This may or may not shock you gentle readers (all six of you, if that many), but I’ve never once booed at any professional baseball game—major, minor, or independent league. Not even over what seems to some an obvious lack of hustle . . . which may not be all that obvious, after all.
I don’t really know what’s inside the heads of any particular professional baseball player in any particular moment. For the boo-birds in any ballpark, never mind Citi Field, I have news for you: neither. do. you. Until or unless a player speaks about the moment in question, you don’t know any more than me.
Except that I’m reasonably enough aware that I’m not going to just haul off and boo the poor guy, or rip him ten new ones in these pages. If it seems that everyone else in the park is booing, I’m not going to join in that kind of fun.
I’m not in his position. I played ball when I was growing up but I wasn’t good enough to even think about trying out for the junior high or high school teams. By the time I got to the former, I couldn’t hit a fair ball unless the foul line ran straight across the rear point of home plate, and I couldn’t throw a strike unless the zone began on the batter’s derriere.
So my career was really over a year or so before I was bar mitzvahed. If you don’t count the day I got into a game in summer camp and ran the bases as though I had a process server on my tail (and a lead run to score, after stealing second and barreling around third on a base hit), from that point forward I engaged my love of the game purely as a fan. And, in due course, as a writer, too.
Watching as many baseball games as I can since, I know that I didn’t throw a pitch meant to miss a bat but launched into orbit.
I didn’t scamper over to pick off a hard grounder expecting that my throw to start a double play would escape the next infielder. I didn’t set myself up to take a throw at first base only to see the throw shoot past where I could snap the mitt around it. I didn’t dive into the hole reaching for a line drive I knew I could catch only to see the ball miss my glove by the fraction of a fraction.
I didn’t amble over reaching down for a ground ball that hit an unexpected rut, stone, clump of dirt, or other anomaly on the field and skip past me, either.
I didn’t see a delicious pitch coming my way at the plate—knowing in minus one second that I could rip it through any given infielder, drive any given outfielder to climbing the wall, or send it into the path of an oncoming airplane—then put the best swing I could put on that pitch and miss it by a hair’s breadth because, in that moment, that pitch was better than my swing.
Or, if you prefer, I didn’t connect with that delicious pitch, drive it to the farthest reach of the outfield, knowing up the first base line I had a shot at putting a number on the scoreboard, then seeing an outfielder take a flying leap and snatch it for an out the split second before it might have fallen behind the fence. Or, rip it like a cruise missile headed through the hole for the outfield only to see an infielder take a flying leap and snatch it as if he had a vacuum cleaner hose for an arm.
None of those things ever happened to me on a professional baseball field. Guess what, Joe and Jane Fan—they didn’t happen to you, either.
You sit there in the stands, expecting millionaires to play to perfection a game that by its very design remains the proverbial game of seventy percent failure. You forget, assuming you ever really knew, that a million-dollar salary conferred upon a professional baseball player isn’t going to turn Clark Kent into Superman.
It’s bad enough in places like Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, three cities that know occasional triumph and protracted despair, sometimes self-inflicted and sometimes the net result of outrageous malfortune. But New York? Listen up.
Joe and Jane New York Fan, you had reasons to take baseball success in the 20th or the 21st Centuries for granted, never mind that—in the 21st—the Red Sox have it over the Yankees. (The Olde Towne Team in Century 21: four World Series championships. The Empire Emeritus: count it—one.) But one of your native sons now pronounces, with no fear of contradiction that can stick or escape perjury charges, that you are spoiled rotten. To the Big Apple core.
Between the formerly imperial Yankees, the long-gone Dodgers and Giants, and the occasionally triumphant but otherwise tragicomic Mets, you have 68 pennants and 38 World Series championships since 1901. Now the bad news: only two of those pennants and one of those World Series championships have come in the 21st Century. A little humility might be in order.
But no. To err is human, to forgive is not New York policy. Don’t even think about it: I was alive to see you booing even the heroic among your baseball favourites. I’m old enough to remember how often you acted upon that malarkey that Mickey Mantle—Hall of Famer, ranked by Baseball Reference the number four center fielder, ever—should have been “better.”
I’m old enough to remember you booing (and maybe wanting to beat) the living snot out of Roger Maris for daring to challenge the Sacred Babe one fine season—aided and abetted by a brain-damaged baseball commissioner (who just so happened to have been a Ruth ghostwriter once upon a not-so-fine time) and a sportswriter who could be bought by obsequity if not dollars.
I’m old enough to remember you accepting and adoring the embryonic Mets on the ground that they were inept enough from birth to make baseball seem human again after all those decades of Yankee, Dodger, and Giant success. They had Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Didn’t Want to Know on third, and You Didn’t Even Want to Think About It at shortstop. With the Three Stooges in the outfield, the Four Marx Brothers on the bench, the Keystone Kops in the bullpen, and Buster Keaton pitching to Charlie Chaplin.
Then the Mets made a tragic mistake. They turned eight years old, the age at which children enter third or fourth grade. And at age eight, three months after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, they won the pennant and the World Series. Oops. Pinocchio, you’re a real boy now.
“Now, it is all different,” wrote Leonard Shecter, then Jim Bouton’s Ball Four editor and writing in The New York Times, as those Mets approached the Promised Land, in an essay expanded subsequently into Once Upon the Polo Grounds.
Casey Stengel is gone. The players, who try no harder than the old Mets, succeed more often and as a result are indistinguishable from baseball players all over. There is stuffiness in the front office. There is great concern about unimportant things. [The manager not long ago suggested to a newspaperman that he need not have blabbed in the public prints that the Mets scored their winning run on a bunt.] And, worst of all, when the Mets lose, there is nothing funny about it at all.
I’m old enough to have watched Joe and Jane Yankee Fan turn tail when the machinations of a former regime—selling the team to a broadcast network that knew as much about baseball as the Beatles knew about quantum physics—left the Yankees aged, injured, parched, and chock full of journeymen for the better part of a lost decade.
But I’m also old enough to remember how right Shecter proved to be, sort of. Now, I sat often enough in Shea Stadium hearing fellow Joe and Jane Met Fan fuming, booing, hissing, and bellowing—unless the game was a 27-0 shutout and the pitchers retired 27 men straight on 27 pitched balls.
Joe and Jane Yankee Fan’s haughty imperialism was bad enough. Now Joe and Jane Met Fan, too, behaved as though a two-game losing streak was grounds for the firing squad? As though a harsh loss on an enemy game-winning hit was grounds to put the pitcher into the electric chair? As though nothing short of the pennant every year would do?
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” said the apostle Peter. Joe and Jane Met Fan, whose team had evoked that very precept at the end of its first nine seasons, replied, “Who is this fool, and which team traded him for a bag of broken bats?” Those occasional pennants and another World Series title since did little enough to remind Joe and Jane Met Fan of the proverb: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.”
Don’t get me started about how often the post-Boss Yankees have fallen into slumps and Joe and Jane Yankee Fan suddenly felt nostalgic (What would George do?!?) for the owner who used to throw out the first manager of the season over such slumps—even in early April—and sicced a street-hustling low-life on his Hall of Fame outfielder’s trail.
(What would George do? He’d execute the coaching staff, the trainers, and the clubhouse staff, trade the entire roster for that of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and make the Taliban resemble Alphonse and Gaston. Then he’d really get mad.)
Now the Mets, who looked deceptively powerful enough, until the beginning of August, have found their injuries and inconsistencies catching up to them. Joe and Jane Met Fan have no further patience for excavating core causes than the barracuda bereft of his third square of the day. To the boo birds whose loyalty makes the fair-weather friend resemble the man or woman of all seasons, a few Mets had the answer.
They had it a lot sooner than it exploded into headlines, heavings, and harangues after Sunday. As retaliatory gestures go, emphatic thumbs-downs aren’t exactly the same as flipping the bird, fuming to reporters, or turning fire hoses onto the box seats. Only nobody really paid them much mind until a few of the culprits—Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Kevin Pillar—came right out and said it: You want to boo us when we come up short, we’ll “boo” you when we get back on the track.
They had only upended the longtime, lugubrious compact that says Joe and Jane Fan can abuse the professional athlete to his or her heart’s content and the athlete has no choice but to take every last piece of crap dished out. Whether it’s booing in the stands; or, brickbats, slanders, and, yes, even threats against the lives of themselves or their families aboard social media.
But I’ll say it again: Joe and Jane Fan would shiver, quake, or run home to Mommy and Daddy at the very thought that they might go to work tomorrow morning with 55,000 people waiting to see them perform their tasks and boo them upon the first mistake or mishap on the job. Not to mention about five million other people, maybe, watching on television or the Internet, or listening on the radio. Wait till those observers climb all over them and they even think about climbing back. Watch and listen to their bosses. (Who might have had, too, prepared denunciations in their pockets ready to deploy.)
Joe and Jane New York Fan make their historic counterparts in Boston (On my tombstone, it will say: “Cause of death: Boston Red Sox”—Cleveland Amory, critic), Chicago (Wait till next year!—a banner hoisted in Wrigley Field once . . . when the first pitch of the season was being thrown), and Philadelphia (Those people would boo at a funeral—Bo Belinsky, a 1965 Phillie) seem the epitome of empathetic reason.
Joe and Jane New York Fan forget that their sports city is Goliath. That there have been and remain everyone else aching to take their Yankees and Mets down, a hundred stories if need be. That now and then, though lately now more than then, a kid with a slingshot comes along and does just that. Either that, or their Yankees and Mets can be and often have been equivalent to the cobra finding its own mongoose.
To all other baseball fans in danger of becoming spoiled rotten likewise—this includes you, Joe and Jane Dodger fan (since 1901: twelve pennants, six World Series titles) and Joe and Jane Cardinal fan (since 1901: nineteen pennants, eleven World Series titles)—this native son of New York would say two things:
Thing One: Contrary to popular misconception, baseball players are not androids or automatons, and the down side to loving a game is the irrevocable law that somebody has to lose. (And stop treating baseball injuries as evidence of “fragility” or moral failures.)
Thing Two: Study Joe and Jane New York Fan, behave the complete opposite, and you will do well in reducing your likelihoods of ulcer, high blood pressure, stroke, or heart failure.
If you don’t, and you find your earnestly struggling heroes discovering more creative ways to prove you can dish it out but you can’t take it, either, you can’t say nobody warned you.
“Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor,” says another proverb. Baseball players are reminded the hard way, daily. (This ain’t football—we do this every day.—Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame manager.) Joe and Jane New York Fan need to learn, and re-learn, the hard way, daily.