No Taboo to Boo

May 16, 2004

Reggie Jackson, the former slugger who during his playing days
had more boos directed at him than a kid in a haunted house,
insisted that he didn't mind verbal abuse from spectators; he
took it as a compliment, even when it came in his home ballpark.
"Fans," he said, "don't boo nobodies." With all due respect to
Jackson's expertise, if his maxim was ever true, it isn't any
longer. These days fans boo nobodies, somebodies, anybodies. They
boo anthems and attitudes. They boo mascots and Mother Nature,
narrowly missed kicks and pouty draft picks. They even boo each
other. Infamous Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman probably can't go
out for a couple of brews without hearing a hail of boos.

Listen for a moment, and you can hear the sound of boobirds
warbling their not-so-happy tune. Less than six weeks into his
career in pinstripes, Alex Rodriguez has been baptized by Bronx
cheers at Yankee Stadium. Last month fans serenaded No. 1 pick
(and San Diego Chargers repudiator) Eli Manning when he appeared
onstage at The Theater at Madison Square Garden during the NFL
draft, and Sacramento Kings supporters have given Chris Webber
the business for his lackluster play even though he's still
feeling the effects of off-season knee surgery. Then there's
Barry Bonds, who surely holds the alltime record for boos
generated per at bat, a statistic we're expecting Elias to start
tracking any day now. On the road Bonds is booed, and at home he
is bored--by the cowardly pitchers who continually walk him,
thereby incurring the vocal wrath of San Francisco fans. Booing,
it seems, is the universal language. When Montreal fans, many of
whom were French-Canadian, booed The Star-Spangled Banner at a
Stanley Cup playoff game last month, there was no translation
necessary.

Recently, hands were wrung over the Yankees fans who booed Derek
Jeter, their sainted shortstop, as he--and they--suffered through
his 0-for-32 hitting slump. Given that Jeter has helped lead the
Yanks to six American League pennants and four World Series
titles in his eight full seasons, he might have expected the fans
to cut him a little slack. But being jeered by his hometown crowd
puts him in excellent company: Boston Red Sox fans razzed Ted
Williams, and Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt heard it from
the Philadelphia crowd, even though both men gave their teams'
fans plenty to cheer about. Jeter is one of a handful of current
athletes (Tom Brady, Tim Duncan, Brett Favre and Steve Yzerman
also come to mind) whose past accomplishments should make their
supporters think twice before turning on them, but there is no
pro athlete for whom the boo is taboo. For stars in particular,
booing is like rain. It's hard to ignore and it can make their
jobs less enjoyable, but they have to play through it even as it
washes over them.

As a general practice there's nothing wrong with booing. It has a
long, noble history in sports and elsewhere. Shakespeare's work
was booed in its time, so it's hard to get incensed when Jaromir
Jagr's gets the same treatment. Letting the opposition hear it is
a no-brainer, and spectators correctly consider it not just a
right to let the home team know when it's stinking up the joint,
but an obligation. The boo, after all, is one of the few ways
fans can make their displeasure heard, literally. A booing crowd
sounds ominous and powerful, like an approaching stampede, and it
can make the biggest star seem small by comparison. It's probably
healthy for pro athletes to be reminded by the fans that they're
vastly outnumbered and that the fans still have the power to make
the players' lives miserable, if only for as long as the booers'
throats hold out.

If the average spectator seems a little quicker to boo than he
once was, it probably has something to do with the $20 he just
paid for parking and the $7 soda he bought, about $1.75 of which
sloshed out of the cup as it was being passed down the aisle. The
big bucks that fans have to shell out has made the relationship
between them and their team less romantic and more commercial,
which is why watching Manny Ramirez run out a fly ball as if he
were walking his dog doesn't just make Red Sox fans angry, it
also makes them feel cheated. "Even when they boo, they want to
cheer," says Jeter. Close, but not quite. Fans boo because they
feel they've bought the right to cheer.

That's not to say that every boo has a rational motivation.
Sometimes fans get so well-lubricated that the booze leads to
boos, and sometimes it seems that they boo just to keep their
booing muscles in shape. That may have been the case in Los
Angeles recently, when Dodgers fans began to boo their team
(which in recent seasons has been offensively challenged) for
blowing a chance to score. In the fourth inning. On Opening Day.

Spectators should know that such cases of premature exasperation
devalue the power of the boo. Like garlic and a good changeup,
the boo is best when used judiciously. But it's unlikely that
fans will be able to cut back now, not when jeering anything that
moves has become such an enjoyable habit. There's an old Rodney
Dangerfield joke: "I caught a Peeping Tom outside my window the
other night. He was booing me." Don't laugh. You could be next.

Steve Rushin is on assignment.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

These days fans boo nobodies, somebodies, anybodies. Soon, Barry
Bonds's boos per at bat will be an official stat.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)