On November 30, 2010, the Dodgers signed free agent Juan Uribe. Two days later, they declined to offer a contract to Russell Martin, making him a free agent. This was hard for me, as Martin was one of my favorite players and Uribe was my least favorite.
Jerry Seinfeld famously talked about what we’re really doing as sports fans:
Are we really just rooting for the uniform, the clothes, the laundry? After all, the players come and go, but the uniforms stay the same.
As a Dodger fan, this was on my mind a lot this past offseason, as the Dodgers turned over big chunks of their roster. Two homegrown talents, Dee Gordon and Matt Kemp, left for less-attractive laundry, and another — A.J. Ellis — probably lost his starting job. Jimmy Rollins, Howie Kendrick, and Yasmani Grandal will all don the beautiful Dodger Blue next season, and I will cheer my heart out for them.
None of the players coming in tests my fandom like Juan Uribe did. I have always liked Rollins and Kendrick, and the only thing I dislike about Grandal is that he hit a meaningless homer against the Dodgers late last season.
But the departures of Gordon and Kemp are challenging for me, because I really like both guys. I have pointed to both players in teaching my 7-year-old son how to play baseball — and how to be a good teammate and person. My boy still remembers the game last June when Gordon circled the bases on a triple-and-an-error in 13.5 seconds, and he has noticed that it wouldn’t have happened if Gordon hadn’t hustled off the bat. Most players would have thought, “Hit down the left-field line, that’s a double.” Gordon thought, “I’m going hard, because I might have a chance for a triple on this.” When Charlie Blackmon didn’t play it perfectly, Gordon had his triple. When Blackmon fumbled the ball again, Gordon was back at home plate with the first run of the game. Simply put, Dee Gordon is a player you can tell your kids, “Watch him play,” and you don’t have to worry about them picking up any sloppy habits.
Matt Kemp was the best player in baseball a couple of years ago. He was fast, he played decent defense in center field, and he had remarkable power. Kemp’s 2011 season was probably the most fun I’ve ever had rooting for a hitter. But one of my favorite things about Kemp didn’t go away with his injuries like his power and his speed did. Before most home games, the Dodgers let kids take the field with the players. They run out there, get a ball autographed by the player they are assigned to, and then they run back off the field. Kemp is a pure joy to watch in those situations. He doesn’t rush the kids to get off the field. He doesn’t look inconvenienced. He smiles at them. He talks to them. He gives them a high-five and, often, a hug. These kids are getting an experience they will never forget, because Matt Kemp takes the extra five seconds to make it great.
So yes, I am sad to see Gordon and Kemp go. But their departures somewhat disprove the idea of rooting for laundry, at least for me. I will, without a doubt, watch more Marlins games this year because Dee Gordon is there. I will root for him because of him, regardless of the clothes he is wearing. And I will always be a Matt Kemp fan, even when he is wearing those terrible camouflage uniforms the Padres roll out far too often.
So is it laundry we’re rooting for? I don’t think so. I think it is family, or something close. Vin Scully has never worn the laundry, but he’s my family. Tommy Lasorda, Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe — none of them have worn the laundry in a long, long time, but they are family. When I go to Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, it feels more like a family reunion than a baseball game, complete with some new faces and some missing old familiar faces.
It’s not the clothes they wear — it’s the name across the front of the clothes. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference, I don’t know. But it seems meaningful to me. I enjoy watching a football or basketball game now and then, but I can’t get too fired up about it because I don’t care about the teams. But the word “Dodgers” means almost as much to me as my own name.
And just like a real family, when someone new comes in, they start to grow on you. I never thought I’d say this, but … I kind of like Juan Uribe. He’s like that weird uncle you wished your aunt wouldn’t marry, but then it turns out he’s a pretty nice guy who makes a mean lasagna and buys good Christmas presents.
Once the laundry says “Dodgers” across the front, they are family.
Note: A version of this post originally appeared on my personal website on December 11, 2014.