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The Tyler Clippard trade was hardest on the Nats’ youngest fans

(Via the Nats)

Kids aren’t supposed to love eighth inning setup men, and they aren’t supposed to be upset when eighth inning setup men get traded to Oakland.

But Tyler Clippard’s place in Washington wasn’t that of a typical eighth inning setup man. Why were fans so insistent that Clippard deserved his own bobblehead? Why did he rather easily win the fan’s choice selection when this was put to a vote? Why did fans buy his T-shirt and jersey, and celebrate his entrance music, and embrace multiple Clippard-themed slogans, from the “Clipp and Save” refrain to the whole “Fear the Goggles” business?

If adult Nats fans liked Clippard, their children may have liked him even more. They liked his goggles. They liked his funky delivery. They liked his occasional dance moves, and the way he interacted with them at fan events, and I don’t know what else, exactly. So when Clippard was traded to the A’s this week, at least some kids were kind of upset.

Now, I’m not trying to be overly dramatic here. Professional athletes change teams all the time. This isn’t Jimmy Rollins leaving Philadelphia; Clippard spent just seven years in Washington, and the Nats never so much as won a playoff series in that time.

But when I heard Wednesday night that Clippard was off to Oakland, among the first things I thought was that my 7-year-old daughter would be disappointed. I mentioned as much on Twitter. And plenty of parents agreed.

“I told them at breakfast this morning,” said Jen Underwood, the mother of 9- and 6-year-old girls. “I figured they’d hear about it on the radio when we were driving later, and I wanted to tell them before I had to tackle it in the car. I waited until they got up, got dressed and got to the table, and I said ‘We’ve got to talk about some Nats news.’ ”

Then Underwood’s daughters cried. The oldest ranks Clippard among her two favorite players — not least because he once gave her a hug at a fan event. Thursday morning, she asked if they could listen to his “Ready or Not” entrance music every day, and brought his bobblehead to the table during breakfast. They plan to make goodbye cards to send to Oakland, and the girls asked when the A’s are visiting Nats Park. (Not this season, sadly, but the family is already considering a trip to Baltimore.)

“They get pretty invested in people,” Underwood said. “I just explained that he’d been traded, he was sad to go, he didn’t choose to leave. I tried to explain that baseball is a business, that mommy’s sad too, that it’s okay to miss him, but we have a new guy, let’s figure out about the new guy.”

These, though, are difficult concepts for kids who haven’t yet studied up on free agency, team budgets, prospect pipelines and asset management. When I told my daughter about the trade, she wanted to know why the Nats would exchange a pitcher for an infielder, whether his ex-teammates would miss him, and whether we could still display his bobblehead. Her response probably wasn’t atypical.

“It is funny, how certain players really resonate with the kids and certain players don’t,” said Jody Lee, the mother of 10- and 7-year-old boys. “You see the players that you really love, and you get used to that.”

Lee’s sons also went to Clippard’s bobblehead game; they saw him pitch that day, and their mom caught a baseball, and they just didn’t think about Tyler Clippard not being a National. “We’ll have the bobblehead to remember him,” 7-year-old Oliver said on Thursday. Their father tried to explain about the long-term implications of the trade: that Ian Desmond might be on the move at some point, that his eventual replacement needs to be considered, and so on. But that isn’t how kids — or at least, how some kids — interact with the sport.

“They think that sort of fundamentally the team is like a family, so they don’t really think of it as changing that much,” Lee said. “It’s not like we’re going to say [to Oliver], ‘We’re going to swap you out, we’ve got another 7-year-old coming in that will eat something beyond mac ‘n cheese.’ I don’t think they really understand the idea of clearing up some money.”

Again, this isn’t tragedy. Lee said her boys were befuddled more than anything, and any budding sports fan will have to learn the realities of this era eventually. For some kids, Clippard has been an introduction to that world.

“They definitely love him, and when I told them this morning, they were super disappointed,” said David Connell, whose Nats-obsessed sons are 8 and 5. “This is a really tough lesson for kids of that age, to understand that the team you loved last year is not the team that you’re going to love this next year — that these guys change, they come and go. ”

Connell also tried to explain about Clippard’s contract situation and the middle infield instability, but “I think it’s hard for them to grasp, especially seeing the team play so well the year before,” he said. “They have these images in their mind of these players [as Nationals], and I think it’s really hard for them to understand why this happens.”

Like others, Connell’s boys had a variety of reasons for their attachment to Clippard. He was their first big-league autograph. He was especially personable when they met, engaging with them “in a way that I think isn’t always the case,” Connell said.

Maureen Townsend’s 9-year-old son Jack, who counts Clippard among his two favorite players, would sympathize.

“When we met him he was just so nice,” Townsend said. “And he’s basically been on the team the entire time that Jack would even remember watching baseball. He’s just been a constant…one of those faces that he associates with the team.”

Speaking of that face, several parents told me that Clippard seemed to convince their kids that all athletes don’t look the same, that looking different can be kind of cool. That idea endeared the relief pitcher to 14-year old Leslie Mills; Clippard was “by far her favorite player,” her stepmom, Jen Petitt, told me, citing both the way he pitches and the way he looks.

“He was maybe a little more accessible than some of the other players,” Petitt said. Her step daughter “was really unhappy” when she learned about the trade, “and she was really mad: Why would they do that? Why would they trade him? This is going to take her a while to get past.”

Still, there’s something kind of charming about this entire thing: about D.C.-area schoolkids growing attached to a baseball player who might not mean much to the rest of the world. It says something about how deep the Nats have wriggled into the community, how players who act a bit differently or go out of their way to be kind can earn a following, and how families can get caught up in the whole irrational pursuit of fandom.

“It’s not just about Clippard; it’s about teams changing and players leaving and players coming,” Connell said. “I told Oliver about who they got [in the trade], and he was like ‘Who is that? I’ve never heard of him.’ It’s like, ‘These guys are our team. There’s literally a mini statue of them on my shelf, and they will never leave.’ So it’s a tough lesson for them to learn, but I think a good one. If they’re going to be following sports, they need to understand that part of it, too.”