Reggie Jackson, the former slugger who during his playing days had more boos directed at him than a kid in a haunted house, insisted that he didn't mind verbal abuse from spectators; he took it as a compliment, even when it came in his home ballpark. "Fans," he said, "don't boo nobodies." With all due respect to Jackson's expertise, if his maxim was ever true, it isn't any longer. These days fans boo nobodies, somebodies, anybodies. They boo anthems and attitudes. They boo mascots and Mother Nature, narrowly missed kicks and pouty draft picks. They even boo each other. Infamous Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman probably can't go out for a couple of brews without hearing a hail of boos.
Listen for a moment, and you can hear the sound of boobirds warbling their not-so-happy tune. Less than six weeks into his career in pinstripes, Alex Rodriguez has been baptized by Bronx cheers at Yankee Stadium. Last month fans serenaded No. 1 pick (and San Diego Chargers repudiator) Eli Manning when he appeared onstage at The Theater at Madison Square Garden during the NFL draft, and Sacramento Kings supporters have given Chris Webber the business for his lackluster play even though he's still feeling the effects of off-season knee surgery. Then there's Barry Bonds, who surely holds the alltime record for boos generated per at bat, a statistic we're expecting Elias to start tracking any day now. On the road Bonds is booed, and at home he is bored—by the cowardly pitchers who continually walk him, thereby incurring the vocal wrath of San Francisco fans. Booing, it seems, is the universal language. When Montreal fans, many of whom were French-Canadian, booed The Star-Spangled Banner at a Stanley Cup playoff game last month, there was no translation necessary.
Recently, hands were wrung over the Yankees fans who booed Derek Jeter, their sainted shortstop, as he—and they—suffered through his 0-for-32 hitting slump. Given that Jeter has helped lead the Yanks to six American League pennants and four World Series titles in his eight full seasons, he might have expected the fans to cut him a little slack. But being jeered by his hometown crowd puts him in excellent company: Boston Red Sox fans razzed Ted Williams, and Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt heard it from the Philadelphia crowd, even though both men gave their teams' fans plenty to cheer about. Jeter is one of a handful of current athletes ( Tom Brady, Tim Duncan, Brett Favre and Steve Yzerman also come to mind) whose past accomplishments should make their supporters think twice before turning on them, but there is no pro athlete for whom the boo is taboo. For stars in particular, booing is like rain. It's hard to ignore and it can make their jobs less enjoyable, but they have to play through it even as it washes over them.
As a general practice there's nothing wrong with booing. It has a long, noble history in sports and elsewhere. Shakespeare's work was booed in its time, so it's hard to get incensed when Jaromir Jagr's gets the same treatment. Letting the opposition hear it is a no-brainer, and spectators correctly consider it not just a right to let the home team know when it's stinking up the joint, but an obligation. The boo, after all, is one of the few ways fans can make their displeasure heard, literally. A booing crowd sounds ominous and powerful, like an approaching stampede, and it can make the biggest star seem small by comparison. It's probably healthy for pro athletes to be reminded by the fans that they're vastly outnumbered and that the fans still have the power to make the players' lives miserable, if only for as long as the booers' throats hold out.
If the average spectator seems a little quicker to boo than he once was, it probably has something to do with the $20 he just paid for parking and the $7 soda he bought, about $1.75 of which sloshed out of the cup as it was being passed down the aisle. The big bucks that fans have to shell out has made the relationship between them and their team less romantic and more commercial, which is why watching Manny Ramirez run out a fly ball as if he were walking his dog doesn't just make Red Sox fans angry, it also makes them feel cheated. "Even when they boo, they want to cheer," says Jeter. Close, but not quite. Fans boo because they feel they've bought the right to cheer.
That's not to say that every boo has a rational motivation. Sometimes fans get so well-lubricated that the booze leads to boos, and sometimes it seems that they boo just to keep their booing muscles in shape. That may have been the case in Los Angeles recently, when Dodgers fans began to boo their team (which in recent seasons has been offensively challenged) for blowing a chance to score. In the fourth inning. On Opening Day.
Spectators should know that such cases of premature exasperation devalue the power of the boo. Like garlic and a good changeup, the boo is best when used judiciously. But it's unlikely that fans will be able to cut back now, not when jeering anything that moves has become such an enjoyable habit. There's an old Rodney Dangerfield joke: "I caught a Peeping Tom outside my window the other night. He was booing me." Don't laugh. You could be next.