If there is one public utility that sports provide — and you could reasonably argue they don’t offer any at all — it’s that they allow human beings to exorcise unacceptable, or at least unhealthy, emotions in an essentially harmless way. On a day-to-day basis, I’m a relatively docile, friendly, milquetoast sort of fellow. But before a St. Louis Cardinals playoff game, I’m a little like Tom Hardy at the beginning of Bronson — just a caged animal ready to lash out at anything in sight.
I’d argue that this is what sports are primarily for: to give you an excuse to get out all the unwieldy emotions you’re not generally allowed to display in normal, polite society. If my team wins, I am screaming in joy; if my team loses, I am screaming in pain. And then the game is over and I’m back to normal again. Being a sports fan is to channel your emotions into something that doesn’t really matter so you can have a cool head when you deal with something that does. Sports can, as they say, get your ya-yas out.
Part of that whole process is booing. Booing has been a part of sports as long as sports have existed. Before then, the earliest examples can be found as far back as ancient Greece. As a Slate explainer noted, “at the annual Festival of Dionysia in Athens, playwrights competed to determine whose tragedy was the best … the audience applauded to show its approval and shouted and whistled to show displeasure.” The stakes were slightly higher at gladiatorial games, where an unfavorable crowd reaction could cost a competitor his life. Things have mellowed since then, but for the last few centuries, paying audiences who express their avid fandom and extreme disgust in loud, unmissable fashion have become integral to any public sporting event. If you’re playing badly, they let you know it. The only way to get rid of booing is to get rid of the fans. (As we’ve recently learned, this makes for a far less dynamic experience.)
This brings us to the latest, and most fascinating, disaster of the 2021 New York Mets season. After COVID messes, questionable tweets from the owner, and a total nightmare of a month of August, the team reached a new nadir on Sunday when shortstop Javier Baez, newly acquired from the Cubs at the deadline, explained a “thumbs-down” gesture he and some teammates had started making after they managed to get a a big hit — a rarity this season. It is not the sort of explanation that will win you much goodwill in your new town, particularly when your new town is New York City: “It just feels bad when … I strike out and get booed. It doesn’t really get to me, but I want to let them know that when we’re successful, we’re going to do the same thing to let them know how it feels.”
Baez — who is hitting .210 with 22 strikeouts in 62 at-bats, for a team that has completely fallen apart since he arrived in Queens — isn’t exactly believable when he denies being thin-skinned. (His quote has a very dril vibe.) But the backlash to his gesture goes beyond Baez’s personal sensitivity, because it has struck at the very heart of the player-fan relationship: You’re supposed to always, always be nice to the people who come to watch you — even Mets fans, who are always mad about something (usually understandably). It is telling that the sorts of people who have been particularly eager to jump on the anti-Baez bandwagon are owners and management. Mets president Sandy Alderson was so furious about Baez and the gesture that he put together a Medium post about it, writing that the team “will not tolerate any player gesture that is unprofessional in its meaning or is directed in a negative way toward our fans.” (He also said there’d be a “team meeting” about it Monday, which sounds like exactly what an already-constantly-losing team needs: A lecture from the 73-year-old boss.) Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay blasted Baez for disrespecting the “10-year-old wearing [his] jersey” — a jersey that, if it had a Colts logo, would be personally pocketing Irsay (and not Baez) about 150 bucks a pop. The people who seem most offended by Baez’s and his teammates’ gesture are people who tend to make money off the people running around the field — from executives to owners to media members — without having to actually be one of these people themselves.
That’s not to say Baez has the high ground here: It isn’t smart to purposefully antagonize fans, particularly when you’re about to be a free agent. That Baez probably let his frustration get the better of him — because he was beloved at his previous stop in Chicago, because he’s having a terrible couple of years as a hitter, because he (and everybody else) just played a whole season without any fans around to hear boos from (and has thus forgotten that fans love you until they don’t, until they love you again) — says more about him than it does about anything.
But it is also probably worth asking: Who exactly are fans booing, when they boo?
The boos typically directed at Baez and other Mets really aren’t about them — not as people or even as individual players. (At least they weren’t until this controversy; from here on out, the ire will be very personal indeed.) If Baez were struggling like he is, but the Mets were winning rather than losing, nobody would be making him or any of the other players a target. He’s being booed because the Mets stink. And the Mets’ stinking is not his fault, or the fault of any individual player: It’s the responsibility of the people who put the team together. Why do you think Alderson was so quick to jump to the fans’ defense, or why owner Steven Cohen loves to put all the blame on the players on Twitter so often? Making Baez and other players the bad guys, and making them the targets, takes the spotlight off themselves. It’s an attempt to turn themselves into fan surrogates when they have absolutely no right to be.
It’s increasingly clear how much separation there truly is between a player and their owner-and-management-constructed team. (It’ll get even more obvious when baseball’s big labor fight hits this offseason.) Fans may be booing “the Mets.” But it’s the individual human beings wearing Mets jerseys who hear it, and feel it — not “the Mets.” Ideally, fans would want to think harder about who they’re booing, and why, and what difference it will make. Unfortunately, I suspect, for Baez and the Mets and every other player who has ever been called out and ever will, no one wants to “think harder” about their booing, or anything else they do emotionally at a sporting event. Nobody wants to maintain a cool head when they’re watching a game, when they’re watching a team they want to cheer stink. Fans want to get their ya-yas out. And without Steven Cohen and Sandy Alderson out on the field to face that, it’s the players who will have to receive the brunt of it.