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8 Upper

Boo Birds

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/11/1999

By now it should be clear to any armchair baseball historian of baseball that Cal Ripken’s second trip to the disabled list was not what finished off the 1999 Orioles. The O’s were finished long before that. They were finished by the end of April. Arguably, they were finished last September, when the ’98 edition dropped 10 of its last 12 games. Five of those losses were by pitchers who are no longer with the team, true, but the precedent was set.

The historical particulars don’t really matter. The season is over. There are gaping holes in the infield, the outfield, the batting lineup, and the pitching rotation. Desperate-eyed men stalk the scalp-free zone outside Oriole Park, waving fistfuls of cut-price tickets. The vultures are circling. No, scratch that: The seagulls are circling. The ’99 O’s aren’t even good enough to be dead meat. They’re just garbage.

Devoted Orioles fans now have two long, meaningless months to get through. The wild-card race is out of reach. At this rate, .500 could be out of reach. Cal’s hunt for his 400th home run has been suspended indefinitely; his 3,000th hit might not come till next season, if at all. There’s nothing but Rich Amaral and Ricky Bones from here to the autumnal equinox.

So what do you do if you’re a die-hard fan of a die-easy team? You go down to Greater Pigtown, nab a marked-down seat off one of those desperate men, and you start booing.

Booing is one of the most misunderstood of fan behaviors. It is widely thought to be rude and cold-hearted, evidence of the fickleness of the public. This attitude is a sad consequence of life in an age when too many fans are prissy dilettantes and too many players are spoiled millionaires. The truth is that booing, properly practiced, is an act of love.

It is not, in any way, the act of a fair-weather fan. What fair-weather fans do, when the team starts sinking, is stop going to the games. The scalp-free zone is full of their unwanted tickets. Real fans can’t just stop caring about the team that way. We’ve grown up with Orioles baseball; it’s part of our lives. And teams like the ’99 edition need to know when they aren’t treating that part of our lives with proper respect.

Besides, it’s a little too late for boycotts. We’ve already been blackmailed into building the team a ballpark and accepting preposterous ticket prices. Those are the basic terms of modern pro sports: Build the facility, or the team moves. Buy the tickets, or it stops signing star players. We lost our ability to opt out long ago.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll put up with anything. When the Orioles sign a bad or superfluous player, a Mike Timlin or a Delino DeShields, they’re wasting our money. When they write out a lineup with Amaral batting leadoff, they’re kidding us. When they drop 11 out of 12 to the Blue Jays, they’re insulting us.

Booing lets them know that we know this, and that we care. This is why it should be educated and well-targeted. It should reflect the big picture. It should say, “You’re not getting away with this.”

The proper boo is righteous, but not self-righteous. This is what always bothered me when Roberto Alomar got booed on the road after he spat on umpire John Hirschbeck. Those fans were not expressing a genuine baseball opinion, but showing how moral they were. (Or how moral they thought they were. I once heard Alomar booed in Fenway Park—back when the Red Sox had Wil Cordero, an unrepentant wife-beating drunk, in their own lineup.) I booed Alomar myself, more than once. But I only did it when he dogged it up the first-base line, or got lackadaisical in the field, or did something else that demonstrated he wasn’t playing the game very hard. The same goes for Albert Belle. I have no interest in booing him because he makes so much money, or because he has a history of rotten behavior. But if he butchers a fly ball or doesn’t run out a grounder, he should hear about it.

Belle gets booed more often than that, of course, and has expressed unhappiness about it. I do feel for him. All batters, after all, come away with more outs than hits. Getting booed for the natural ebb and flow of your job can’t be any fun. But then, few of us have 45,000 people cheering for us in the natural ebb and flow of our jobs either.

Belle’s problem is that the fans have no reference point but his current performance. DeShields, who’s also complained about the booing, faces the same thing. Nobody boos Cal Ripken, because Ripken has an 18-year track record in this city. The free-agent signees who make up most of the Orioles’ roster have no stored-up goodwill; what they’ve done for us lately is all they’ve ever done for us.

And, of course, nobody is going to look good with the Orioles in their current state. Brady Anderson is a veteran O’s hero, but all that matters now is that he’s killing the team with his lousy center-field defense. Even the good starting pitchers, Mike Mussina and Sidney Ponson, have had bursts of atrociousness lately. Only a sloppy and thoughtless fan would boo them for it. But then, only a sloppy and thoughtless team would be 14 games under .500 nine days into August.

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