These Fans Hustle to Boo the Winner


Fans, fans, fans. Can’t play with ‘em, can’t play without ‘em.

Here we are, about to start the biggest series of the baseball season, and what do we have? We have the Atlanta Braves talking about how helpful their fans can be. And we have the Los Angeles Dodgers talking about how hurtful their fans can be.

And night is day and day is night and white is black and black is white.

A number of spectators Thursday at Dodger Stadium actually booed their own pitcher--a pitcher who won the game to keep his team in first place. Kevin Gross was so annoyed by this that he waved in the grandstand’s direction angrily with his hand, flung his batting helmet high in the air and agitatedly paced inside the dugout, slapping the wall and bench with his hand.


These same customers re-booed Gross the next time he showed his face, so that by the time he left the game, even though others in the audience attempted to drown out the hecklers with cheers, Gross walked away feeling (we suspect) totally unappreciated, and his teammates found themselves condemning the behavior of baseball’s truest, bluest fans.

What a way to start the weekend.

Funny thing is, as understandably angry as some of the Dodgers were, the fans were not necessarily wrong in doing what they did. The reason they got on Gross’ case was that he did not run full speed to first base after tapping a routine grounder to third. Everybody in baseball, from management to labor to customer, has been conditioned to believe that there is only one totally unacceptable behavior--not hustling.

Only last month, when Dodger pitcher Tim Belcher was treated similarly after appearing lackadaisical, Belcher himself felt so apologetic that he told a sportswriter he was prepared to purchase an advertisement in the newspaper expressing his regrets if the writer did not publish Belcher’s stated apology.

However, true to the spirit of defending a friend or colleague, Dodger players insisted Thursday that their pitcher was totally justified in dogging it, since he was expected to conserve his strength to pitch. This is certainly a curious argument in a season when one at-bat, one run, one error, one defeat could keep the Dodgers from having a shot at the World Series.

Darryl Strawberry, who thought he left this sort of stuff behind him in New York, said: “What those fans did was ridiculous and unfair. He’s pitching, he’s got a 4-1 lead and he’s not supposed to break his neck running down to first base. When he got booed, the guy got (ticked) off, and we as players on the bench got (ticked) off, too. His job is to save himself to pitch, not wear himself out running.”

Brett Butler said: “These fans are our 10th player, whether they realize it or not. And when you boo your own pitcher, especially when you’re winning, you’re going to hurt some feelings. It’s OK to boo, but that was no time for Dodger fans to be booing a Dodger.”

Orel Hershiser, who criticizes Dodger fans about as often as he goes to Mars, said in this instance: “I thought that the fans were totally wrong, but of course the fans were totally right because they bought tickets.”

In other words, the customer is always right, even if he or she is wrong. Kevin Gross, though, is the one who was wrong Thursday, and he was wrong more than once.

--Gross didn’t run hard; that was wrong. (The game was won by one run, and Butler later was safe when an infielder threw poorly on his routine grounder.)

--Gross reacted petulantly to the booing; that was wrong. (It only made things worse, and gave both good and bad fans alike even more reason to say junk such as: “For the money that guy makes, the least he can do is run.”)

--Gross was unforgiving; that was wrong. (Many fans made a special point of cheering loudly, drowning out the minority, when Gross eventually was removed from the game, but he neglected to acknowledge this gesture as it happened or after the game.)

Maybe tomorrow, he’ll take out an ad.

There is definitely something weird about a baseball season in which the Atlanta Braves are going around to their fans like Bartles and Jaymes, saying, “Thank you for your support,” while the Dodgers are going around wondering why only 25,850 show up for a game affecting a pennant race, including hundreds who boo their own pitcher.

Atlanta fans for years have hardly bothered to show up at all. Nothing could get them out to see the Braves, not even the team’s sophisticated promotional campaign featuring Ernest P. (“Know whut I mean, Vern?) Worrell. At times in Atlanta in seasons before this, the only person cheering in the park was Chief Nok-a-Homa, just one more example of the organization’s continuing dignified treatment of American Indians.

Dodger fans have been there for their team from their first day inside these city limits to the last, so they have nothing for which to apologize to anybody. Still, it would be helpful if they booed the bad guys rather than the good guys during this weekend’s Western adventure, Ambush at Chavez Ravine.