Player-Fan Bond Is A Weird One

Andrew Simon

Andrew SimonThe Daily Nortwestern

The relationship between athletes and fans is bizarre, ranging from idolatry to blind hatred.

I am a perfect example, as I write this column while sitting in my Albert Pujols shrine, sticking pins in my Barry Bonds voodoo doll.

Maybe that is not quite true, but the point is that as fans, we have incredibly intense feelings about people we probably never have met. In many cases we know almost nothing about the athletes outside of what they do on the field or court.

As a result this knowledge becomes our entire view of them.

The quarterback who perseveres through an injury to lead his team on a game-winning touchdown drive becomes a hero. The kicker who misses a potential game-winning field goal is a worthless bum, with the fans of his team probably talking about inflicting all sorts of bodily harm on him.

The kicker might be a terrific husband, father and humanitarian, while the quarterback might be dishonest and self-absorbed. But we don’t see that.

We forget that athletes are just as human as we are, even if they are significantly more talented.

That’s why it’s always so shocking and sobering when a big-time athlete dies, as St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock did April 29.

It was difficult to know how to react after Hancock was killed when his sport utility vehicle crashed into a tow truck parked in the fast lane of a St. Louis highway.

Since I’m a Cardinals fan, I was familiar with Hancock, although he wasn’t a high-profile player. He was just a journeyman who had finally found some stability as a versatile reliever in the St. Louis bullpen. He even helped the Cards win last year’s World Series.

Although I had never met Hancock, I felt a strong wave of sadness upon hearing that he had died. When I though about it, I felt guilty. Why doesn’t the same feeling hit me when I read in the newspaper that somebody else I have never met has died?

The reason is that unique bond between player and fan. The athletes who play on our teams are like an extended family. We may not know them, but we share their successes and failures and experience them with as least as much joy or sadness as they do.

But death makes this connection seem fake. Only now that Josh Hancock is gone do we think of him as more than just an arm to be celebrated when it strikes out hitters and maligned when it gives up home runs.

Police said Hancock had a blood-alcohol level nearly twice Missouri’s legal limit, was talking on his cell phone and was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. This goes to show just how human athletes are.

We might name our children after them. We might burn them in effigy.

But that does not change the fact that they have terrible lapses in judgment just like the rest of us. And they are not exempt from paying an extreme price for those lapses just like the rest of us.

Josh Hancock did, and it should make us all think.