I have previously mentioned in this blog that I am an unabashed Cesc Fabregas fan and that still holds true after Arsenal has sold him to Barcelona, allowing him a chance to return to his home team. Though I hold this antiquated notion that players should have team loyalty, I also have a shoulder-shrug type of understanding for players that want to maximize their money or their opportunity to win titles because, let's face it, players have relatively short careers. They aren't sticking around for 30+ years at the same job to make it big. If they're very lucky, they have 10 years to do everything that they want to do in their sport as well as make as much money as possible, which is a fairly tall task. So I actually do understand when players jump around or leave the team they came up with or make career moves solely around preserving their legacy. The funny thing about the Fabregas saga was that both Arsenal and Barcelona fulfill the fairy tale aspect of the story. On the one hand, Arsenal is the team that Cesc made his name with, the team he played with for 7+ years and was the captain of when he left. On the other hand, Barcelona was where he played his youth soccer and is the team he has supported essentially since birth. He wasn't shopping his talents all over the place, looking to drive up his price tag and jump to whoever paid him the most. He simply wanted to go home, and that is something I can respect.
How I feel towards Cesc Fabregas as a player and as a person is irrelevant to how I feel about this situation though, as I am more concerned with him as a symbol. Cesc is the reason I am an Arsenal fan and he always will be. He could be doing his farewell tour with the New York Red Bulls fifteen years from now and he will still be the reason I watch the Gunners, regardless of what he's done since then. When I was starting to expand my soccer horizons from high profile international match-ups to the highest levels of club soccer in Europe, I was drawn to the way Cesc played the game, with his exceptional technique, his vision on the field, and the creativity he brought to the most mundane situation. I have seen him one-time forty yard through balls, chip passes over the back line of a defense, pick out a teammate with a pinpoint cross, and nearly every other distributive technique you can think of on the soccer field. Watching him play the game made me want to watch him play more, made me want to root for him and for the people that played with him. Ultimately, that is what made me a Gunners fan and I will always have him to thank for that. In that way as well as some other ways (ways that perhaps less obvious than the surface comparison), Cesc reminds me of my childhood hero, Kirby Puckett.
I grew up in northwestern Connecticut to parents that were both born in the Midwest, though my Dad was really from all over being a Navy brat. While my Dad knew how to play sports and loved to play with me, neither of my parents were what you would call die hard sports fans, so I never had that familial obligation to root for teams X, Y, and Z. Additionally, Connecticut has a very interesting breakdown of rooting interests for sports teams, a constant tug-of-war between allegiance to New York City and to Boston. The area of Connecticut I'm from is roughly split down the middle, probably falling to Boston slightly but not enough to make any kind of real difference. I remember getting both NESN and MSG growing up, with baseball games from all over to watch (including the Braves on TBS) but none of the local teams really spoke to me. Sure they were on a lot, but there was no compulsion. I didn't have to like a team because that's who my parents liked, I didn't have to like a team because they were the only local team, and I didn't have to like a team because they were all I could see. I had no reason to support one team over the other, so I did what came naturally: I chose the coolest player in the league and rooted for his team. And when I was young, there was no one cooler to me than this man who was small of stature, yet larger than life in how he played the game.
Kirby Puckett was everything a baseball player should be to me. He was a brilliant hitter who played the game incredibly hard, not just on offense but roaming centerfield as a multiple Gold Glove winner. I will always remember watching him in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series when he robbed Ron Gant up against the plexiglass in the old Metrodome, then hit the game-winning home run, pumping his fist wildly as he ran the bases. He was a great player, but he was also a great competitor, and he did everything that you would want your favorite player to do. He was the reason I became a baseball fan generally and he was the reason I became a Twins fan in particular.
That's what I'll always remember. Of course I remember his sudden retirement due to glaucoma. Hell, I remember asking my optometrist if he thought Kirby would ever play again. I remember his off the field problems once he retired, the allegations of infidelity and the charges of abuse. I remember his disturbing rapid weight gain and ultimately, his death. All of these things make you reevaluate the man and who he was as a whole human being, but it never changed who he was to me. I don't mean to say that I keep my head in the sand and refuse to admit that he was anything less than perfect. I mean that who Kirby Puckett is to me is immutable, something that can't be changed by personal revelations or the passing of time. He is the baseball player that made me a Minnesota Twins fan and, 20+ years later with never having seen more than eight full games in a single season, I am still a Twins fan. He made a part of me who I am today and that will always be.
I can't put Cesc on the same level as Kirby. When you're 25 years-old, it's almost impossible to develop a new "hero" in your life, let alone one that is five years younger than you. But what Kirby did for me and baseball, Cesc did for me and soccer. No matter what he does afterward, where he moves, how many goals he scores, how many titles he wins (even none at all), he will always be the player that made me an Arsenal fan. For that, if for no other reason, I stand and applaud him as he walks out the door and I wish him the best of luck with Barcelona. Now we just have to go about the messy business of replacing him. As a man, I mean. Because he cannot be replaced as the symbol. At least not for me.