Mariano Rivera and The Knucklehead

The Knucklehead is 10.

We’re in Anaheim, on our southern California baseball swing. It’s a day game for the Angels, and we’re baking in the bleachers in right. With us is Carolyn, a friend from back East who’s moved out here. Carolyn hasn’t been to an Angels game yet, says she doesn’t know much about baseball, and wants us to talk her through the game (I suspect this is a generous white lie on Carolyn’s part, but we’re happy enough to oblige).

It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the Angels are down by three runs to the Yankees. Mariano Rivera comes in for the save, and the Angels get a baserunner. Rivera throws over to first to hold the runner. A minute later, he does it again. I turn to Carolyn.

“Mariano Rivera has to throw over to first, to keep the runner honest. He’d be stupid not to. Nevertheless, if he does it one more time, we’re going to boo.”

“Got it,” Carolyn says.

He does. We do.

When The Knucklehead and I first started to attend sporting events, the ethics of fandom seemed fairly simple. “We don’t boo,” I told him. “As fans, we should remain positive. Cheer for the good stuff. Groan if you want on the bad plays, but don’t boo. They’re doing the best they can, and we’re here to support the team.” Pretty much the same advice you’d give him for watching a Little League game, which led to the fairly hilarious spectacle of hearing the young Knucklehead yell at the Red Sox at the top of his lungs, “You can do it, guys! Work together as a team!” I felt that raising him not to boo was good, solid, fatherly advice, and it was. It sustained us well into our second Major League game together.

We were in San Francisco, watching the Giants play the Astros. This was back when Barry Bonds was still playing, and it was right around the time everyone was just starting to really think hard about not giving Bonds the benefit of the doubt anymore, when he was right on the cusp of taking us from saying, “I think he might…” to “He is.” In other words, you could still cheer for Bonds, but you knew that window was closing fast. Bonds was coming up for his fourth at-bat of the game. He’d already been intentionally walked once, had walked again on one of those unintentional intentional walks, and sure enough, the catcher stands up.

I look over at The Knucklehead. “OK,” I tell him, “when you’re at a Giants game, and they’re about to walk Barry Bonds for the third time, you get to boo.” Obedient Knucklehead that he is, he jumped right on that. Lustily, even.

So, the question is begged: Is it OK for an ethical person to boo at a ballpark? My own initial gut instinct, as a parent to a small child, was “no, of course not.” But as the philosopher/ethicist John Kruk points out, “This is baseball. It isn’t a garden party.” The baseball fan in me began to see this as a far more complicated issue.

To begin with, you have to draw the line between the amateur and professional game. Booing at a college game is generally a classless thing to do. At the high school level, it’s ignorant. At a Little League game, it’s child abuse. That needs to be established.

But at the professional level, players, managers, and umpires understand that they are performers at a spectacle designed for entertainment. They understand (or should understand) that we in the stands, powerless to control events on the field, are left to our only recourse: making noise. Letting our team know we’re there to support them. Letting them know they’re not out there alone. Reminding them that they’re being paid very well to give us something to cheer for in our lives, lives that may not contain as much grace, power, or glory as we’d hoped. Usually we can do that by cheering. Sometimes, if we can’t cheer, we boo.

Back to Anaheim. Carolyn asks me if the purpose of booing is to rattle the opposing pitcher. “Not really,” I tell her. “Maybe you can unsettle a rookie, but the veterans have heard it all before, and just tune it out. But still, as fans, it’s our job. It’s our contribution to the game, and we’re expected to take it seriously. Mostly, it just lets our own players know that we’re still here, we haven’t left them, and we’re doing what we can to keep them in the game.” Thoughtful booing isn’t about punishment. If it is, you’re doing it wrong, and you’re not helping.  Thoughtful, ethical booing is about letting your team know that their pain is your pain.

It’s also accepted in baseball, some situations require the fan to boo. Like when the opposing team’s pitcher throws over to first. It’s not personal, it’s perfunctory, and everyone in the ballpark knows it. As fans, it’s simply what’s expected of us, and in those circumstances, we’re allowed to have fun with it. Examples:

* The opposing lineup is announced.

* The opposing catcher comes out to the mound to talk with the pitcher when the bases are loaded.

* Any home player is intentionally walked.

* An opposing player doesn’t sprint around the bases when he’s hit a home run.

* The opposing manager comes out to argue a call with the umpires.

Notice that booing should always be directed at the other team. Booing your own team is often tempting, it’s understandable, but it should be avoided. If you’re a fan of the visiting team, you’re a guest of the home fans. That means you’re not allowed to boo ever. You can cheer for your own team (not to pass the point of gloating, however), but your boos are not welcome here. Save them for your own ball park.

Again, it’s the professional game we’re talking here. If your Knucklehead starts booing his sister’s Tae Kwon Do tournaments, it’s time for a conversation.

It felt good to boo Mariano Rivera when he threw over an absolutely reasonable, strategically necessary, but unambiguously third time. Of course it didn’t work, as we all knew it wouldn’t. But it gave us a harmless way to insert ourselves into the game, and let the Angels know their home fans were still on their side. We’d fulfilled our side of the contract. We’d done our job. The Angels lost that day (their only loss to the Yankees in a 4-game series, just our luck), but we left the ballpark knowing that all involved had done all they could.

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