For the first time in my years of eBay bidding, I lost an auction and was legitimately bummed. A man's loyalty was for sale, and I wanted it.
Chad Carroll is 34 years old. He lives in Maryland. He is a computer tech with the Air Force. He loves his wife, his kids and the Kansas City Royals. One of those relationships was not working out.
"I did 25 years," Carroll said. "That's enough time. I'm paroled. I'm gone. I've been released on good behavior."
So Carroll did what countless Royals fans secretly wish they could: He swore them off. It was April 21, and Carroll read a story in which Royals owner David Glass, the bankroll behind a team well on its way to a third consecutive 100-loss season, fumed that changes were imminent after 10 straight losses. Of all the things that could have turned Carroll's simmer into a rolling boil – the trades of Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran, the 19-game losing streak last season, the bad drafts and mishandling of pitchers and error-pocked games – it took nothing more than a few sentences.
To Carroll, they encapsulated the decline of a proud franchise into a punch line. So the next morning, Carroll logged onto his computer ready to fire an email off to nine military buddies denouncing his fandom. Instead, Carroll thought he'd be funny. He started an eBay auction: "My loyalty to the Kansas City Royals (jersey included)." He emailed his friends the link offering a trove of Royals memorabilia, a "Certificate of Authenticity" and the chance to pick the new team for Carroll to cheer.
I heard about the auction with three days remaining and immediately planned on placing a bid. The tightwad boss gave me a $200 budget. For symbolic reasons, I settled on $198.50, with 1985 the year of the Royals' only championship, and as the hours melted away and I thought I might actually win, I started thinking.
Loyalty is some kind of beast to purchase. No one is more loyal than a sports fan. Every year, franchises raise ticket prices or parking prices or beer prices. They get rid of popular players without remorse. They sign and draft guys that women wouldn't bring home to their friend's mom, let alone theirs. And back comes the fan, cheering and pledging an undying bond.
Carroll's allegiance grew on the porch outside of his boyhood home in Iowa. His father was a mechanic and ran his own shop. Time with dad was slim. When he was home, they went outside and listened to Denny Matthews and Fred White call a game against the backdrop of a summer night's prattle.
No matter where the military took Carroll, he took the Royals with him. He spent thousands of hours with the Royals, listening to the radio or parked in front of his big-screen TV, cursing at the air and the team and the resolve that kept him coming back, masochistic as it was. This year, he thought the Royals would leap to third in the American League Central. With an infusion of veterans – which, to anyone without 1985/20 vision, meant a bunch of money thrown at past-their-prime retreads – Carroll figured respectability was imminent.
Instead, the Royals started the season 5-20 and lost their first 12 games on the road.
On May 2, the day of loss 11, the auction ended at 10:03 a.m. The bid I placed using a sniping program had been exceeded. So, too, had the bid by the Kansas City T-Bones, an independent-league team that, on occasion, outdraws its major-league counterparts.
The price of one man's loyalty was $278.47. To the rescue had come Carroll's military buddies who received the original email. With less than 5 seconds left in the auction, one of the friends, Dan Young, frantically clicked to usurp the T-Bones' bid by $5. It worked.
And so until July 21, Carroll is a lame-duck fan. On that night, he and his friends will gather for their yearly get-together in Cleveland. They'll watch the Indians play Minnesota, then drive about an hour to Cleveland's outskirts. There, they'll gather around a table and start dealing cards. A few hours later, the champion of their annual Hold 'em tournament will win not only a bracelet but the right to choose Carroll's new team.
The group's fandom offers six options: Cleveland, Baltimore, Texas, Boston, Washington and – gulp – Pittsburgh.
"I'd still rather have the Pirates," Carroll said, "than the Royals."
Carroll still checks Royals scores, though he does so more with the detached amusement of a bystander – "They're 0-4, and I feel like I'm 4-0," he said – than the pain of an acolyte. He said the Royals haven't bothered contacting him to try and win back his loyalty, and even if they did, he wouldn't budge.
"I can't be seduced back," Carroll said. "There's no way."
Ah, but there is. A longshot, yes, but one nonetheless. Young called Carroll on Thursday morning and asked: What if you win the poker tournament? It has happened twice in the last six years.
"If I win," Carroll said, "your readers can pick my team."
So if Carroll takes the tournament and the most vociferous emails to email@example.com come from Royals fans – a daily double of pigs-fly-and-hell-freezes-over proportions – then the Royals it is.
Letters from fans of all 30 teams are encouraged. We want to hear why your team fits Carroll. Yankees fans can talk about 26 world championships. Mets fans can talk about winning one this year. Dodgers fans can talk about the weather in Los Angeles. Cardinals fans can talk about tradition.
Tell us how you became a fan, about your nights on the porch, about what shaped your loyalty. Extra points will be awarded for passion and eloquence, of course, as we'll print these letters even if Carroll doesn't win the tournament.
In the end, the fans that represent themselves best, in volume and content of emails, win Carroll's devotion – this time, he said, until the end.
Just please, he asked, don't let it be the Royals.
"I don't see it getting any better in my lifetime," Carroll said. "People tell me never to say never.
"Well, I'm saying never."