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On Booing and Rationales

Yeah, Josh, we don't much like it here, either. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE
Yeah, Josh, we don't much like it here, either. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

I told him what I thought, and told no more
Than what he found himself was apt and true.

I first wanted to write this piece almost two weeks ago, as I sat in the rain watching Josh Beckett walk off the mound after losing his footing, control, and back integrity against the Tigers. I was viciously angry, and angry at pretty much everything; the rain, the Tigers, Beckett for not being the ace we all want him to be, the fans for booing a guy who was hurt. Most of all, though, I was angry at this:

Why be angry at a sentiment that I, also, tend to agree with? Mostly it's because I remember this piece from May. We all remember with great pride that weekend Boston spent being really angry at Josh Beckett for going golfing. And if there's one piece of writing that perfectly crystallized the anger, and gave it new life, it was that Edes column.

I bring this up because as the Red Sox flounder about in search of playoff relevance, we're all going to be treated to a thousand or so columns about the difficulties of playing in Boston. Some players just don't have what it takes, after all. They lack grit, or mental toughness, or any number of other important qualities. What will be missing from all of those columns is why playing in Boston requires a certain level of mental toughness.

So why were people booing Josh Beckett on the day of the trading deadline (and again against Texas last week)? Fundamentally, and this can't be denied, it's because he was pitching terribly. If Josh Beckett were putting up the kind of numbers he put up in 2007, or for most of last year, there wouldn't be any question of booing him. Lousy performance is still the #1 way to get booed, and that's true of just about anywhere. But there's a line between the annoyed boos that come from underperformance and the lusty, furious chorus of boos that saw Beckett out in those two games. Those boos weren't business. They were personal. They were personal because we've all spent the last year hearing and reading that Beckett isn't simply an underperforming pitcher. He's a beer-swilling, golf-loving malcontent who won't apologize for offending our delicate sensibilities. And how do we know this?

Imagine for a moment a world in which sportswriters were robots, only able to record box scores. In such a world, what would we know about baseball players? We'd know their names, probably. We'd know their stats, we'd watch the games. We'd certainly be able to judge performance. But we wouldn't have any idea what players were like in the clubhouse, and short of reported injury, we wouldn't have any way to know what was driving poor performance.

Would we boo? Would a pitcher putting up a 5.00 ERA when he'd previously been a 3.50 guy still get heckled? My bet is that he probably would, but it would be more along the lines of the way we heckle umpires, or throw our hats after David Ortiz hits into a double play. Boos of frustration, rather than anger. Because, as I've discussed once or twice here, what's really to be angry about, it being baseball and all?

So why does Fenway erupt into a chorus of rage when Josh Beckett gives up all of the AL West's allotted home runs to Texas, or when he leaves a rainy game against Detroit? Because we've been told to. Because somewhere along the line (and basically I mean last September), it was decided that Beckett's a bad guy, and that somehow his poor performance reflects a defect in character. We hear or read some variant of this every time he pitches, whether it's joking references to last fall's fried chicken and this spring's golf trip or suggestions that he doesn't like Boston and is eager to be traded. Beckett comes off as spoiled, lazy, and just generally the sort of guy that's incredibly hard to root for.

And you know what? Maybe he is all of those things, and if booing a guy because of that is your cup of tea, I won't argue with you, just as I wouldn't try to stop you from singing your lungs out with Neil Diamond in the eighth inning. But what drives me up the wall is the idea that this is all on the fans, or that there's some magical property contained within our dirty water that makes weak players falter and strong players eventually turn into scapegoats. We turn on our players because we have an eager gallery of writers and talking heads whose major interest seems to be giving us reasons to turn on them.

Boston fans are scary devoted, and we have high expectations. We're all of us disappointed with how this season is turning out. And every so often, I think we're well within our rights to express a bit of that disappointment in the direction of the players. But for the writers who spent a good deal of time and effort telling us why Red Sox players are unworthy of our city to suddenly clutch at their pearls when the boos start to rain down is beyond absurd. It's staring wide-eyed at the scorched warehouse and making excuses to the fire department while still holding the empty gas can.

The quote I opened this piece with, by the way, is one of Iago's final lines in Othello. Iago didn't do anything himself, after all. He simply told Othello the worst things imaginable about one he trusted, and let the caustic mix of love and doubt do its work. Of course, he also had the sense to know what would happen. Keep that in mind when Josh Beckett demands a trade this winter, no free agents want to sign with Boston, and the modern Knights of the Keyboard start acting shocked.