown. And then, of course maybe two hours later, word came down that Cutler had been traded to the Chicago Bears. I've been reluctant to admit this to an audience of Ravens fans, but the Bears have always been my favorite team. I grew up in Montana, where the closest professional sports franchise is a 10-hour drive (five days by covered wagon!), so my allegiances have always been pretty scatter shot. Walter Payton and Mike Singletary were two of my idols growing up, although I have equal affection for Neal Anderson, Tom Waddle and Jim Harbaugh as well. I even defended Rex Grossman as much as I could until it became impossible. Which brings us to fan loyalty. When the news was announced that Cutler was coming to the Windy City, my perspective on him was immediately altered. Suddenly, all I could think of was his upside. Isn't that absurd? It reminds me of the famous Jerry Seinfeld bit where he concludes that we're really just cheering for laundry.

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I notice this a lot though with Ravens fans and Steelers fans. If Hines Ward played for the Ravens, he'd be a cult hero in this town, and we'd think that all his crack-back blocks were just another measure of his toughness. But because he plays for the hated rival, he drives Ravens fans nuts. And the opposite is true, too. When I wrote this piece from the AFC Championship game about Ray Lewis, and the potential that this might be the end of his amazing career in purple and black, I must have received 20 e-mails the next day from Steelers fans screaming that Ray was a thug who was completely overrated and he should have ended up in jail. (A few even claimed that Lewis wasn't even one of the top five all-time middle linebackers, which is lunacy.) But you just know if he was a Steeler, those same people would have sainted him by now.
 
Even Maese's post about Michael Vick playing for the Ravens in an alternate universe got some interesting responses. A lot of people claimed "No way, not ever!" would they cheer for him, but a few admitted that if he was a Raven, they'd get behind him. I tend to think of myself as a rational person, and feel like I should know better, but I understand that mentality. Plenty of people claim they would never root for someone right up until the day when they do exactly that.
 
Can I blame fantasy sports for some of this? And is there anyone you wouldn't cheer for under any circumstances? I'm not sure I could root for J.J. Redick even if he was my twin brother, but beyond that, I'll have to think about it.
 
KVV

Kevin,
 
I think I might've seen you do a Gary Williams fist pump when the Cutler news came over the wire. There was certainly an exultant cry of, "We got a quarterback." And I might enjoy making fun of you for it (in part because I've never met a person with a stranger assortment of favorite teams ... Montana is weird.) But really, this sort of thing is a perfect example of why sports are great. Pro and college teams are extended, high-stakes examples of the neighborhood psychology we all learn as children. You can hate a kid who lives on your block. You can torment him daily for his personal failings. But if a kid from some alien block comes to pick on him, you're throwing down against the invader (or so it went on the not-so-mean streets of Otterbein.)
 
Ray Lewis is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. If Ray played for the Steelers or the Colts, people here would hate him. They'd call him a thug who tried to cover up a murder. They'd whine about his histrionic entrances. They'd note that he loves to get in on the end of a play made by someone else. But when the world aimed its vitriol at Lewis in the wake of his murder trial, you never saw a town close ranks so quickly. This was our guy they were coming after. Those same folks who denied us the NFL for 12 years wanted to hurt the best player we'd seen since Johnny U. That wasn't OK. Ray didn't kill anybody. And he worked like a demon year round so he could rock our house on eight special Sundays. What else could we ask?
 
But it was funny this offseason when Ray went on the NFL Network and talked about the charms of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets. Whoa! After 13 years of love, our guy was talking like an independent contractor. Suddenly, the relationship didn't feel so cozy.
 
It's all so funny and inevitable that I just laugh when people talk about athletes or coaches owing loyalty to a franchise. Fans really will love their stars through thick and thin. The professionals love that, but they also love getting paid and winning rings in the quest for eternal, Achilles-style glory. So these conflicts will come up over and over and over. We'll see it today, on Opening Day, when Baltimore fans boo the snot out of Mark Teixeira because the hometown boy chose money and pennant contention over years of potential frustration.

But you're right. The irony is that fans are just as renegade. Do you think the Kentucky faithful loved John Calipari before last week? I bet a bunch have called him an outlaw. Would Ravens fans love Hines Ward's nasty little tricks if he signed here? Of course. We all want to win. It's as simple as that.
 
Are there classes of athletes I could never root for? Sure. Duke players. Well, maybe Grant Hill is OK, because he's such a classy dude. But Christian Laettner could offer to play for the glory of my household and I'd still boo him. It would be hard to root for Derek Jeter, because we've had to hear him lionized so irrationally for so long. Whenever announcers start sainting athletes, I turn on them. If I have to hear another announcer say that Tim Tebow touched his soul during a 10-minute interview, I might vomit. I'd feel the same about Tyler Hansbrough except I'm a Carolina fan. So yes, I'm as big a hypocrite as anyone.
 
Talk to me about the fantasy thing, which is the height of renegade fandom. I almost set it aside as a different activity than regular sports viewing, because it creates so many confrontations of loyalty.
 
Childs

The Conversation: Are we cheering for laundry? Cutler, Teixeira and fan loyalty

Childs,
 
There is a dude in my fantasy league who refuses to have Yankees or Mets on his team. Doesn't matter to him how good those players are, his burning hatred for those squads cannot be compromised. We play in a full keeper league, and he's had Mark Teixeira on his team since Teixeira was a rookie, and now he's currently shopping him around because he signed with New York in the offseason. He'll probably take less than what Teixeira is worth because he hates the Yankees that much. I admire that stubborn loyalty to a principle, because much as I wish that I did, I don't share it. A few years ago, when the Tribune Company was negotiating a new contract with our newspaper guild, and it looked for awhile like we might have to go on strike, I was so frustrated, I decided I would never own any Chicago Cubs on my fantasy team. Ever. Problem was, Aramis Ramirez was coming off a really good season, and you know how hard it is to find a young third baseman who hits for average and power. In the end, I kept him, but I felt a little dirty about it. I wonder if fantasy sports hasn't dulled me a bit in that department. People who take their fantasy leagues seriously end up developing an emotional connection to their players, I think. And so rivalries get tempered a bit.
 
I suppose this is why professional sports seems so silly to some people, mainly snotty intellectuals who think it's beneath them. But I sort of enjoy studying the way we balance an emotional connection to an athlete vs. an emotional connection to a team. As you know, I'm a Kobe Bryant fan, and I've been one for his entire career. But if I had to be honest with myself, it's probably only because I'm a Laker fan. I think I feel about him the way  Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles felt about Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As long as he's fighting for the good guys, it's cool, sexy, even fascinating to watch. But if Kobe switched sides and suited up for the Celtics, kind of like when Faith started fighting for the mayor, I'm sure he'd become my sworn enemy. I actually really like LeBron James, both as a person and as a player, but if the Lakers meet up with the Cavs in the NBA Finals, I know I'm going to be irrationally furious every time he gets a favorable call.
 
As a journalist, though, I do wish sometimes that fans would step back and be a little more objective in certain situations. When newspapers run stories about NCAA violations that coaches or players have allegedly committed, rarely is the reaction "This looks like it's true, and I'm really disappointed in our staff or our players." It's usually more akin to "This is perfectly fine if another school does this! Why doesn't the media write stories about their dirty program! This is just another opportunity to sell newspapers!" Yet those same people snicker when it's another school. Sometimes the athlete playing for your favorite team actually is an SOB, and that doesn't mean you have to defend him just because he happens to wear your team's colors. It doesn't make you less of a fan if you say, "You know what? The hell with this person. I'm loyal to the team, not this guy."
 
By the way, if Greivis Vasquez played for Duke, you think he'd make it out of College Park alive?
 
KVV

Kevin,
 
Greivis is totally the J.J. Redick of College Park, except you know, not as good and not the leader of a perennial 30-win team. It only took him two days to earn the deep enmity of Memphis fans. And to be honest, I had no trouble identifying with their hate-ridden chants as the Tigers wrapped up their tourney blowout.
 
Anyway, I'm trying to remember if I've ever resisted a player in fantasy baseball because I hated him in real life. I don't think so. I've rarely, if ever, owned Jeter, but that's probably because I believe his overratedness in fantasy mirrors his overratedness in reality. The funny thing is, I do develop aversions to players in a fantasy context, but only because of fantasy slights, not real ones.
 
I went through phases of deeply loathing Andy Pettitte and Eric Gagne in fantasy, because both let me down during seasons when I expected to contend. But Pettitte always seemed like a nice enough guy in reality. And I actually really dug Gagne. Burly dude with goggles who throws gas and counters with a killer change-up = my kind of player.
 
So I never would have booed either guy in person, but when their names came up at fantasy drafts, I'd piss and moan like a Memphis fan hating on old Greivis.
 
That's why I've segmented my brain into fantasy and non-fantasy realms. When I flip the switch to fantasy, I root only for statistics and individual players. When I flip it back to reality, I root for great plays, exciting games and intriguing storylines. I really do a pretty good job of keeping the business of one from spilling into the business of another. That might make me crazy, but well, I'm comfortable with it.
 
You raised an interesting question by bringing up the sportswriter thing. First, let me say that I hope fans never become rational and logical about sports. If they do, we might suffer for topics to write about and idiots to stir our indignation. Where would we be then?
 
But I'm curious if your fandom has ever collided with your professional responsibilities. For my part, it has been weird at times to cover the Orioles after I grew up rooting for them. Again, I've created a stark mental division. I cherish all my fan experiences related to the team. I even write about them sometimes, channeling the voice of my eight-year-old self or my 12-year-old self. But that fandom had to end in 2005, and I don't view the current Orioles through that lens. When you go to the ballpark every day like it's an office (as I did in 2006), that's how it starts to feel.
 
Childs

The Conversation: Are we cheering for laundry? Cutler, Teixeira and fan loyalty

Childs,

I think like a lot of sports writers, I have this mental switch that I flip in my head that sort of turns me into a robot once I get into the press box, and any allegiances I might have get locked in a trunk until quitting time. It's a weird thing to explain to non-journalists, and some people simply don't believe we're capable of such mental gymnastics, but it's actually true. Sports might be entertainment for most people, and it is entertaining for us, but after awhile, you train yourself when to view it as a job, and when to view it as something fun.

A good friend of mine who works at the New York Daily News just played cards against David "Big Papi" Ortiz as a part of some promotional event Ortiz was doing to market his card game, and it was, I think, one of the best moments of my friend's life, because he's a lifelong Red Sox fan. He's a news reporter, and less comfortable with flipping that switch to make himself dead inside, so he decided to state that upfront in the story, knowing Yankee and Met fans might sniff it out anyway, which I thought was smart. I'm not a Patriots fan, but I must confess, I have a giant man crush on Tom Brady. Sometimes, if you just state your biases up front, you're better off letting the readers decide for themselves, I guess.

But back to loyalty for a second as we wrap this up: I love Montana, and I do feel a certain connection to people who grew up there, but I certainly didn't feel like Ryan Leaf owed me anything in his professional career. It's kind of funny the way some Marylanders seemed to imply that Mark Teixeira would feel compelled to sign with the hometown team and help bring credibility to the O's just because he grew up in Severna Park. In the end, it seemed like the Orioles never really had a chance, to hear Teixeira talk. Why should people be booing him today when he walks to the plate? Because he betrayed them somehow by being talented enough to get $180 million from the Yankees when the Orioles were only offering $150 million?

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Teixeira is still the same guy. He still grew up here and still went to Mount St. Joe's. It just seems a little silly for fans to direct their anger at him instead of the Orioles front office, which had eight chances to draft him in 1998 and instead picked Rick Elder, Mamon Tucker, Steve Bechler, Chris Davidson, Joshua Yarno, Tim Raines Jr., Tim Nelson and Randal Perez. That group didn't produce a whole lot to cheer about.

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KVV

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