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Is Mike Volpe a super fan, or just plain superfluous?

Volpe garnered more ink and soundbites than virtually any major-league player during the last offseason. The longtime Falls Church resident did it by first dubbing himself a “free agent fan” and offering his loyalties to the highest bidder. Then, once the klieg lights were warm and the tape recorders rolling, he began promising disenfranchised followers of our national pastime that he’d be their envoy, and in that role let baseball’s bad guys—the owners, players, and players’ agents—know what’s really on the minds of the people who pay the freight.

Given how close baseball seems to be to meltdown, at its outset Volpe’s crusade sounded noble enough and pretty darn fun. But not everybody is buying his gospel anymore, and somewhere along the way even Volpe ceased having fun with the campaign.

Volpe’s oft-told story goes back to November 1996, when his beloved San Francisco Giants, a team the 45-year-old business consultant had rooted on since boyhood, shipped Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians.

“I was shocked by what the Giants did, just crushed,” Volpe says. “I mean, Matt Williams was a great player, but more than that he was a guy who didn’t complain, a guy who hit a lot of home runs but didn’t hot-dog. He was my favorite player on my favorite team, my Cal Ripken. And you don’t give away Cal Ripken. I had to take a stand.”

The morning after the trade, Volpe authored an angry letter to Giants management. He wrote that his lifelong relationship with the team was over due to irreconcilable differences, and described Williams as the only role model in a game full of “crybabies.” To prove he really wanted a divorce, Volpe also sent along a box of all the licensed souvenirs—including Giants hats, autographed balls, trading cards, sweaters, even a watch—he’d accumulated over the years.

The same day, Volpe drew up another missive, addressed to the “Owner or Publicity Department” of all the other major-league teams. He announced his free-agent fan status, and said that for the 1997 season he would root for the squad that, in effect, made him the best offer.

Baseball teams weren’t the only ones who got copies. Volpe also mailed both letters to media outlets. The response, especially from the press, was overwhelming. Interview requests came in from all over the country—Sports Illustrated and USA Today were among the first to write him up. Those stories generated calls from the publicity offices of pro teams, major- and minor-league. The Orioles brought Volpe out to Camden Yards and let him pitch from the mound as local and national TV crews rolled tape. “I thought Madonna must be in Baltimore, there were so many reporters,” he says. The Phillies, Mets, and Marlins also invited him to their stadiums, where they delivered their personal pitches to him as he threw to the plate in front of the media. Other squads sent jackets, caps, T-shirts, and autographed balls to replace his Giants paraphernalia. Pitching off big-league mounds, Volpe said, provided “once-in-a-lifetime” thrills.

Last month, Volpe announced he’d be rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies. He made the choice because: 1.) the Phillies agreed to set up a web site on the Internet just for him, 2.) management promised to rebuild the farm system, and 3.) manager Terry Francona is “a fantastic guy” who calls and writes letters to Volpe.

In retrospect, Volpe probably wishes he’d kept the choice to himself. The thrills are gone.

Because when Volpe’s courtship of teams (or vice versa) ended, so did his fun. Rather than welcome him into the fold, faithful Phillies followers say his endorsement of the franchise is ludicrous. The Phanatics are smarting over the decision to let Jim Eisenreich, a player many in the City of Brotherly Love regarded as their own Cal Ripken (or Matt Williams), get away. A one-time wonderboy with the Twins, Eisenreich’s career was derailed several years ago by Tourette’s Syndrome, but he capped a long and unlikely comeback from the disease last year by leading the Phillies in hitting and making the National League All-Star team.

The Phillies rewarded Eisenreich for the goodwill he generated and his great play by electing not to offer him anything close to market value when his contract expired at the end of last season. So while Volpe talked up Phillies officials about what they could do for him, Eisenreich signed with the Marlins.

“Everybody up here wants to know what the hell was this Volpe guy thinking,” rails Glen Macnow, a midday host on WIP, a CBS-owned sports-radio station in Philadelphia. “He sure wasn’t looking for an up-and-coming baseball team with smart ownership and competent GM! What the hell do the Phillies represent that he found so attractive? The Phillies let all their popular players go, they starve the farm system, and put slop and retreads on the field. The real baseball fans, the people who are stuck here with a team whose management doesn’t give a damn about them, are angry as hell that he chose the Phillies. We don’t want him.”

Volpe swears the road to Philadelphia was paved with the best of intentions. So was the proverbial highway to hell, responds Macnow.

“The sense up here is that this is a guy who took a sincere argument—that baseball fans need a voice—and used it for pure self-aggrandizement,” says Macnow. “Listen to any interview, and he’s quick to point out every national TV show he’s been on and every publication that’s written him up. There’s nothing wrong with being out for your own end—all free agents in sports are out for themselves—but this guy shouldn’t try to hide behind some great cause. I think he stopped being a symbol of fan anger when he let the Phillies buy him off.”

Macnow and other WIP hosts routinely roast Volpe these days. Word of the on-air beatings so disturbed Volpe that he stole a few hints from Albert Belle’s media guide: When the station called him last week to be a guest on the morning drive-time show, Volpe refused the request.

“I didn’t want to help them skewer me some more, so I didn’t talk to them,” Volpe says.

Volpe’s willful silence, of course, just gave the station an excuse to make more cheese-steak out of him.

The Philadelphia Inquirer also hurt Volpe’s feelings by reporting that he received gifts from teams that were trying to win his allegiance. After that story ran, Volpe issued an angry letter to the editor in which he promised that any and all trinkets mailed to him during his free agent fan crusade will be used to raise funds to build a new chapel at his sons’ school—St. James in Falls Church.

“Some reporters are assholes,” Volpe fumes. “So there are people who are upset that teams ‘courted me.’ So what? I mean, Jesus Christ! Rather than just sit in some bar and bitch and stew and complain about what’s wrong with baseball, I’m at least trying to do something positive. I don’t want to get dumped on for that.” (This from the guy who called baseball players “crybabies”?)

Philadelphia will hold its opening-day festivities at Veterans Stadium this Friday. Volpe was invited, but won’t be able to attend. He coaches his son’s Little League team, which holds practices on weekends. That club really needs his services.—Dave McKenna