The end of Mark Buehrle and baseball childhood

As the pool of suitors for Mark Buehrle's services began to firm up a week or two ago, I started writing a post that would aim to dissuade him from taking any other offer, as if I had the power.

I wrote several paragraphs, but ended up deleting the post. It wasn't coming together -- not particularly insightful, nor particularly funny. Also, it dawned on me at one point:

I'm nearly as old as he is. But he makes more money in a year than I do in a lifetime. Maybe two. This premise is awful.

I'd lost the ability to relate to Mark Buehrle at this level. Well, that's not true. I never really had the ability to relate to Mark Buehrle at this level.

That's not particularly novel realization for me. As I went through college, taking out a loan and accumulating debt, MLB contract negotiations took on a different light. When I saw two parties arguing over a seven-figure sum, I started applying the "lowball" number to my finances and thinking, "Wait a minute..."

I don't begrudge players for making as much as they do. There's a lot of money in the game, and since it's never coming back to us, it has to go to somebody. Otherwise, Jerry Reinsdorf and his partners only get wealthier, and there's even less reward in that. So the players have a right to cash in -- it just changes the way I see them come and go.

Not this time, though. Buehrle's a Miami Marlin, and it's a total punch to the stomach. It took 11 years for me to feel compelled to assign a dollar value to him, and over that stretch, everything worked out really well for everybody. Ever since the Sox selected him in the 38th round of the 1998 draft, it's been one good turn after another.

Until now.

Let's go through his timeline to talk about timing.

He broke into the big leagues during a fun season in 2000 after speeding through the minors. He developed into a front-line starter the next season thanks in part to David Wells, which means he alone justified Wells' wholly miserable season in Chicago.

After the 2002 season, he rejected an extension, but after a rough, uneven 2003 -- he started off the season 2-10 with a 5.18 ERA -- he signed a team-friendly deal that ended up being four years and $27.5 million after the option was exercised.

Over that contract, he had a 19-win season (his career best), pitched a game in an hour and 39 minutes, rattled off 49 consecutive starts pitching at least six innings, started Game 2 of the World Series and saved Game 3. Suffice it to say, nobody ever complained that he was overpaid.

He also pitched a no-hitter in April of 2007, which turned out to be the lone team highlight in the final year of that contract. That his deal was on the verge of expiring led the Sox to entertain trade offers in July, and fans rallied on Buehrle's behalf. Nobody cared about money -- it was about justice. After watching Andy Gonzalez and Darin Erstad and Luis Terrero and Dewon Day fail to do their jobs, how could Sox fans be robbed of the one guy consistently worth watching?

Buehrle helped. He could've wrung more money out of the Sox by going to free agency, but he signed a below-market deal in July to stay in Chicago for another four years.

Over his second term, he anchored another playoff rotation, pitched the first White Sox perfect game since 1920 (thanks to one of the most incredible plays we'll ever see), set the record for most consecutive batters retired, won a Gold Glove, then pulled off one of the most incredible plays we'll ever see, which led to two more Gold Gloves.

And while his salary increased, everything else stayed the same. He earned his money no matter what he made. Just about every year, he'd shrug off reports of a spring injury to start Opening Day (nine out of 11 full seasons), and literally every year, he'd be good for 10 wins and 200 innings. Eleven straight years of double-digit victory totals, 11 straight years of 200 innings. No White Sox pitcher can match either streak.

His relationship with fans never changed, either -- except for Kenny Williams banning from using the tarp as a Slip 'n' Slide. He caught four out of five ceremonial first pitches, he signed thousands of autographs, he answered every question (sometimes too honestly), and I can't say I've ever heard a bad word said about him. Buehrle appeared to enjoy every part of his job.

Now, add it all up. In many ways, we got the best live-ball pitcher White Sox fans have ever seen. We got to watch him for more than a decade. And personally or professionally, money never got in the way until now.

Were we lucky, or what?

Star-divide

For me, it lined up perfectly. 2000 was the summer before I went to college, and I saw his first-ever start at Comiskey Park (against Kansas City; he picked off Mark Quinn). 2001 and 2002 were the last summers I spent in Chicago. Even when I went to college, it was in Missouri, where I met people whose families knew his family somehow, and could vouch for their down-to-earthness. It was just enough time -- and the right window of time -- for Buehrle to work his way into the dwindling space in my brain devoted to unadulterated fandom.

That part of my brain closed today, probably forever. Unless somebody happens to give my car a jump in a frozen parking lot or saves my kid's life or something, it's hard to imagine getting attached to a player in the same way. I'm a man. I'm 29.

For instance, I have pretty good fan history with Dayan Viciedo. In his otherwise disappointing 2009 season, I saw him go 4-for-5 in a game in Zebulon, N.C., and the way the ball jumped off his bat put me squarely on his bandwagon despite a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. I happened to be in Washington when he was called up. My sister-in-law worked her way through the crowd to get him to autograph our ticket stubs, which now commemorates the date of his first big-league hit. The third time I saw him in person, he hit his first major-league homer.

I'm pulling for him, big-time. But as invested as I am in his success, if I heard he was traded, my first response would be, "Wait -- for what?"

When I saw Ken Rosenthal's tweet -- even with its surprisingly enormous dollar figure -- my only thought was, "Shit."

It was my only thought for a good five minutes. And it keeps coming back.

Star-divide

I mostly root for decisions now. I root for White Sox players to make good decisions, for White Sox management to make good decisions, for the White Sox marketing department to make good decisions. If all of those things happen, we as White Sox fans benefit. I'm essentially rooting for us, because it makes more pragmatic sense than anything. It gets me through years like 2007 and 2011, that's for sure.

If I could evaluate Buehrle in that mindset, I'd probably say that there was no way around it. Four years is a lot for Buehrle, and $14.5 million can be spent more effectively elsewhere. If the Sox are truly rebuilding, Buehrle's help wouldn't be nearly help enough.

But had the Sox came up with $58 million, I would have celebrated, because I would have been glad to have that feeling back. Maybe I would have tried to rationalize it, or maybe I would have simply written, "THIS MAKES LITTLE SENSE BUT I DON'T CARE! WOOOOOOOOOOO!" That's what I would have been thinking, although it's a few O's short.

Alas, I don't get to write that, and in the words of Kenny Williams, "it sucks." More than that -- it is going to be brutal to see him in another uniform. Especially in that awful abortion of a uniform. Whatever you do, don't go to his MLB.com page.

Give it some time -- like, when he stops pitching for another team -- and I bet I'll get over it. I'll be glad I got the chance to watch Buehrle's White Sox career, and in the manner I got to witness it. There are far worse ways for pure fandom to die, but few better players to use it on.

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