“Bad St. Louis Cardinals Fans Assail Rent-A-Player For Leaving For Real City.” “Bad Cardinals Fans Boo Jason Heyward on His Return to St. Louis.” “Smug Cardinals Fans Cheer Jason Heyward on His Return to St. Louis.” “Bad, Smug Cardinals Fans Greet Jason Heyward With a Uniquely Obnoxious Combination of Booing and Cheering on His Return to St. Louis.” “Heartless Cardinals Fans Mock the Speech and Hearing Impaired by Sitting Silently for the Duration of Jason Heyward’s Four At-Bats.”
There is no manner in which the 45,000 or so gathered at Busch Stadium tonight can behave that won’t elicit contempt from the corners of the internet habituated to expressing contempt for the Cardinals and their fans. The particular vein of Cardinals hate that Deadspin and others have mined in the last few years has proven itself to be far less about the details of any given story than the ever-present chance to signal your status as a member of the alt-sports-media in-group and assign illusory moral value to your arbitrary tribalist sports loyalties. Nothing that happens tonight is going to change that.
Which is good, because it removes the temptation to factor the inevitable reaction into the question of whether or not Jason Heyward should be booed tonight. The question can just be answered on its own merits. And the answer is pretty simple: Jason Heyward shouldn’t be booed tonight, because Jason Heyward has done nothing to deserve being booed.
While the justifications for doing so have ranged from the entirely reasonable to the virulently racist, most cohere around a specific narrative—the one that’s been perpetuated since the day Heyward accepted the Cubs’ eight-year, $184 million contract offer, which holds that he “spurned” the Cardinals by taking less to play for their hated rivals and took a dig at the Cardinals’ “aging core” on his way out the door.
The first half of this is relatively easily dispensed with: Heyward did not take “less” to become a Cub. Details of what the Cardinals did and didn’t offer him last December remain frustratingly vague, but at best, Heyward chose between two contracts of roughly equivalent value by betting on himself (and Major League Baseball’s soaring revenues) to turn one of his two opt-outs into another nine-figure payday. At worst, Cards owner Bill DeWitt pulled off another head fake towards a more competitive payroll with the help (witting or unwitting) of local media.
Heyward made his decision the same way just about every athlete in the history of free agency has made their decision: by acting in his own economic self-interest. Everything that followed that decision—up to and including a few mild, basically indisputable remarks about the future of the Redbirds’ Molina-Wainwright-Holliday triumvirate—has just been window dressing. That Heyward introduced himself to Cubs fans with a harmless nod towards the prevailing narrative around the club is neither surprising nor meaningful. If he’d been lured back to St. Louis by a better offer, he’d have given reporters an equally harmless spiel about the Cubs’ relative inexperience and the value of the Cardinals’ winning tradition, and fans and the media would’ve found it just as convincing.
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There’s no playbook for this. The most distinguished Cardinal to put on the royal blue in the last few decades, Jim Edmonds, was a franchise hero in the twilight of his career when he returned to St. Louis after being traded to the Cubs in 2008; the standing ovation he received was a no-brainer (and, it should be said, no more or less than any other fanbase would have done in a similar situation). Jason Motte, Jason Marquis, Aaron Miles, Dan Haren—all role-playing onetime Cardinals whose careers eventually took them in the wrong direction on I-55, none of them a very instructive comparison to Heyward. For the first time in living memory—maybe the first time ever—we were tantalized by the prospect of seeing a great young player become a key member of the Cardinals for years to come, only to watch him choose the Cubs instead.
Ultimately, maybe the most definitive way to illustrate that Heyward doesn’t deserve to get booed tonight is to compare him to the two most notable targets of Busch Stadium jeers in the recent past. Brandon Phillips may not be the villain many of us made him out to be in 2010, but no one’s going to argue that calling a team “little bitches” while repeatedly avowing your hatred for them doesn’t warrant some enduring booage. Certainly the same goes for anyone who ends a player’s career by ninja-kicking him in the face with his spikes. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Heyward could, as the Cards-Cubs rivalry comes to a rolling boil over these next few years, end up doing something boo-worthy. But nothing he’s done so far even comes close.
Heyward didn’t blow out of St. Louis riding shotgun in Joe Maddon’s Magical Media-Charming Mime-Friendly Mystery Bus, blasting a 26-minute-long String Cheese Incident cover of “Go, Cubs, Go” and stopping only to throw deep-dish pizzas at an Imo’s and spray-paint a mustache on the Musial statue. He’s a tremendous player and patently good dude who debuted for his hometown team at age 20 while being compared to Hank Aaron by his manager, eventually got sent to another team in a trade he didn’t ask for, gave that team a great year, and when faced with one of the biggest decisions of his life chose to do what he felt was best for him and his family. It’s okay to be hurt by that decision. It’s okay to disagree with it. But it’s not worth your anger or resentment or disdain, and those are the only messages that any boos tonight are going to send.