General Baseball

Hero Worship

“Life size? I can’t use you… life size. I need my Alan Swanns as big as I can get them.”

-Benjy Stone (nee Steinberg), in “My Favorite Year”

Owing to a previous exchange in the comments, I thought this discussion might be worthy of it’s own thread. And that discussion is: how tough are people on their own? #1 poster JCL, in a response to my A-Rod post over the weekend, raises the issue in his own way. I want to take it up, address a couple of other issues, and look forward to hearing back.


Remember when you were in like 4th grade, and you’d say “The Red Sox are so lame” and then your overnight camp bunkmate would retort “but the Yankees are such jerks”? I was on the giving and receiving end of that one enough summers to exhaust me. Wasn’t that pretty much an unsubstantive, reflexive response? It seems to me that criticism of, say, a Yankee doesn’t imply a condoning of any behavior by any Red Sox player. They are separate. In this type of discussion, I think it is fair to decontextualize things. If we want to discuss how prima donnaism has infected sports as a whole, then fine, but sometimes discussions are about specific players and their high opinions of themselves (i.e. the thread about A-Rod). At a time when there are reasonable questions being asked about how certain a player’s presence has affected the team, it seems reasonable to explore their attitude towards the whole idea of team.

In my case, I have learned over the last ten years of living in New York and reading both the tabs and the Times that criticism of New York stars is close to taboo (though I am sure our resident comment-posting YFs will immediately disagree) – people here are willing to tear down the middle level guys (see Charles Smith of the Knicks, or Chuck Knoblauch towards the end of his Yankee days), but not their heroes. That’s not a confusing thing, to be honest. Nobody wants their heroes torn down. It’s honorable, for the most part, if not entirely accurate. In Boston, it seems, the pendulum swings a bit too far the other way. Ted Williams endured a famous love-hate relationship with both fans and the press, and in Beantown (having spent 18 years there, and a good 25 reading the sports page almost daily I have some experience with this) fans are actually much more willing to take their best to task – and sometimes it is over the top. If you look at the last two or three years of Pedro-crit, Manny-crit, and also Nomar-crit you will see a sign of what is to come as they reach free agency. We love them, but they have wrinkles, sometimes nasty ones. Sometimes we are hideously unfair(I for one think the fans’ attitude towards Nomar is all messed up). Many love him, but more than a fair share think he’s a free-swinging loony, and totally expendable.

These differing attitudes, admittedly generalized by city, may stem from the teams’ differing levels of success. In New York, there isn’t much opportunity to criticize failure, since there has been so little failure to criticize. In Boston, we’ve endured more than our share of chokes and drops, so we are probably too quick on the draw – you may even detect that in my posts I am not immune to this. To me, the denial of any attribution of Derek Jeter’s woes to one newly acquired third baseman is not surprising – just witness today’s story by Tyler Kepner in the Times asking Jeter and Torre straight up if A-Rod’s presence has had an effect, as if that’s a reasonable journalistic question. What are they going to say? It mentions there is speculation that this is the problem, and then asks the two guys who are least likely to admit that it is a problem the question. So Kepner enables the fantasy, and doesn’t look at the reality of the situation because I think that he is trapped by the mentality of this city into thinking it wouldn’t be nice to do so, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do to Captain Derek, the hero. The opposite would be the case in the Boston press and amongst the fans of RSN – they’d be overanalyzing, demanding immediate change. Somewhere in the middle is reality.

One last example of a different mentality from city to city:

Back in 1990 Larry Andersen was traded for Jeff Bagwell. The Red Sox went on to win a division with Andersen, who only pitched 15 games for the Bosox. Andersen never did anything of value for the Sox after that one post-deadline performance – he signed with San Diego in the offseason. Bagwell has gone on to record a fine, long, all-star career. Red Sox fans have never blamed Andersen for that move, however (I, for one, have always thought it was a reasonably decent trade, in theory, at least – an unproven prospect for a guy who helped us win a division). The fans in Boston blamed Lou Gorman (the GM at the time) for not knowing the farm system. Andersen escaped scorn, rightfully. He could have been an easy target, but the real culprit was the front office. We lamented the loss of a player who could have helped change the franchise (Bagwell), almost more than we enjoyed the division championship. Boston fans lament, almost pathologically, their lost or stolen heroes (Ruth, Lyle, Bagwell) To me that’s screwy.

On the other hand, the Yankees last year traded their top prospect (who still has yet to appear in the Majors) for Aaron Boone. Boone hit a home run to beat the Sox in an historic game 7, he was the absolute hero. But Yankees fans still resent the Boone-for-Claussen deal. YF, in particular, likes to disparage Boone at any moment. Boone was barely appreciated for his accomplishment. It was almost as if the uniform did the hitting, and not Boone himself. Why, exactly? Because Boone didn’t have a history of winning. Because he was an interloper, and one who didn’t know how good he had it being a Yankee, as far as Yankees fans are concerned. Because he blew out his MCL playing hoops instead of protecting his pinstriped knee. I believe that Yankees fans would rather have had someone else hit the home run, and they couldn’t deal with the fact that Boone didn’t deserve to be the hero, the way that, say, Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams did. Yankees fans cling to their heroes instead of letting their heroes come to them. To me that’s screwy.

7 replies on “Hero Worship”

The NY media can be plenty hard on its superstars: just ask Patrick Ewing of Darryl Strawberry. If the Yankees have been somewhat immune, it’s because the stars have been pretty level headed, at least since the Reggie era. As for Derek’s slump, the whole, it’s-A-Rod’s-fault line of argument is getting the appropriate treatment.
As for that crap about Boone, we dislike him because he was a terrible player for the Yankees except for one swing, and his arrival meant the departure of a fan favorite (Robin Ventura). Yes, he felled the Sox with that homer. But his performance against the Marlins was a catastrophe. And then he violated his contract.

Ewing is about the only guy I can think of that received his fair share of real criticism – you are right about that. But Strawberry got kid glove treatment despite major shortcomings, and his Yankees return served as a hagiographic coda to a sad career. To this day Darryl is looked upon fondly here, despite never completing what should have been a hall-of-fame caliber journey. Doc Gooden escaped too.
As for your last paragraph, it pretty much validates my thesis, and in a lot fewer words. So thanks for that. I wish I had asked you to make the post before I blew a half hour on it.

Your argument is that Yankee fans don’t like Boone because we see him as an interloper, and that he didn’t DESERVE to hit that homer. No. We don’t like him because he was a TERRIBLE PLAYER as a Yankee. Big difference. Yes, he hit the game winner against Boston, but he did not single-handedly win the series. Baseball is a team game. And again, let’s not forget he was a disaster in the Florida series. So spare us all your revisionism and pseudo-psychological bullshit. “We don’t let our heroes come to us”? Whatever. This is NY. If you’re going to be popular, you need to produce, and not just once. Aaron Boone didn’t.

And as for Straw and Doc, the papers were damn harsh on them, but when their stories turned into redemption pieces, obviously the tone changed, and rightfully. And if you don’t think the NY media can eviscerate a star player, I’m sure there are plenty of players from the Jets and Gints who would be to differ. When Jeter was accused of letting fun get in the way of his game by The Boss, it was a front page story.

The New York media can shred the best of them. But they don’t. They shred the most mediocre of them.
As for “pseudo-psychological bullshit”, thanks for the abject dismissal of a thesis that goes beyond just Aaron Boone. Remember that “fan” comes from “fanatic”, and that you can’t divorce psyschology from any situation, just because it doesn’t fit the reality you wish were so. Coming from you, an astute historian and someone who openly disdains roto-heads who use stats independent of context it’s frankly disappointing. Just as you refuse to believe Jeter’s a crap fielder because your heart tells you something different than the stats, and just as I still yell for managers to bunt even though they’ve been shown to be a highly unproductive, our brains confuse us.
Your clear hatred for Aaron Boone doesn’t stem from the fact that he sucked, it stems from the fact that he isn’t heroic enough. You make it sound like all New Yorkers want is quality, accomplished players. But Boone, who was a decent player, was given no chance here – it’s clear enough that you certainly gave him zero chance: as you say, he replaced Ventura (why you blame Boone for that is beyond me), he played poorly (though he had to adjust to a new league in a pressure cooker, not the easiest of things), and then he foolishly played basketball (not exactly snorting coke with whores). So it can’t be because he was no good – he helped win an epic series, he was good before he got here. But he is an easy target, much much easier than those you (and the press) love.

I’m all for psychological analysis, when reasonably applied. As for your history, recent scholarship by Peter Morris has shown that the word “fan” does not, in fact, derive from “fanatic.”
But getting back to your ridiculous argument about Boone—What?!?!? He wasn’t “heroic enough”? The problem was that all he happened to be was heroic, and then only for one brief moment. The rest of the time, he WAS A TERRIBLE PLAYER. Why do you refuse to accept this? Even Wife of YF, who has practically no knowledge of baseball, asks “How could you suck more than Aaron Boone?” Answer: You couldn’t. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t produce—that would not have engendered this kind of antipathy—it was that he played stupidly and didn’t produce. He was inept. He was fundamentally unsound. There’s no excuse for that. And, let’s be truthful about somthing else: he was never really much of a player: he’s a career .270 hitter with a massive strikeout total at a position that demands production. I only wish he were on the Red Sox. Blech.

Morris’ scholarship is hardly common knowledge, but thanks for the intellectual snarkiness. I imagine you have read something from SABR. I am curious to know where I can read PM’s work, or where it is accessible online.
The best etymology I could find is this, and I apologize if this isn’t sufficiently intellectual for you:
fan (2) – 1889, Amer.Eng., originally of baseball enthusiasts, probably a shortening of fanatic, but may be influenced by the “Fancy” (1807), a collective term for followers of a certain hobby or sport (especially boxing). There is an isolated use from 1682, but the modern word is likely a new formation.

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