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FROM MY SEAT

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CLEANING THE LAUNDRY

Most weeks in this space, I can muster up enough objectivity to pass the journalist’s code for distancing oneself from one’s subjects. But there are times -- and this week is one -- when the fan in me takes that objectivity and spits it out like spoiled milk. So pardon the passion as you read on.

Two of my very favorite athletes recently parted ways with my team of choice, one in the NBA, the other the NHL (yes, I’m one of the 14 American hockey fans left). You may know their names, you may not, and this doesn’t really matter. The teams they represented happen to be the ones I cheer and clench my teeth for every winter, but this is immaterial too. The departure of these two heroes of mine matters to you because of the circumstances that led to their donning new uniforms, circumstances that scream out the peripheral role fans have come to play in the composition of their favorite teams’ rosters. Because as sure as the taste in my mouth these days is dreadfully bitter, you’ll suffer the same stomach-turning reaction when a favorite of yours (Jason Williams, Griz fans? James Posey?) moves along, prime years still ahead.

Michael Finley will never make the Hall of Fame, but he was the heart, soul, and backbone of a basketball renaissance in Dallas. Over his nine years as a Maverick, he witnessed -- and led -- the transformation of the NBA’s laughingstock into one of only three teams to have won 50 games each of the last five seasons. A two-time All-Star, Finley is one of only two players to have scored at least 1,000 points each of the last 10 seasons. The other: Shaquille O’Neal.

Fin was waived by the Mavericks on August 15th. And his leaving Dallas has little to do with his declining play. Only 32 with a terrific jump shot, he’s the kind of player who can play, at minimum, a supporting role for another five or six years. Trouble is, the Mavericks were overpaying him. Having signed Finley to a maximum contract four seasons ago, they still owe him $51 million over the next three years. Thanks, though, to a one-time clause in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, Dallas was given the option to release Finley and remove that $51 million from the team’s accumulated luxury tax (money paid the rest of the league’s clubs when a team exceeds the salary cap). Now mind you, the Mavs still have to pay Finley his money. They’ll just be doing so now while he helps another team toward a championship run.

Turning to the all-but-dead National Hockey League, my St. Louis Blues parted company with Chris Pronger who, during his nine years wearing the Blue Note, merely became the first defenseman since Bobby Orr to be named MVP. The towering Pronger remains one of the five or six players not wearing a goalie’s mask who can establish and control the flow of a hockey game. But you see, the new collective bargaining agreement in this sport has a hard salary cap, both for teams (roughly $39 million) and individual players (no player can earn more than 20 percent of a team’s total payroll). With the Blues’ payroll already stuffed with overpaid former stars (ever heard of Keith Tkachuk or Doug Weight?), St. Louis chose to “free up” salary space by letting the best defenseman in franchise history practice his greatness in Edmonton. (The matter is complicated further by the Blues being up for sale. Owner Bill Laurie -- the point guard for Memphis State’s 1973 NCAA basketball runners-up -- has seen so much red ink, apparently, that his perspective on what gives a franchise value has grown clouded.)

I absolutely despise the line made famous by Jerry Seinfeld, that fans who choose a sports team are merely “rooting for laundry.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. When you pick a team to follow, year after year, you’re selecting an entity of hope and possibility. The reason may be proximity, geography, history, or even a “Way” of playing that separates your favorite from the rest of the teams in a given sport. And don’t doubt for an instant that devotion to a ball team doesn’t involve a strain of faith that can be found in religion. This has everything to do with the people who wear a certain uniform, and nothing with the “laundry” itself. When the human beings who shine in that uniform are sent packing, it’s akin to seeing the “good guy” die in battle on the silver screen. And the ache stays around a while.

When I was a boy, I remember one of my first baseball heroes -- Ted Simmons -- being traded to Milwaukee. My dad had to convince me that Whitey Herzog had a plan for his Cardinals, that the subtraction of Simmons meant the addition of players Herzog felt would take St. Louis closer to a championship. Dad didn’t say a word about money. And when the Cards won the World Series (beating Simmons and the Brewers) two years later, the departure of my favorite catcher was validated.

You can forget any validation with the losses I touch on today. Both players should have their numbers retired by their former franchises, and both have years left to contribute. So why are they house-shopping? The cart that is the twenty-first century dollar has overtaken the horse of loyalty in professional sports. The players, alas, remain wealthy beyond imagination, and the teams will keep charging their exorbitant prices. The only losers are the fans. Hard to believe this is wrapped around games we play. As I try and get used to Doug Christie wearing a Mavericks uniform, I challenge you to find me a winner.

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