Last weekend’s FanFest by the Arizona Diamondbacks was a start reminder of what kind of off-season the team has had. The signs that had adorned the right field bleachers touting them as UptoWn were gone. The pictures of centerfielder Chris Young had disappeared from the concourse. Merchandise bearing Young, Upton, shortstop Stephen Drew, and rookie pitcher Trevor Bauer were deeply discounted at the team shop at Chase Field.
Times they had indeed changed from even a year ago when the Diamondbacks looked to be committed to their young batch of talent and the promise they held as they reached their prime. In less than four months time the team had jettisoned a cruise ship full of talent and along with it most of the marketable names they had.
For the past few years the Diamondbacks had banked on Justin Upton fulfilling the seemingly endless hyperbola of being the next great superstar in Major League Baseball. He was compared to Kirk Gibson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mickey Mantle. We all bought into the idea that J-Up would find his groove and carry this team to the World Series and become a household name bringing baseball relevance to the Arizona Desert.
Looking back it was probably unfair for the team and the fans to put that much pressure on someone who was barely old enough to drink. It got to the point that Upton was in a no-win situation. He could never live up to the hype and any misstep he made was magnified as the face of the franchise.
Fans were evenly split on whether they were happy or disgusted at the Diamondbacks trading this young talent. While I started out being among those who were less than impressed with Upton as a person let alone an ambassador of the Diamondbacks I had mellowed and began to understand some of the pressure he was feeling.
Upton was never going to become Luis Gonzalez. He doesn’t have that kind of personality nor has he had to deal with the notion that he might not be as talented as others to play the game. Few Diamondbacks fans remember that the trade that brought Gonzalez to Arizona was not so much that the Diamondbacks wanted Gonzalez as it was they did not want Karim Garcia. Even the Detroit Tigers did not value Gonzalez as they not only sent him to Arizona but also paid most of his salary just to get him out of town.
No, we don’t remember that part because humble Luis Gonzalez blossomed in the desert and led a team to the only World Series championship they would ever see. Gonzo as the fans knew him went out of his way to sign every autograph or take any opportunity to make a fan feel special. Gonzalez understood he was just a part of a much greater game and was just grateful that baseball allowed him to stick around as long as they did.
In a sense Diamondbacks fans were spoiled. They did not have to endure the decades of failure like the Cubs or deal with arrogant superstars like the Yankees. The only thing they knew was that owner Jerry Colangelo loved winning at any cost and character mattered when it came to players.
When former GM Josh Byrnes unceremoniously shipped Gonzalez out of town there was a fan revolt (well as much of a revolt as fans in Arizona could muster). How dare this team turn its back on “the face of the franchise”. The backlash resulted in a mad search for a new face that fans and marketing could rally around.
It started with the failed attempt to make Eric Byrnes be the face but injuries and a bad contract doomed that relationship. When Upton burst upon the scene he was a young ballplayer who could potentially be the best that ever played the game. It was perfect except for one thing. Upton never really wanted to be the face of the franchise. He never seemed comfortable allowing the fans to get to know him. He was much to reserved for the fans liking and in their eyes he didn’t seem to care enough about what they thought.
One of the first things I was asked when the Diamondbacks traded Upton was, “who is the face of the franchise now?” It’s an interesting question and one that I have pondered myself. A franchise needs a face, one that people look at and can relate to. It needs to be someone who they respect but also someone who respects the game. It needs to be someone who is going to be with the team through thick and thin. Someone who despite the ups and downs that come with a baseball season will have the team’s best interests at heart.
After pondering this for a while I have come up with an unorthodox answer to the question. The face of the Arizona Diamondbacks should be its fans. Players come and go but it is the fans who will be there every single game. It is the fans who sacrifice their hard earned time and money to support this team.
A misguided General Manager or member of the front office may trade away a future Hall of Fame player. A player development staff may erroneously undervalue a prospect or not position a player for success. Any of these could impact the short-term or in some cases long-term fortunes of a franchise. A fan just accepts it. In some cases they accept it because there is not a lot they can do about it but in other cases they accept it because they know that no matter what the results baseball is still the greatest game on Earth and they would do anything to be at the ballpark.
That is what the face of a franchise should be. It should be someone or some group that understands it’s not one person that represents a love of baseball but a community that sticks together through success and adversity and gives back to the game more than what the game had to offer.
So the next time you are out and you are proudly wearing your Diamondbacks gear remember, you are the face of the franchise. You are the one who is making a difference. Act accordingly; be respectful of the team but know that they wouldn’t exist without you no matter which players are currently on the roster.