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Rooting for the Name on the Back of the Jersey

I can’t say this is always true, but I’d wager that most baseball fans, whether they’re five years old or 55 years old, have a favorite player.

How one comes to choose a favorite player has always been a source of great interest to me. Is it pure skill? Is it leadership? Charisma? Being a good person? Everyone picks a favorite player using different criteria.

I was six years old in 1993, and in my first season following baseball, I was mesmerized by Lenny Dykstra. He was ungainly and disgusting (Andy Van Slyke once famously said of Dykstra that you could get cancer playing the outfield next to him), but during that 1993 season he could do no wrong. He led the league in hits, runs, walks, and plate appearances, finishing second in the MVP voting to Barry Bonds. Not only was he the best player on my favorite team, he always got dirty and had cool nicknames (“Nails” and “Dude”). I wore my Dykstra jersey through second and third grade until it was threadbare. Without Nails, the Phillies didn’t tick.

I heard similar things about people picking Chase Utley as a favorite player when I asked on Twitter and Facebook the other day. He’s the best player on the team, he’s the heart and soul of the team, and as such he is worthy of our admiration.

One friend of mine cited Jayson Werth’s good-natured, fun-loving attitude and all-around skill as a reason she picked him as her favorite player. Another friend of mine picked Werth, knowing nothing about baseball, because he looked, much to the friend’s amusement, like a guy who’d roofie your girlfriend at a party.

My dad grew up a Mets fan in North Jersey in the 1960s and used to tell me about Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda growing up, though he never did tell me why he liked them.

Another friend of mine grew up a Pirates fan and loved Sid Bream as a kid, because they shared a uniform number and the distinction of being the slowest players in their respective leagues.

Of course, these preferences change over time. When Dykstra left, I became a Scott Rolen fan, and when he left, I developed my long-term man-crush on the player I currently call my favorite: Jimmy Rollins.

By the sabermetric methods I purport to hold so dear, Rollins is extremely overrated. He doesn’t walk enough, doesn’t get on base enough, and while he’s a great defensive player, he’s not quite as good as everyone says. According to VORP and WAR and OPS+ and the rest of the alphabet, his 2007 MVP award should have gone to Matt Holliday, or David Wright, or even his double-play partner Utley. Instead, J-Roll got it for reaching a couple arbitrary milestones (30-30 and 20-20-20-20) and by giving the Mets some of the best blackboard material in recent memory, then backing it up on the field.

Sure, I love the way he fields his position, that he’s one of the best basestealers of my lifetime, and the power he squeezes out of his 5-foot-8 frame. But the real reason I love Jimmy Rollins is because he started a war of the words that would eventually enrapture Carlos Beltran, Cole Hamels, Johan Santana and the entire Mets and Phillies fan bases. I love him because he’s the last link to a time when this team was truly terrible. I love him because he’s the informal captain of one of the most likeable teams this city’s ever seen. I love the bowling tournaments, the Red Bull stunt, and that stupid video he made about trying to teach Mike Lieberthal to dance.

With the team in third place and Chase Utley’s thumb hanging on by a few shreds of cartilage, we need a distraction. So I pose the question to the readership: who’s your favorite player? How’d you choose?

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