For many of us, a part of being a fan means we have this clouded image in our minds. A mix of our emotion-anchored expectations and reality, heavy on the former. Many of us, especially yours truly, have struggled to lose some of the emotional tendencies for the sake of clear judgment and to rid all traces of the greatest taboo in sports: homerism.
And yes, it really is a struggle because of that unquenchable fire that is the love for our team. There's nothing wrong with that, but many times, it means disappointment.
For example, many of us have seen a professional athlete give this quote when discussions of free agency begin: "I love (insert name of the city athlete represents)." The sentence may be adorned with other tidbits like "I love everything about x" or "There is no greater city with greater fans than x." After the last year, saying something along these lines has an entirely new meaning to me.
Before that, my heart would leap in my chest if I saw a Pens player say that phrase regarding the city or the organization. "Of course, x likes Pittsburgh! Why wouldn't you love Pittsburgh? It's such a great city with awesome people and great food...yadda yadda yadda."
When the time comes to sign or extend set player, your initial gut might tell you, "It's okay, x loves Pittsburgh. It'll happen. He'll take a hometown discount or do whatever it takes for him to stay in the city he loves."
Sometimes it works out and the player resigns/extends. Other times, he walks. When the latter happens, the fanbase becomes a shambles. They load their weapons and turn into blame machines, wondering why he would say such great things about x city but then pull a Judas.
Everyone remembers (and will till kingdom come) the fiasco with Jaromir Jagr last year.
Hopes were high when Jagr said his "heart was in Pittsburgh." It seemed possible, if not probable, that Shero could secure a deal to bring him back to Pittsburgh, help the Pens to a fourth Stanley Cup, while simultaneously shedding the negative image he left there so many years ago. And then the Pens could retire his jersey.
Looking back at that mindset still makes me laugh. Far from what actually happened. Jagr threw a sucker punch at all of Pittsburgh when it was announced that he was heading to the Philadelphia Flyers. Everyone was immediately on his case for saying that his "heart was in Pittsburgh."
Fast forward to the present and we've started witnessing a similar pattern with Jordan Staal (to an extent).
Earlier this week, Shero said this:
"He told me he likes it here," Shero said. "Told me he likes Pittsburgh, likes being a Penguin."
Twitter obviously responded with relief. If he likes it here, then he wants to stay.
...then this happens. The relief turns back into tension and now everyone is questioning everything. (Obviously Staal hasn't made a decision, but that's not the point. In the end, this has to do with how fans are reacting to quotes, not so much what the players are saying and how reporters are piecing quotes together to make a compelling story.)
One big thing is happening here:
Fans are putting too much stock into what players say in interviews.
It feels like common sense to believe an athlete after he made a statement about how he feels about xyz. Why wouldn't you want to believe it? However, behind every well-oiled athlete is a strong PR team that trains players what to say and what not to say.
First of all, could you imagine Staal telling reporters that he wants more money/more power play time/better wingers/a permanent top six spot (whichever of these is true, we don't know)? Of course not. He may be thinking it, but that doesn't mean he's going to say it. Instead, he goes for a more politically correct comment, that he loves Pittsburgh and the Pens.
Honestly, I don't doubt his opinion in the slightest. I actually don't even doubt Jagr's "my heart is in Pittsburgh" comment.
Why wouldn't Staal love Pittsburgh and the Pens? He won a Cup with the team, has had a great career thus far, and his skills are very appreciated. Jagr's heart is probably in Pittsburgh too because he won two Cups in Pittsburgh and spent more years with the Pens than he did with the other NHL teams combined.
The key is that fans are making big assumptions from those comments and the "true meaning" is lost in translation. A player might love a team and the city, but why does that mean he's going to commit his career there? It doesn't and it shouldn't. Obviously players aren't telling the whole story, probably at the insistence of their PR team to avoid controversy. From a business perspective, it makes sense.
But from the fan's perspective, it feels like they've been duped, lied to, and embarrassed, when, in actuality, none of that actually happened. An athlete, a reporter, and a PR team can't control how fans react to news.
This is why I feel it's imperative that fans take what players say in interviews with a grain of salt and not use it against them when things don't work out. Most of the time, a person with a BA in communications is formulating those thoughts.
I think doing so will save some of our sanity (what little remains of it, of course).