Jul 20, 2020
- ESPN baseball columnist/feature writer
Former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus
Co-author of “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work”
Back in the old days, the 2020 Houston Astros were scheduled to play two Opening Days: one at their park on the first day of the season and one in Anaheim for the Angels’ opener. At the first, the Astros would likely have been booed by some share of their fans, those who were ashamed by the winter’s revelations that the Astros had brazenly, illegally stolen signs on the way to winning the 2017 World Series. At the second, they were going to be absolutely crushed by the boos of their rivals’ fans, the victims of the fraud.
These wouldn’t have been the first times the Astros were booed — there was a lot of noise aimed at them during spring training, including in their home ballpark — and it wouldn’t have been the last, as their walk of atonement would have snaked through the rest of the American League’s ballparks. But these two Opening Days would have been the most notable, and they would have gotten the most attention. The game in Anaheim might well have had the loudest pregame boos in modern baseball history. Thousands of vengeful Dodgers and Yankees fans even bought blocks of tickets to join the company.
Things have obviously changed since Opening Day 1962, the last time an offseason sign-stealing scandal rocked a league like this. Back then, the defending National League champion Reds were implicated by one of their pitchers in a scheme similar to the one the 2017 Astros used. When they returned to the field, the Reds either weren’t booed — either at their home opener or as visitors at the Dodgers’ opener — or it wasn’t loud enough to make the papers.
Now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Astros won’t be booed, either. This year’s rescheduled Opening Days will be played in front of nobody — nobody cheering and nobody booing, the only possible way to have baseball in a pandemic. We all have a good sense of what the game misses when there is nobody cheering. But what does the game miss when there’s nobody booing? Quite a lot.
There’s a long history of Opening Day booing, for good causes and dumb ones, for frivolous protests and righteous ones. The manager Sparky Anderson remembered that the one season he was in the majors as a player, “the whole [home] crowd booed us when we ran on the field on Opening Day. I couldn’t believe it. Richie Ashburn told me, ‘They’re just getting ready for what they know is coming.'” The Phillies went 64-90 that year, marking their worst season in more than a decade. The boos were the wisdom of crowds.
While Opening Day fans do occasionally boo a team just for being unpromising, far more common are boos that represent something else. In 1972, Opening Day began two weeks late because of a labor dispute. Fans could have boycotted, but where’s the logic in that — protesting the deprivation of baseball by depriving oneself of baseball? So the fans booed. They booed in every direction. St. Louisans booed players’ rep Joe Torre — their defending MVP! — and fans in Baltimore booed team rep Brooks Robinson, and fans in Cincinnati booed Pete Rose, even throwing oranges at him in the outfield. Owners who showed their faces were booed, too. When Cleveland’s owner, Nick Mileti, “lost his balance and fell,” the Opening Day crowd “cheered delightedly.”
Two decades later, when another labor stoppage delayed the opening of the 1995 season, fans booed player representatives Jay Bell in Pittsburgh, Tom Glavine in Atlanta and Joe Girardi in Colorado. “I expect that,” Girardi said. “It’s a valuable lesson that I learned and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
In Baltimore on Opening Day 2008, fans booed Aubrey Huff “lustily” for insulting the city of Baltimore during an offseason radio hit. In Detroit in 1969, they booed Denny McLain — coming off a 31-win season — for a supposed offseason tiff with the more popular Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich. “I can’t do anything right in this town,” McLain said. In Boston in 1989, when Roger Clemens was introduced, “the boos couldn’t have been any louder if a New York Yankee had walked on the field.” Clemens, winner of two of the previous three Cy Youngs, had recently criticized Red Sox management. The rest of the season is for being disgruntled with the team. Opening Day is for unquestioning team patriotism.
In Cincinnati, fans booed Johnny Bench, just for negotiating a raise for himself, on Opening Day 1982. “Really hurt,” Bench said. In New York, they booed Cecil Fielder, coming off World Series heroics the previous October, because he briefly demanded a trade to avoid being platooned. They booed Mike Piazza in Los Angeles on Opening Day 1998 for the crime of not agreeing to a contract extension. Fans’ demands for loyalty are often too great, but they’re especially fervent on Opening Day, when the fans’ own loyalty has been tested and proved over five months of the team’s absence.
They boo unwelcome change. The Yankees didn’t introduce their whole team on the field on Opening Day 1996 because, reportedly, they “didn’t want Joe Torre [and] Tino Martinez to get the bum’s rush from fans.” Torre had been hired to replace Buck Showalter, and Martinez was replacing Don Mattingly. Fans booed Reds owner Carl Lindner in 2004 for trying to force out a popular broadcaster.
They boo the owners and executives who reward fans’ offseason hope with Opening Day despair. They booed Connie Mack on Opening Day in 1934 for selling off star players, Wayne Huizenga in 1998 for trading away star players and Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy in 2004 for slashing payroll.
They boo because they remember well. In Los Angeles, they booed new hitting coach Jack Clark on Opening Day because Clark hit a home run against the Dodgers in the 1985 playoffs. In Boston, they booed first baseman Bill Buckner on Opening Day 1987 after his error in the 1986 World Series. Said Buckner: “How can I care anything about the fans in this city after the way they acted today?” They boo because they remember too well.
The causes of these protests aren’t all righteous, to be sure, and they are not what I would boo. But the form of the protest doesn’t get enough credit. The boo is, in some ways, all a fan has.
Baseball is a sport we love. But its highest league is run by executives we often don’t love, who use business practices we sometimes despise, and it is played by players who, occasionally, do repugnant things. When it comes to protest, untangling the sport from the business or the sport from its players can be difficult. Major League Baseball has a monopoly of the world’s best players and noncompetitive monopolies within geographic regions. It is set up to make it nearly impossible for us, the fans, to hold anybody accountable for anything. A consumer can’t practically boycott an owner without boycotting his players or a player without boycotting his team or a team without boycotting the entire sport. That is an option, but it’s the nuclear one. Otherwise, it has a sort of self-defeating logic to it: You ruined a sliver of baseball for me, so in revenge I’ll ruin it all the way.
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. Massive crowds want to come and cheer the team, worship and admire it, draw positive energy from it and redirect positive energy back to it. 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.
This disapproving fan could do the booing on the street outside the stadium or standing at home on the front porch. But the power of the boo comes from the fact that the booer, by spending money on the ticket, has reaffirmed a love of the sport. Buying a ticket and booing is a way of admitting that, yes, the team with monopolistic control over the game’s best players has a certain amount of control over us, but it does not have the power to tell us whom to love, what to value or how to care.
If paying money to boo grants power, then paying money to boo on Opening Day is more powerful still. By Opening Day, baseball’s cruel winter absence has built our desperation to an unbearable level. We are collectively purple with thirst, so that when the new season approaches, we imbue it with all sorts of metaphorical significance and calls to make it a national holiday. On Opening Day, nobody can possibly mistake how we feel about the sport: There is no date of the year when our love of baseball is less debatable. And so, if in this state of unambiguous gratitude, we are nevertheless called to scream BOOOOOOOO! at something, then the message to the booed — that we love the sport, but we have our doubts about yooooooooouuuuuu — is delivered.
In 1961, the Reds won the National League pennant. That offseason, one of their pitchers, Jay Hook, admitted that the Reds had put a scout in the scoreboard with a set of binoculars. The scout peered to see what the catcher was signaling, then phoned the signs to the dugout. It was one of a number of bombshells about sign stealing published that winter: Rogers Hornsby wrote in a memoir that the league was awash with these schemes, and the Associated Press quoted insider revelations that Bobby Thomson’s famous Shot Heard ‘Round The World in 1951 was assisted by the same type of sign stealing. NL owners gave the league president power to declare forfeits if teams were caught in the act.
Cheating was incredibly common in baseball up to that point. It has been incredibly common since. People in the Hall of Fame have done what the Astros did, and they’ve done worse, and many of those stories of cheating are now told as charming pieces of baseball arcana. Baseball has an approving proverb about cheating — if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying — and it has a loose moral code, in which it’s up to your opponent to catch you and not up to you to not do it. What the Astros did might have been immoral, but were they immoral? They assumed that their opponents were probably cheating, too. They didn’t seem to feel shame among themselves. If I were an Astros fan, I wouldn’t have booed the Astros for being bad people.
I would have booed them because I’m against even good people acting corruptly.
Near as I can tell from reading the sports pages of April 1962, neither the Reds nor any other team were booed when they returned to the field that spring. I don’t know whether the fans of 1962 weren’t upset that their team cheated or simply weren’t upset enough to boo, but if they didn’t boo, then I blame them a little bit for the 2017 Astros. They saw the sport’s secrets, and they didn’t force change.
The fans of 2020 were not going to be silent. In 2020, perhaps unlike in 1962, fans do not want cheating in the game. The old way of reacting to cheating as a little cute, a little edgy, a little wrong but not that wrong is no longer what people want from this sport.
Hopefully, that message is clear to the players. It certainly would have been by the end of the Angels’ home opener, during which the walls would have shaken with boos.
“A lot of fans are upset,” said Desiree Garcia, the co-owner of the Pantone 294 fan group, which bought those blocks of tickets to boo the Astros in Anaheim. “This will give them an outlet to voice their opinion.”
Three cheers for that.