Five times it’s OK to boo your team’s favorite players

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Bryce Harper got booed on Tuesday in an 0-for-4 game that left him with a hitting line almost identical to the 2018 one that helped earn him a $330 million contract. But every time you suggest anywhere that fans shouldn’t boo a player, people come yell at you, like, “how dare you climb up on your high horse and tell me how to be a fan?”

Booing can be a cathartic and generally harmless way to bellow out your frustrations, and sports are nothing if not the palette upon which we process the emotions we suppress in real life.

Booing opposing players is almost always OK. They don’t boo nobodies, like Reggie Jackson said, and booing a visiting star is a sign of respect. It’s a bit different when it’s, say, Harper returning for his first game in Washington since leaving the Nationals. You should absolutely boo Joey Votto when he stomps your paper airplane. Go to town; he obviously loves it.

Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper reacts after striking out during the eighth inning against the Tigers at Citizens Bank Park. (Photo: Eric Hartline, USA TODAY Sports)

Here are the five times it’s OK to boo a player from your favorite baseball team:

1. An obvious lack of hustle: I have and will continue to defend players for not busting it down the line on every soft grounder; it’s a long season and dudes need to do whatever’s necessary to stay healthy for the bulk of it. But if a guy takes his time getting out of the batter’s box and costs himself a base, or if an outfielder’s slow trot to a sinking liner allows the visiting hitter to take second, I think it’s fine to let him have it. The tacit agreement when you buy a ticket is that you’re paying to see the best ballplayers in the world make an earnest effort to win the game, and if they show signs they’re not doing that, you have every right to be disappointed.

2. An egregious mental mistake: If a shortstop wildly overthrows the first baseman, it’s no cause to boo. Presumably, he wanted to make the throw; physical mistakes can stem from bad positioning or mechanics, but a lot of times they’re just out of a guy’s control. This was a big thing for me while coaching — it’s silly to get on a kid for not being fast enough or not being strong enough if he just wasn’t built that way. But mental mistakes are something else entirely, because they imply a lack of focus that again violates the tacit agreement discussed in the paragraph above. If a player throws to the wrong base in a costly moment, or gets himself caught out trying to take third with two outs when his team’s down three runs, go to town. Tune in, bro!

3. When a guy outs himself as a total jerk: This one’s harder to define, but if a guy makes any sort of public statement that runs counter to the stated mission of his team — winning games — or, say, chokes a teammate in the dugout, you can boo. Be careful with this one, though.

True story: Back in the mid-1990s, when my brother and I were pulling hard for a young, fun and mostly bad Mets team, we absolutely hated Jeff Kent for some reason. Everyone at Shea Stadium did, so there must have been some reason, but I honestly forget it now. I remember him making a spectacular catch one time, the entire ballpark going silent, and one guy yelling out, “You still suck, Kent!” Some 25 years later in the Minute Maid Park press box, I met Jeff Kent, and he was totally nice, and I wondered if maybe we got caught up in some baseless talk-radio nonsense and booed ol’ Jeff Kent for it. Not saying I necessarily regret it, just that there’s a chance I was wrong.

4. When the manager comes out to replace one bad reliever with another: Honestly, I’m always cool with booing the manager. The manager always catches an undue portion of the blame when a team is bad, but he should understand that when he signs up for the job. It’s not the manager’s fault his crappy relievers can’t hold a lead, but if you need to take it out on someone, the manager is your guy. He’s older and hopefully more emotionally secure than the players, plus his frustrations probably won’t play out in any way that’s terribly harmful to your favorite team.

5. If a player becomes the mayor: The first time I ever heard booing in my life was at the Mets’ home opener in 1987, when the stadium PA introduced Ed Koch. If any player goes into politics during or after his career and winds up the mayor, you can absolutely boo him mercilessly. You think you’re better than me, in your fancy seats, eating your hot dog with a fork, hobnobbing with the elite? Boo, I say! Boo!

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