Kevin Youkilis: Youk to the Yankees and the Loyalty Myth in Sports

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Kevin Youkilis: Youk to the Yankees and the Loyalty Myth in Sports
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

A juicy tidbit hit the Internet at ESPNNewYork.com on Wednesday, when Andrew Marchand reported that New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain had reached out to his newest teammate, former Boston Red Sox standout Kevin Youkilis.

Chamberlain’s agent, Jim Murray, told Marchand, “Joba had zero ill will toward (Youkilis).”

The pair had some infamous run-ins while on opposite sides of the diamond. Chamberlain earned a two-game suspension in 2007 for throwing a pitch over Youkilis’ head. The two nearly came to blows in 2008 after another Chamberlain delivery nearly plunked Youkilis.

Youkilis agreed to a one-year, $12 million contract with the Yankees on Tuesday, becoming yet another in a long line of players who have worn both red socks and pinstripes.

Some fans on both sides of the rivalry wonder how such a thing could happen; how a player who was such an integral part of the rivalry for nearly a decade could switch sides.

It’s simple, really. It’s called “getting a paycheck.”

The rivalry is important to the players when they are in the middle of it, but it never reaches the fever pitch with them that it does with fans.

The real myth is the idea that there ever was loyalty in professional sports. The only difference between today and 50 years ago is that the players of this generation have far more freedom to choose where they play than did their predecessors. That is, of course, due to the advent of free agency and the elimination of the reserve clause in the 1970s.

Organizations are loyal to players to the degree that they will keep them employed as long as they (a) fit the budget and (b) help them win. If either condition (a) or (b) isn’t met, loyalty is tossed out the window.

Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

Consider this situation: A star outfielder who had been with his team for more than a decade saw his production decline in his late 30s. Specifically, his batting average dropped 13 points to .288, and his OPS fell 38 points. He hit 12 fewer home runs, drove in 19 fewer runs, scored 19 fewer runs and played in 12 fewer games.

He was still a productive player, but the team opted to let him walk and tendered him his unconditional release.

That player was Babe Ruth, and it happened after the 1934 season. The team that cut him, of course, was the New York Yankees.

That shoots several holes into the notion of things being better in the good ol' days.

There are more recent examples, however.

In 1965, San Francisco Giants ace Juan Marichal attacked Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro with a bat. The brawl was precipitated when Marichal thought Roseboro was trying to bean him with his return throws to pitcher Sandy Koufax.

That is about as heated as a rivalry gets—a 15-minute scuffle.

So, 10 years later, when an aging Marichal is looking for a job, where does he turn? He signed a one-year contract with the Dodgers, of course, after being released by Boston the previous October.

The phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to baseball, either.

For the better part of two decades, fans of the Minnesota Vikings learned to loathe Brett Favre while he was slinging passes for the hated Green Bay Packers.

Some of those same fans couldn’t wait to don their No. 4 jerseys when Favre signed with the Vikings as a free agent in 2009.

Players are used to this sort of thing. It starts at a young age for many of them. Think of those summer baseball all-star teams that play in Little League and other age levels.

Those players spent their regular seasons as rivals then joined forces for the all-star tournaments. The same guy you took out trying to break up a double play last week is now your double-play partner in the middle of the diamond.

No, the only loyalty that has ever existed in professional sports is loyalty to the bottom line and to the win-loss columns.

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