During those springtimes when D.C. teams aren’t competing for championships — in other words, every spring — I often speak to local community groups, who are hoping for some valuable behind-the-scenes insight but instead receive jokes about cheese. We always finish with a Q&A, and the most recent session attracted a gentleman who essentially asked, why should I root for the Nats?
His question was rooted in free-agency — players come and go, I feel like I’m just rooting for laundry anyhow, so who cares about geography? It isn’t a new question, but now that it’s just as easy for Washingtonians to follow the Diamondbacks or Padres as the Nationals, it’s even more relevant. Absent some deep love for the team’s colors or owners, why should you root for the Nats?
The answer is self-evident to me — because they wear a W for Washington on their chests — but it isn’t self-evident to everyone. It wasn’t self-evident to Pete Van Vleet, for example. He didn’t know which team his newborn son should root for, and so he asked every team to make its case.
See, Pete grew up in Richmond when Washington didn’t have a baseball team; his dad liked the sport but had no allegiance to any team. Pete was thus left to his own rooting devices, and he decided to become an Astros fan.
The Astros had exciting players, groovy uniforms and a state-of-the-art stadium, and they became part of his identity. He followed their scores, and he flew to Houston to see games, and when he was a kid playing ball outside, he would pretend to be the Astros. Sometimes he would pretend to lose — because that’s what the Astros did — and then he would cry real tears. His mom told him he could just switch teams.
“And I said no, you can’t,” he remembered. “Your team is your team, and I’m loyal to my team.”
So now he’s an adult, living outside Richmond, working in Arlington, and still rooting for the Astros. His daughter, Madeline, age 5, decided she would root for the Tigers, and when his son, Jack, was born in February, a friend asked whether Pete would pass on his Astros obsession to his son. He demurred.
“Jack can be a fan of whoever he wants to be,” Van Vleet said. “Then it kind of dawned on me: Why not let the teams have a say in this?”
So during his daily train rides between Ashland and Arlington, Pete composed letters to all 30 baseball teams, on Jack’s behalf. The main message in each letter — which ran about a page and a half and included some personalized details based on the recipient — was the same: Why should my newborn son root for your team? Sports franchises are zillion-dollar enterprises that often feel distant and impersonal, at least from afar. The standard rooting logic — root for us, because we exist in your city — doesn’t involve a lot of thought. Maybe a letter could identify some bit of soul more important than geography.
“And once I had the idea, I couldn’t not act on it, even though in my mind I thought nobody was going to respond,” Van Vleet said. “Baseball’s such a huge part of my life. It was my first love, and I want Jack to experience that as well. And it’d be nice if it was reciprocated in some way. I wanted him to have a very strong connection, and I guess you do things for your kids that you wish had been done for yourself.”
Turns out teams responded, sometimes in fascinating ways. Young Jack got a hand-signed note from Pirates President Frank Coonelly; “Because you are being raised correctly, you have no say in your devotion to the game of baseball. Fortunately, you do have a choice regarding your favorite Major League Baseball team,” Coonelly wrote, and then he made his case, based on franchise history and “the love of Famalee” and the chase for championships.
— pete van vleet (@petevanvleet) April 11, 2017
He got a note too from Tigers President Christopher Ilitch, playing up the Virginia connection of Justin Verlander, and the resonance of the Old English D, and the “core values” of Tigers fans.
— pete van vleet (@petevanvleet) May 23, 2017
He got a note from Dusty Baker, citing Jack’s continuing baseball education, inviting Jack onto the field during batting practice at Nationals Park, and saying that the Nats “can’t wait to raise you as our own.”
“We don’t always end up on the winning side of things, but we sure have more often than not since I’ve been here,” the letter from Baker read. “And, we have an awful lot of fun.”
— pete van vleet (@petevanvleet) May 12, 2017
That letter came with onesies and a hat. Indeed, turns out if you write to 30 MLB teams on behalf of your newborn son, you might wind up with an awful lot of swag. (Which wasn’t really the point, and please don’t copy this stunt for material gain, because you don’t really need a free Oakland A’s bib.) There have been baseball cards from the Indians, a World Series banner and stickers from the Cubs, a onesie and bib from the A’s, a kids packet from the Mets and more.
— pete van vleet (@petevanvleet) May 7, 2017
But the Van Vleets have also learned a bit about the personalities of the teams. The Cubs included a charming handwritten note. (“Not that you know how to read yet, but the Chicago Cubs would be honored to have you as a Cubs fan!” it began) The Orioles’ letter mentioned Camden Yards, and Orioles Magic, and the Oriole Way, a message that hasn’t changed for 25 years. The Phillies cut through the good feelings with a brief unsigned e-mail; “We do not try to ‘sell’ fans, rather we allow them the opportunity to choose to follow the Phillies for their own myriad of reasons,” read the note, which really ought to have been signed with a booooo.
— pete van vleet (@petevanvleet) April 24, 2017
At last count, Jack has heard from 13 MLB franchises, with arguments from the granular (the Brewers cited analyst Jim Callis’s ranking of their farm system) to the sympathetic (“baseball bonds generations,” Astros president Reid Ryan wrote, offering Jack and his dad two free tickets to a game) to the apologetic (“we are unable to provide any items or memorabilia,” a Padres staffer wrote, instead offering the Van Vleets a chance to join the free Compadres Fan Rewards program.)
— pete van vleet (@petevanvleet) April 11, 2017
Van Vleet said he was doing this for his son, but he found himself rushing to check the mail every day to see which team would be next. His wife remains “flabbergasted by everything that has come of this,” but Pete is saving every speck that arrives, to one day show Jack. And the process has made him think in a different way about sports franchises, wondering how many could actually “write a coherent letter and kind of spell out why you should root for them.”
“Why should fans invest this time, energy and everything else we invest in these teams?” he asked. “At the end of the year, only one team’s fans are going to be ecstatic, so why should we invest all this?”
When it comes down to it, of course, Jack will have to choose a ball team for himself. That won’t happen for years, long after the onesies stop fitting and the minor-league rankings change.
And even if you’d like to, you can’t really choose your kid’s team. Madeline went with the Tigers because Tigers are fierce. Pete went with the Astros because of their uniforms. Maybe you like the Nats because they’re from Washington, or because your parents do, or because of Bryce Harper’s hair. Still, it’s at least interesting to ponder the reason behind your fandom, even if it doesn’t make sense.
“Some team’s going to steal his heart,” Van Vleet said of his son. “He’ll watch some game, and feel some connection to some team or some player, and he’ll follow them. … It can be for whatever capricious reason. But if he can make an informed decision — if he can say I want to be a Nats fan because Dusty Baker wrote me a letter, and he did it during this incredible season — I mean, that’s a better story than I can come up with for my team.”