We learned last night that Justin Morneau, a longtime favorite among Minnesota Twins fans, is being traded to Pittsburgh. Although, like most members of the team, he isn't actually from Minnesota, he’s been a talented, visible member the team for eleven years — plenty long enough to feel like he represented us in some meaningful sense. But in our system of major league sports, the players are always, in the end, only hired guns that never really belong anywhere in particular. If the departure of a great guy and fan-favourite like Morneau isn’t proof of that, then I don’t know what it is.
It was a couple of years ago that it dawned on me that our “local” major league sports teams really do not represent their states or cities in any meaningful sense. For example, almost none of the Twins or the Vikings or the Timberwolves or the Wild are from Minnesota. The players were imported from elsewhere by a corporate franchise that was assigned to this area by the league. Our teams aren’t a representation of Minnesotan sports talent; they’re a representation of how much money and hiring talent our particular sports franchises have.
Most sports fans are fine with that arrangement. But imagine if we ran the Olympics that way, and each country’s team was mostly filled with people from outside that country. It would be silly — a lot sillier than it is now, at least — to derive any national pride from the athletes wearing your country’s uniform. This is one of the biggest reasons I enjoy watching the Olympics: it’s one of the few remaining venues where the players actually represent the best native talent in their region.
But professional sports are not beyond repair in this regard. I propose a new rule in all leagues that in order to play for a major-league sports team, you either have to have been born in or graduated from high school in that state.
Such a rule would probably transform professional team sports in this country. I’m guessing the biggest opposition would come from the players: under this arrangement, salaries would plummet because players would have few to no options as to who they could play for. Some might say less talent would be attracted to major-league sports in this scenario, but the history of baseball (for example) supports the idea that great stars would still emerge without million-dollar contracts. And perhaps we would see an end to the ridiculous spectacle of multimillionaires going on strike, which from a PR standpoint has done real damage to professional sports.
I suppose that the born-or-graduated rule would mean that Oklahoma, Ohio and Indiana would win the Super Bowl most years; but the point is that at least those victories would actually mean something for the people in those states. And the likelihood that Boston and Minnesota would be winning all the hockey games isn’t exactly a downside in my book either.