This one is hard.
I was watching baseball when I learned that David Price had been traded to Detroit, and I knew just what to do. I walked to the liquor cabinet and poured myself a glass of my best bourbon. By the picture I took at the time, there was about a third of a bottle of Widow Jane left, and I finished it easily before moving on to a small bottle of very excellent Due North rum.
David Price deserved the best.
He wasn't just the best pitcher in Tampa Bay Rays history—and the only Ray to win a Cy Young award so far—he was also my favorite player.
Finding Baseball with Price
Price was drafted by the Rays precisely when I became a fan. I'd never much cared about baseball before, but near the start of the 2007 season, I found myself working at a desk for the first time in my life, and to help pass the time as I worked, I bought an MLB radio subscription (yay, day games!). I fell for the dulcet tones of Dave and Andy, and while I probably couldn't recognize potential if it hit me with the broad side of a barn, I was (correctly) sure that the 2007 Rays oozed potential.
And when the last-place Rays drafted someone I'd heard of as a "once in a generation talent," (yes, those seem to come around more than once in a generation), I was psyched.
In spring training before the 2008 season, I saw David Price pitch on TV for the first time. I remember describing the outing to my dad, and saying that Price had thrown a 99 mph fastball and followed it up by 69 mph changeup.
Now I know that's ridiculous. No one has that much velocity separation, and at that time Price could barely throw a changeup at all. Probably what I saw was a bad curve and a poorly calibrated radar gun. But I didn't know that then, and the details didn't matter. Price was hope personified. The Rays were on their way to the promised land, and he was the promise.
And then the Rays did better than respectable, winning the American League East and making the playoffs for the first time in team history. When they needed a quality arm in the bullpen, there was Price, in only his first season as a pro, closing out the hated (and if we're being honest, feared) Boston Red Sox to bring the Rays to the World Series.
More than a Game
Fandom is funny thing, because while we pick our teams mostly by location alone, and generally watch athletes only from afar, we can't help but map human virtues onto their athletic performance.
This was easier for me than usual with David Price, because although I've never met him, I do have a family tie to the town where he grew up, and more so than to David himself, it's a tie to the Morrissey family. Knowing people for whom Price is a real, concrete person makes it hard for me to view him abstractly as an athlete, and it's probably a big reason why when asked to write my favorite Price memory for a roundtable when he was traded to Detroit, I went straight to his first good start in the 2012 season:
His first three starts were rough. In the first game of the season, he walked four Yankees. For his second start, he got shelled in Fenway, and only made it through three innings. He next pitched five and two thirds decent innings in Toronto, but the strikeouts weren't there. With the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim coming to The Trop, Rays fans were beginning to doubt.
April 24 is an important date for David Price. One of his closest friends, Tyler Morrissey was killed in a car crash on that day in 2008. He has the date, along with another when his friend Nathan Stephens collapsed and died on a basketball court, stitched into his glove. And you could see that it mattered in Price's demeanor on the mound. He was focused to the point of ignoring the field around him. He fired strike after strike into Jose Molina's glove, mixing his pitches and always keeping the Angels off balance, but it almost seemed the Angels weren't there.
When Price walked off the mound nine innings, 119 pitches, one walk, five hits, six strikeouts, and no runs later, he looked shell-shocked and exhausted, but Rays fans everywhere knew that it was okay to believe. Price was just like us, only much better at pitching. A human with emotional weaknesses and emotional strengths, for whom a game in April could matter so much more than the notch in the win column. Of course that's a big part of what we're looking for as sports fans, but we don't actually get to see it that often. It's this game, more than any of his more masterful performances, that will always keep me a David Price fan.
But to Boston?
There's a simple phrase that get's bandied around often in the comment section of this blog, particularly in the gameday threads, even when the Rays are not playing the Red Sox: "F*** Boston." It's crude and it's unkind, but it also gets at an important part of the essential experience of being a Rays fan.
That's because the Rays are very much defined by what they do not have. They do not have a large and affluent fan base, they do not have a nice stadium, they do not have a public transit system to take fans to their stadium, and they do not have a rich history in the area. And on account of all of those factors, they do not have the ability to sign free agents like David Price.
But they have to compete in the same division with not one but two teams that do have all of those things. The Yankees and the Red Sox are the bullies of Major League Baseball, but the Yankees know that and have for a long time, while the Red Sox only recently stopped clinging to a narrative of themselves as loveable, rugged upstarts. To Rays fans, this is infuriating.
From my seat in The Trop, the Yankees and the Red Sox are one and the same, except perhaps that the heckling from Red Sox fans who take over Tropicana for the "premium" games is worse.
So yeah, when I think on the Red Sox, the fury is there. I believe David Ortiz took steroids and I reject him as an American Hero not because of the 'roids but because of the smugness. I believe that all Boston pitchers, channeling their inner Josh Beckett, throw at batters for the fun of it. I still haven't forgiven Coco Crisp for his cheap shot on Aki.
Fandom allows us to hate easily, and I do.
I haven't touched the Due North since that first trade, over a year ago, but I'm sipping a glass now because I cannot hate David Price.
That makes things difficult. Rooting for laundry is tough to support logically, yet we fans do it and it's rewarding, so we find things to like about the players to resolve the cognitive dissonance. We do the same with the teams we root against.
But when David Price hits Brandon Guyer in the arm next year, I won't be able to believe that he did it because he's mean. For me to say that his high-energy antics "disrespect the game" will never feel right.
Zen Buddhists use sayings called Koans, some types of which cannot be understood logically, as a tool to seek enlightenment. The paradox is meant to drive them out of their flawed, earthly way of thinking, and David Price has presented us Rays fans with a fine one. Should we give up either our love or our hate? One should not exist without the other. If setting both aside and retreating from fandom isn't an option, then what does it mean to keep both?
Chris Archer put it best, and he did so by not giving an answer:
When you idols become your rivals....— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher42) December 1, 2015
I don't quite know what's in the ellipses, but we Rays fans are about to find out.