Baseball

The Springtime of Our Discontent

There is no video that I can find of the moment when, during Sunday’s inaugural spring training contest between the Phillies and the Tigers, the fans began to boo. One can imagine well enough what it might have sounded like, even in the absence of evidence: The bases were loaded, and the Phillies, despite using two pitchers who threw a combined 50 pitches, had failed to record a third out. In the interest of playing a complete game without anyone’s arm falling off, the inning was rolled, and the players left the field. And as they left, down came the boos.

What was the root of the booing? Phillies fans exercising their God-given right to boo their own players’ failures? Tigers fans, robbed of the opportunity to see a two-out grand slam in the very first inning of spring? I can’t imagine it was a wall of boos — not on the level of such concerted efforts as, say, when Rob Manfred presented the Commissioner’s Trophy last October, nor even comparable to the sound of a stadium of 22,000 on a pre-pandemic weeknight expressing their unhappiness at a throw to first. Fans, of course, can’t travel in the same way that they did last February, and the seats of the stadium in Lakeland can’t be packed, and there are reasons that one might think twice about loud, collective vocalizations in a public place. But, nonetheless, there they were, making their displeasure known.

The opening hours of last year’s spring training, too, made headlines for their booing. This was the first on-field appearance of the Astros after their cheating scandal broke during the offseason, and, while there were efforts underway to plan an Opening Day booing that would go down in the history books, every opportunity was taken to demonstrate to the Astros that even their pre-season efforts were not in the least appreciated.

In the end, those would be the most vigorous boos they got. Opening Day didn’t happen until late July; it, and the rest of the season, was played before no fans. The Astros ended up making it deep into the postseason, but not deep enough to step on the field in front of the distanced fans at Globe Life Park. And though some Yankee fans attempted to boo Yuli Gurriel on Sunday, they were, in fact, booing his brother Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who has never played for the Astros. Besides, booing the Astros in spring training seems to have lost some of the novelty it had a year ago, when the cheating scandal was fresher in people’s imaginations. There has been a whole pandemic between then and now. As Derek Holland said after Sunday’s game: “They could have been booing, they could have been cheering. Whatever it was, it just felt good to have them out there.”

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One of the things people value the most about spring training is the intimacy of the setting. In non-pandemic times, it provides a baseball experience far more laid-back and accessible than going to a major league game. Teams play within easy distance of each other; stadiums are small, fences are low, the music isn’t as loud, and the food isn’t as expensive. And the restrictions of the physical space make it easier for fans to feel a level of closeness to their favorite players than is possible in the regular season, at least without paying hundreds of dollars for premium seats. The casualness of spring games doesn’t typically lend itself to a lot of booing.

But at the same time, the intimacy of it all makes spring training ideal for people who want their opinions of players to be known from the stands. From the view level at a big-league park, lost in a crowd that is largely disinterested in the individual actions of other fans, a call of “Good eye!” or “You suck!” isn’t likely to have much of an impact on the player hundreds of feet below. Though all full-throated stadium boos have to start with somebody, a boo-er alone is more pathetic than powerful. In spring training, though, like in a minor-league park, crowd commentary can get truly up-close and personal. With fewer fans in attendance, it matters less whether or not you can convince others to join in your vocalizations — as long as you’re loud enough, you can make yourself heard.

Perhaps this is why spring training is so often a site where fan vendettas against individual players are made manifest. What does a spring training boo say that a big-league boo doesn’t? In the regular season, a boo is more understandable; the games count, and fans will exert their influence over players who are not contributing to the win column. In spring training, though, where the games don’t count, the displeasure is less to do with performance, and more to do with personal dislike. Roger Maris, in the early months of 1962, found himself greeted immediately by a chorus of ill-wishers. (Some media members, not particularly charmed by Maris’ well-known sullenness, blamed his personality for this reception: “Spring training crowds are hostile because the Yankee slugger is hostile,” wrote George Lederer.) Will McEnaney, closer of the 1975 and ’76 World Series for the Reds, was booed by Expos fans during spring training before he ever took part in a regular-season game with the team. (He went on to blame hostility from fans for some of the difficulty in his season in Montreal.)

Often, players who leave a team after performing poorly — especially if they performed poorly with a large contract — are the subject of fans’ ire the following spring: Mets fans came for Bobby Bonilla in 2001. Michael Jordan received a few spring boos, likely for the simple fact that he was Michael Jordan. Players either suspended for or suspected of performance-enhancing drug use have frequently been the subjects of pre-season boos. And Jackie Robinson, playing his first game as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in spring 1946, was booed by some in the stands, even as the segregated crowd largely cheered him.

Last season, Sam Miller put forward a theory of booing as the fan’s great moral recourse — a way to express one’s displeasure with aspects of baseball without leaving the sport entirely behind. He wrote:

Instead, the fan has to find a way to express how much a player, an owner or the league hurt them without abandoning the sport. The fan does this by booing, an incredible act of peaceful disruption. The entire premise of a 50,000-seat stadium is that the team is worthy of glory… But a good, loud boo knocks that glitzy façade down. It takes a space that claims to be sacred and breaks it up with loud, clear disgust. A boo carries to thousands of ears, even across thousands of miles, and lives in the permanent recording with the other sounds of the game. Also, a boo is almost totally impregnable. A handful of boos can be picked out of thousands of people cheering. A team might take your sign; they’ll never take away your boos.

It is, indeed, true that the sound of a crowd of 50,000 booing — particularly during a sacrosanct baseball event like Opening Day or the World Series — is an incomparable noise. One of my earliest baseball memories is of watching Bud Selig coming out to present the Commissioner’s Trophy in some early-2000s World Series, and being absolutely astonished by the rancor. The sounds of the fans nearly drowned out his words. Who is that? Why are they booing him? I asked, and the answer gave me my first introduction to the world of baseball scandal. I remember that spectacle, the way the mass of anger crackled through the tiny speakers on our TV set — my realization, for the first time, that sports could be corrupt in ways that fans despised. I remember it better than the games themselves.

While these moments of collective displeasure are powerful, I think I’m more suspicious than Miller of the impulse to boo as a means of conveying moral displeasure. The history of fans heckling players — and the players who receive the most personal, most vicious heckling — is too fraught to accept it as a force for good. Fans have certainly always used the power of a boo to express themselves, but this expression has historically been often hateful, even violent. I recall the chapter of Bill White’s memoir about his time in the minor leagues, standing in the field as fans in the stands hurled racist slurs at him. The one time he responded to a particularly abhorrent fan, his team had to arm themselves with bats in order to make it past the enraged mob that gathered after the game.

That’s the problem with boos as retribution, boos as an expression of serious collective outrage. Bud Selig’s feelings may have been hurt by the wall of boos, and the opinions of impressionable five-year-olds like myself might have been shaped by hearing it. But he, when the fans left the stadium, was still the Commissioner. He is still in the Hall of Fame. The boos did nothing to destabilize his power. When the collective ire of fans turns its focus to those less powerful, to individuals who have little institutional weight behind them, the consequences can be far more real.

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And so we return to the booing of this spring training. On Tuesday, the White Sox had José Abreu up to the plate with a chance to drive in runs against struggling Rangers starter Kohei Arihara. He never got the chance: the inning was ended, or “flipped,” and Abreu returned to the dugout. The fans, like those who watched the Phillies and the Tigers, booed — as heartily as a socially-distanced crowd of fewer than 1,500 people could boo.

It was a booing borne not of a desire to enact justice, nor of targeted distaste for a certain player. These were boos of low-stakes, petty, game-related discontent — the sound of a group of people high on their own collective experience. People who just wanted to see more baseball, dangit. It was the booing of an intentional walk against the home team, of a third or fourth throw to first — a response to the call that is the action on a baseball field. It was as though things were, indeed, normal.

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