Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Where's the loyalty?

With all the blockbuster trades across professional sports - Peyton Manning in a Broncos jersey and Albert Pujols donning an Angels cap - Hines Ward's sentimental retirement was refreshing.

We're obsessing over the wrong news conference.

Granted, Peyton Manning talk is unavoidable - and necessary. One of history's greatest quarterbacks is changing teams. The fallout of his decision includes one of the world's most polarizing sports figures, Tim Tebow, being traded.

There are questions galore, bountiful possibilities. It's fascinating stuff.

But it's a shame that this had to happen Tuesday. Because as Manning was pulling that orange Broncos jersey (weird-looking, huh?) over his head in Denver, another news conference was taking place some 1,500 miles away in Pittsburgh, an event that would be buried by the all-encompassing Mile High Move.

Hines Ward retired.

As a Steeler.

The second line is as important - if not more so - than the first. There was beautiful simplicity in the receiver's tearful goodbye.

One player.

One career.

One city.

One franchise.

"I don't want to play in any other uniform," Ward, 36, told reporters as he wiped his eyes. "The black and gold runs deep in me, and I will remain a Steeler for life."

Something about this made me nod my head. Yes. Yes. Yes. As a native Marylander raised to cheer for the various birds of Baltimore, I'm not supposed to like the Steelers. I'm definitely not supposed to like Ward, who torched his AFC North rivals with big catches and was accused throughout his 14-year career of blurring the line between physical and dirty play.

But how can you not like an athlete whose passion is reciprocal? A player who realizes that not everyone views athletes through the fantasy prism, who understands the bond between a city and those who compete there?

Steelers fans love Ward. He loved them back, and refusing to latch on as some No. 3 receiver elsewhere cements his legacy. When you think Ward, you think black and gold, and now you always will. That ought to mean something.

Now, it's worth noting that Ward might not have had a lot of options. The Steelers released him last month, and he'd made it clear pretty early in 2011 that he planned to play somewhere in 2012, whether Pittsburgh wanted him or not. Maybe there just weren't any suitors.

And yes, if Ward didn't have exactly 1,000 career catches, perhaps he would have tried harder to find a home elsewhere and get to the milestone. That's possible.

Probable, even.

But sometimes, things just work out right, and this was one of those cases. We all understand why such serendipity doesn't happen often - loyalty is a two-way thoroughfare, as the Ward release underscored - but we should celebrate it when it does.

The major league baseball season opens in less than three weeks. What are the two biggest storylines? Albert Pujols with the Angels and Prince Fielder with the Tigers.

Neither player can be blamed for leaving the cities that developed and embraced them; St. Louis was lukewarm (wisely, in my opinion) in its desire to re-sign King Albert, while Milwaukee (unwisely) made little attempt to keep Fielder at home.

But while there's understandable excitement in the new cities, two more outdated jerseys go up on eBay at a bargain price.

Other than Jeremy Lin, what's been the biggest story of the NBA season? Dwight Howard wanting to be dealt, then doing an about-face at the trading deadline and agreeing to stay with Magic at least through next year. You could sense the joy in Orlando in his first game after that decision. And you could see the joy in Howard, too.

Do you see it in Manning? I don't. Even though it's not Manning's fault he had to leave Indy - the Colts weren't going to pay him big bucks with Andrew Luck coming in - there's something sad about seeing him change uniforms.

Maybe he'll win a Super Bowl with the Broncos. More likely, though, he'll see it end quietly in this foreign place.

That's when he'll hang it up. And, at least for one day, he'll wish he could trade places with Hines Ward.

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