Should we keep on booing?
Editor's note: This column appears in the October 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
During Heidi Montag's 21st-birthday bash at a Las Vegas nightclub recently, the waiflike blonde wanted to "sing" something from her upcoming CD. This was funny because Heidi became famous for not having talent: She's the wannabe celeb who feuds with L.C. on The Hills. Montag probably takes out her garbage 17 times a day on the off chance that someone will photograph her for Us Weekly's "Stars -- They're Just Like Us!" section. She shouldn't be putting out a picture album, much less a music album.
That didn't stop her from what looked to be lip-synching an atrocious song called "Higher," gyrating like Elaine Benes as a packed club watched in horror. When the recording -- er, song -- finally ended, she was booed mercilessly, and her performance was quickly banished to YouTube hell, where the clip has been viewed over 700,000 times (although 690,000 of those might be a giddy L.C.). I love this story for a number of reasons, but mostly because the patrons didn't show up intending to boo a vapid reality-TV star; they just couldn't help themselves. Montag left them no choice.
Cheering and booing will always be the purest reactions spectators can have. When somebody delights a crowd, we cheer. When somebody angers a crowd, we boo. Simple. Booing, which dates back to the sixth century, when Greek playwrights were booed, gained steam in Rome's heyday, when gladiators were cheered and jeered for their efforts. But it didn't really round into modern form until professional baseball, college football and boxing took off, in the late 1800s.
Then, somewhere along the line, sports fans decided it was acceptable to mock their own players. No star was immune, not even legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, all of whom took heat for the size of their contracts. When salaries and ticket prices skyrocketed in the 1980s and '90s, the player/fan dynamic changed for good. Now everyone is fair game, helpless victims of these 10 words: "Hey, I'm paying a lot of money for this ticket!" When we direct venom at our own guys, though, the results can be spectacularly unproductive. And yet we keep doing it. At what point is "tough love" just damaging? Antoine Walker was treated so unfairly by Celtics fans that he'd search them out in the stands to ask with a pained expression, "Why aren't you supporting us?" Eagles fans booed Donovan McNabb on draft day and picked him apart for the next nine seasons (and counting), even though he has taken them to four NFC championship games. Yankee fans jeered Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera even after they proved themselves to be the glue of four World Series champions. Keith Foulke clinched the first Red Sox title in 86 years, but when he broke down the following spring, he got lambasted. Now more than ever, you're only as good as your last game.
Does this make sense? Not to me. I believe a player should be booed by the home crowd for four reasons only: 1) a noticeable lack of effort, 2) an indefensibly dumb mistake, 3) if the coach keeps stupidly trotting him out in big spots (in which case the expressed displeasure is for the decision, not the player) and 4) if he happens to be named Tim Thomas or J.D. Drew. Our favorite teams are extended families. There's no way you'd boo a family member at a Little League game, so why is it okay to boo someone on your favorite team? What's the goal? To make him feel worse than he already does?
From time to time, a respected veteran even upbraids the fans for badgering a player. Jason Varitek recently begged Red Sox fans to stop booing the beleaguered Drew, saying, "I wish the fans understood how much power they have. They can help J.D. Drew."
Of course, Drew is a poor choice for our sympathy because of his contract (obscene), demeanor (lifeless) and clutchness (nonexistent). In a recent column, I joked about my new book, Caught Looking: My 100 Least Favorite J.D. Drew Late-Inning Strikeouts, and received hundreds of e-mails from readers who wanted to write the foreword. J.D. has always rubbed his fans the wrong way, even the mellow Dodgers faithful, who practically spit their Pinot grigio at him last season. He's such a beautiful player to watch: He's got all five tools and a perfect swing. It's almost insulting to think anyone so gifted could finish with a lower OPS than Dustin Pedroia. When he fails, he isn't just failing himself; he's failing the baseball gods who gave him those gifts.
After he signed for $70 million, every logical baseball watcher believed Boston fans -- who have a storied history of responding poorly to players who keep getting hurt -- would eventually regard J.D. the same way PETA supporters would now react to the sight of Michael Vick's exiting a Petco. After a recent game against the Yankees, during which Drew performed the trick of supergluing his bat to his left shoulder right before a third strike, my father, who was in attendance, told me he'd never heard a local athlete get booed more loudly and with more venom. Hearing Dad describe the hatred as "palpable" made me feel bad for Drew -- for about three seconds. Then I remembered how he has enraged me so often this season. I can't watch the Sox while holding the remote anymore because I'm afraid he might force me to whip it across the room.
But just for the hell of it, let's say Boston fans took Varitek's advice. Let's say they cheered Drew every time he came up, and every time he killed an inning, they reacted like Little League parents and shouted things like "Keep your head up, buddy!" and "Don't worry, we didn't need those runs!" How long could that show of faith last before they turned on him again? A week? Two? Can you ask 35,000 loyal fans who are paying as much as $312 a ticket to sympathize with a $14 million-a-year guy who has killed more rallies than the National Guard? Probably not.
On the other hand, it remains unclear whether the tough love approach works in the long run. It definitely brings out the best in certain guys (like A-Rod -- this season, anyway) and weeds out more sensitive souls (like poor Édgar Rentería, who nearly went Private Pyle during his short time in Boston). Strangely, some targets miss their tormentors after they leave -- like Walker, who pushed for a return to Boston in 2005 and helped sell KG on the passion of the city last summer. Until an entire fan base decides, "No matter what happens with [name of struggling player here], we're cheering everything he does!" we'll never know how many careers have been altered or derailed by booing. Problem is, as salaries and ticket prices continue to rise, the 24/7 nature of sports consumption continues to evolve and the Internet climate gets angrier and more personal, we can only expect fans to act nastier and nastier toward their own. Someday, Boston fans might even believe they were too easy on J.D. Drew.
The good news is, Vegas club-hoppers will never have to feel that way about the grating Heidi Montag. Here's hoping she's asked to sing the national anthem before a game in Philadelphia soon.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.