EDIT August 9 13:45 - Per Bowling_Guy25's suggestion, I have started a Twitter campaign to get people to cheer, not boo, Wells during the upcoming weekend series. I am using the hashtag #dontbooVW. I am new to Twitter, so to make this a success, I need your help. Any BBBers who use Twitter and agree that VW deserves applause, send out thwips using the #dontbooVW tag over the next few days. Time is of the essence, so start now. If we can get this topic trending, maybe the boo birds will be drowned out by cheers over the weekend!
On to the post! -->
This coming Friday, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim make their first appearance at the SkyDome of the 2011 season. Which means, of course, that that game respresents Vernon Wells' first game back after his trade this past offseason. I don't have to remind you of the contract that Vernon received after the 2007 season from JP Ricciardi: 7 years/$126M, which eventually became known as one of, if not, the biggest albatross contract in sports. When The Great AA was able to trade Wells (and the final 4 years of his contract, totalling $86M in guaranteed payments), there was much rejoicing by BBBers and non-blog-based Blue Jays fans alike.
When reading the post-game recap from August 7, there was a brief thread about the upcoming Angels series. Commenter benk said: "if [Wells] gets boo'd (sic), I hope Howarth rips the fans a new one like he did when Overbay came to town." I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. I have no idea why Lyle Overbay was booed on his return to Toronto (I actually didn't know about that episode until reading benk's comment, as I was out of the country at the time). But Overbay never did anything to earn Toronto fans' wrath. He never dogged it on the field, never spoke out against the fans or the city and he didn't demand to be traded or leave under poor circumstances. He just was a player that the Jays acquired and thought would become an excellent player, and turned out to be a good-but-not-amazing one.
Vernon Wells falls in a similar category and does not deserve to be booed. It would represent the height of pettiness and classlessness to do so. Indeed, Vernon carried himself admirably during his time with the team, and should be appauded for his service in Toronto for several reasons.
I will preface this discussion with the caveat that this post may very well be a complete strawman. It is possible that noone is considering booing Vernon Wells upon his return to Toronto. If you think that's true, then there is no need to read further. But my experience with Toronto fans gives me reason to believe this is not the case.
Let me state categorically that I am not opposed to booing athletes. I will lustily and happily boo members of Blue Jays opponents, especially the Yankees and Red Sox. Derek Jeter, as the poster child of the Evil Empire, deserves to be booed extra loud. I don't understand why Johnny Damon has been getting booed at the Dome this year, but I can't really be against it (if anyone has an explanation, please share it). Ultimately, though, this just general booing against those players who are opposing my team.
There is a separate category of legitimate booing for individual players not simply because they are opponents, but because they have history with a certain city. I wholeheartedly support the booing of Vince Carter at any time. He is a player who blatantly did not try for extended periods of time, and admitted as much publicly (!), while he was the face of the Toronto Raptors franchise. He dogged it, forced his way out of town on malevolent terms, and deserves to be constantly reminded of this. Similarly, I support fans of the Minnesota Vikings booing the now-retired Randy Moss, who similarly admitted to not trying while playing for the team. Also, Maple Leaf fans like to boo Daniel Alfreddson of the Senators because of perceived dirty plays during several playoff series in the early 00's. This, too, is entirely justified.
But Vernon Wells falls into none of these categories. He was simply a somewhat-above-average player who parlayed a career season into JP Ricciardi offering him a buttload of money. I cannot blame him for saying yes, just as I would not begrudge anyone for accepting what price the market will bear for their services. The bad contract was Ricciardi's doing, not Vernon's. If that contract is deserving of scorn, that scorn should be directed solely at the man who offered it, not the one who accepted it.
Vernon knew that such a contract would saddle him with extremely high expectations. And he also had to know that his subsequent play, while good, probably did not meet them. However, as the face (along with Roy Halladay) of the Blue Jays franchise during the second half of the 00's, Vernon carried himself with nothing but class. He never dogged it on the field. He was always gracious with fans and the media. He never made excuses and was always the first to take responsibility for perceived underperformance (by himself or by the team). He knew what was expected of him, and never tried to shift or deflect blame.
Vernon also knew that his good fortune to be extremely well paid to play baseball gave him a responsibility to give back. When Doc was traded, much was made about how good a person he was, in addition to being a dominant player. Though Wells was not quite the player Doc was, he certainly was his equal as a man and philanthropist. In 2008 (just after signing his big extension), he and his wife founded the Perfect 10 Charity. As a result of his work through Perfect 10 and other outlets, Vernon was twice name the Blue Jays' nominee for the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award. In 2010, he outright winner of the MLB-wide Branch Rickey Award for his charity work with children.
Wells was also a pretty good player, and quite worth the money that the Jays paid him while he was on the team. In 9 full seasons with the Jays, he was worth just over 25 fWAR, or 2.8 WAR per season. This has him averaging out as a good, but not great, MLB starter. He even had a solid peak, averaging over 4 fWAR between 2003-2006. Between 2002-2010 (his full seasons with the club), the Jays payed him about $27M in salary plus $28M in signing bonuses ($55M total) for his 25 WAR, a touch over $2M per WAR. This is well under the free agent market rate and actually includes the first 3 years of Wells' "ridiculous" contract. $55M is a lot of money to have paid for an average-to-slightly-above-average player, but looking at what actually occurred during Vernon's tenure with the club, it's really not that bad.
Ultimately, any animosity towards Wells comes down to the fact that he accepted a large contract offer from the team and never played well enough to seem to deserve it. But it was not through lack of effort or through petulance that he didn't meet expectations, and I hardly think that agreeing to sign an ill-conceived contract offer makes one a legitimate target for fans' malice.
Halladay got an extremely well deserved warm welcome back as recognition for his contributions to the team in the 00's decade and because of his dedication and "personhood" (not a word, but you know what I mean), Vernon falls into the same category and deserves a similar welcome. His solid play, humble and gracious demeanour, community work and long history as face of the Jays franchise mean he should be applauded and remembered fondly, even if his on-field play often frustrated the best of us.