The Cardinals kick off a three-game series tonight at Busch Stadium against the first place Chicago Cubs. This might be recency bias but it feels like the most anticipated regular season clash between the two rivals in a very long time. (Yes, it's definitely recency bias.) Aside from the fact that they've had this rivalry since before any of us were born, the reasons are obvious. The Cardinals and Cubs currently sit atop the standings in this young season. The Cubs eliminated the Cardinals from the postseason last year and have since been the proverbial favorites in the NL Central. And Jason Heyward now plays for the Cubs and if most Cardinals fans had their wish he'd be playing for the Cardinals.
I'm not fond of belligerence at a baseball stadium. The louder and more boisterous the fan the less I usually enjoy being around said fan. Like a heckler at a comedy show, unless a fan has the chops to yell something that's funny on a transcendent level I probably don't want to hear from that fan. Basically I don't ever want people having to think twice about bringing kids to a baseball game.
With that, there stands a good chance Heyward is going to hear a loud chorus of boos when he steps up to the plate tonight and that's fine. Reasonable minds can have a different opinion on this issue. Several writers here at Viva El Birdos feel differently and probably think it's absurd to ever boo a player like Heyward. I get that. The next time I read something about Heyward suggesting he's anything but a great person and teammate will be the first.
And of course, Heyward has done nothing actually wrong. This is not a Johnny Cueto, Carlos Zambrano, or Will Clark back in the day situation. He also hasn't purposely stoked the flames of the rivalry like Joe Maddon. (By the way, if the situation presents itself I absolutely want to hear that guy get booed.) Heyward never chose to play for the Cardinals and the one and only year he did play for the Cardinals he did so quite admirably.
Heyward had no obligation to sign with the Cardinals following the 2015 season any more than he did with the other 29 teams which pay good players an inordinate amount of money to play baseball. As John Fleming wrote back in December immediately after Heyward signed with the Cubs, he doesn't owe Cardinals fans anything. His much talked about comments about the Cardinals' aging core was just a fleeting moment in complete and utter honesty and I see no reason to fault him for that. Unnecessary and maybe even incorrect? Perhaps. But hardly a huge deal.
No, Heyward has earned the right to be booed simply for being a very good player most of us coveted and choosing to play for the team most of us despise. The end. Booing is not malicious or belligerent, I consider it playful - almost more of a backhanded compliment. Kyle Lohse and Skip Schumaker got cheers when they returned because fans were thankful for their time, they were members of the 2011 World Series team, and, truthfully, it wasn't painful to see them in another uniform. It's the same reason why Jon Jay will get cheered when he returns in July.
But comparing them with Heyward is a false equivalence. With Heyward it's "I wanted you to play for my team and you didn't want to. Worse, you now play for these guys? Booooo!" John Lackey, the Cubs starting pitcher tonight, might hear some boos as well, but it'll likely pale in comparison to what Heyward hears. That's because another year or two of Lackey's services would have been nice, we were interested in him coming back, but we really wanted Heyward to come back. It's selfish, it's not rational, but it's how the sports world functions. Cubs fans would absolutely do the same if the roles were reversed and they'd be fine in doing so. Reds fans showered Yadier Molina with boos at last year's All-Star Game because he plays for a rival team (and, to be fair, was prominently involved in this). It probably wasn't rational but it was also fine. (Actually, it was great.)
Perhaps I'm making a big mistake in assuming everyone who boos tonight is doing so with good-natured "aww, shucks" motives. Certainly possible. And speaking of Lohse, Schumaker, and Jay, maybe I'm wrong and there will be a very select few who give Heyward the old "former Cardinal returning to Busch" appreciative cheer and that's fine, too. And if a lot of fans aren't moved to boo or cheer - again, also fine. There's really no right or wrong way to do fandom unless you cross the Justice Potter Stewart-like line which, while not specific or well-defined, we all know is there (and please, I hope no one crosses that line during this series or ever, for that matter).
But so long as Heyward is playing for another team, particularly that team, he can get booed. Also, he's currently hitting .205/.314/.250 for the Cubs and while we know as well as anyone that those stats won't last, I'm certainly enjoying it right now and I don't feel the least bit bad about it.