And the Crowd Turns

From the moment that Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton hit the 1-2 count slider from Huston Street that floated above first base he was showered with boos from the sell-out crowd at Chase Field. It was not that single play that had made Upton the target of the Phoenix fans. There disdain began earlier this season and was now reaching fever pitch with an 0-5 performance and a missed ball in the outfield that became a home run.

The most interesting part was the catch or lack of a catch in the negative view of the fans. Upton didn’t throw the pitch that Yasmani Grandal hit to deep right center. That accomplishment was saved for the night’s other “villain” reliever David Hernandez who game up 2 runs in a single inning of work. He too was greeted by boos as he made his way off the mound in the eighth inning.

The pitch looked pretty good it just so happened that Grandal got a very good swing at it. Most right fielders would have never even gotten to that ball but Upton possesses deceiving speed and made it to the wall and looked to time his jump to bring back the home run but it hit off his glove and went over for a home run.

This is not the first time that either Hernandez or Upton has heard boos in their careers. They have both played enough baseball that they understand it goes with the territory but in this case the boos that were directed towards them were from the hometown fans.

There are differing viewpoints about fan etiquette. Some believe that their admission ticket gives them the right to voice their pleasure or displeasure at whomever they would like. The theory goes that major league baseball players are all spoiled millionaires who play a child’s game and unless they perform up to the standards set by these misguided fans they should expect to be booed.

What I find interesting is that these negative fans seem to somehow think that their booing is going to motivate the player to play harder or in some way try to live up to the standards set by the fan. I’ve been around baseball and baseball players nearly my whole life both as a player and as a fan and I have never seen or heard of anyone who when hearing someone boo them thought, “Oh wow I must have made a mistake. I need to make up for that mistake and give a little more effort because that person in the stands who doesn’t know me at all is displeased with my performance.”

I’ve often wondered what would happen if someone came to their place of business and heckled them and booed whenever they made a mistake or their performance did not meet the unrealistic expectations of the customer? Would they suddenly try harder to show the customer that their vocal displeasure would make their job easier?

Now before I get a bunch of hate mail reminding me that the regular fan is not making millions of dollars so this analogy doesn’t pertain to them let’s change the analogy slightly. Compared to other right fielders or relief pitchers Upton and Hernandez are making perhaps less than the average salary for their profession. Granted it is still more money than a lot of us will ever see in our lifetimes but in their profession they are getting paid on average what others or making.

Given that scenario it would seem appropriate that the next time you had your oil changed you should boo the attendant mercilessly if he happened to drop your oil plug or went to the rack and grabbed the wrong can of oil and had to go back to get the right one.

The next time your daughter is baby sitting to earn a little money and is watching the neighbor’s children it should be fine for others to scream obscenities at your child because she didn’t give the neighbor child a drink before sending them to bed or the bedtime story just didn’t seem to have the same amount of enthusiasm that you would expect a babysitter to have if they are getting paid the same as other sitters.

The whole value proposition for booing is preposterous especially from the hometown crowd. The goal of playing 81 games at home is to somehow have an advantage over your opponent. Whether that be knowing the stadium quirks better or hopefully having a loud stadium that provides energy to the team; there should be an advantage. Looking at the statistics and records of teams the goal is to have a winning record at home and try to play at least .500 on the road and you would have a successful season.

When that advantage ceases to be an advantage it makes it a little more difficult to sustain prolonged winning. I am not suggesting that the fans are the cause of the Diamondbacks current struggles but the negative energy probably doesn’t help. It’s simply a matter of piling on to a team that is already down. Yes, fans have a right to express their displeasure with the way a team is performing but having that right doesn’t necessarily make it okay.

As I sat in the stands shaking my head in disbelief and disappointment I realized that the problem was one of managing expectations. In 2011 the Diamondbacks were expected to not be in last place in the National League West. They were to be better than they were in 2009 and 2010 when the team was a disaster and finished in last place.

Instead the Diamondbacks surprised everyone winning the NL West and making the play-offs. When our expectations were exceeded everyone was happy and if there were any negative fans they were silenced by those singing praises of the miraculous turnaround.

After the 2011 season we saw the core of the Diamondbacks return for this year along with a few additional pieces that on paper made the team look much stronger. The expectation went from a team that would not finish in last place to one that should reach the World Series.

As the season nears the midpoint the fans see a team struggling to score runs. When the offense does scrape out hits it seems like the pitching falters. The consistency we saw last year is not there and the team is battling to stay at .500. Last year fans would have been thrilled if the team was 39-41 and only 5 games out of first. This year fans expected to not only be in first place but to be running away with the best record in baseball. When you set extremely high expectations and do not deliver people will find every excuse they can to express their displeasure.

Fans want someone to listen to them when they aren’t happy. If they boo the entire team their message gets lost. Instead they tend to focus their displeasure on the player or players who they feel have the highest potential. In the case of the Diamondbacks that player is Justin Upton.

Despite the fact that Upton is only 24 years old, the fans view him as a seasoned veteran who was billed as the next Ken Griffey Jr. He made his major league debut while still a teenager and the fans were told about the almost limitless potential he had.

Upton was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, an amazing shortstop that was compared to Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, and others. Yes you read that right; Upton was a shortstop. When he began his minor league career the Diamondbacks had another highly touted shortstop in Stephen Drew and Upton was moved to center field. It somehow gets lost that Upton did not actually play right field until he reached the major leagues. It really is a tribute to his athleticism that he was able to move around the field yet still makes it look natural wherever he plays.

Gifted athletes especially those with speed make things look easy and Upton is no exception. He covers a tremendous amount of ground but in doing so gets to balls he should not get to or at times overruns. Instead of recognizing this, fans look at his play and complain that he is not trying or is lackadaisical. His quiet and rather reserved demeanor is not applauded for him not getting to emotional but instead is inaccurately characterized as uncaring.

I’ll admit, I was guilty of these assessments myself when Upton first came up but after watching him in spring training and also those times when I have been fortunate enough to be in the stadium before the crowds arrive I see a young player that puts in tireless amounts of work to get better. A player focused on being the best he can be while trying to maintain an even keel and not let his emotions distract the work he needs to do. Upton cares more than he will ever let on but the players and coaches know and understand. The problem is again one of expectations.

Upton is the victim of his own success and the victim of a team who has placed him on a pedestal as the “face of the franchise”. I cannot even imagine the pressure that goes with something like that nor do I want to. Instead I’m learning to appreciate what it is he is going through and seeing the small things that show promise instead of dwelling on the negative.

I continually remind myself that the team brought him up from Double-A with phrases such as “he has nothing left to prove at the minor league level”. Similar comments that we now hear about pitchers Trevor Bauer and Patrick Corbin and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Its one of the reasons why I question whether the time was right for Bauer to come to the major leagues and some of the reason why we saw Corbin struggle his first time up.

Ball players are not perfect and some have the mental makeup that goes with their physical abilities and they adapt quickly others it takes more time. There is still a maturation process that each player needs to go through despite his age. When Upton commented after the game that he didn’t care what the fans thought of him there was probably some truth to that. If you try to play the game to please the fans you’ll never make it for very long. I respect what he said but many fans and even some inside the organization might take offense to his comments.

They want to hear that Upton lives and breathes to make the fans happy because they are the ones paying to watch him perform. A player more seasoned at dealing with the media and the fans would have given the cliché answer about how he’s not playing well and how he understands the fan’s frustration. Upton will now find himself in a small firestorm backpedaling and having to explain his comments and that’s unfortunate because it will once again set an expectation that he will have to live up to.

If you take the emotion out of this it is an interesting case study in how people manage expectations and overcome adversity. Unfortunately this isn’t a psychology class we took in college it’s a major league baseball season where a team is fighting to overcome the problems they are facing all the while trying to manage the expectations that this may not be their year but that they should still be competitive with an outside chance of sneaking into the post season.

Of course this all becomes moot if the Diamondbacks go out on a winning streak heading into the All-Star break and gets hot in the second half. Then we will look at this moment as the event that solidified the team and its fans and made them closer.


  1. PHXSportsGal

    How refreshing to hear from a true fan with knowledge of the game. I for one abhor the fact that a “fan” would boo a player. Do I get frustrated watching the 0-fers? Of course. I’m kind of competitive like that. But the frustration is born out of knowing the talent that is possessed by this team. I watch every game with the anticipation of a win.
    I came to Arizona from St. Louis. I don’t know the meaning of jumping on and off a bandwagon. Perhaps because I have always had baseball in my life I am a
    fan of the game as a whole. Shame on the “fair weather” fans!
    I really just wanted to say thank you for a very insightful blog post and I hope many people take the time to read it.

  2. CubsFan

    Very interesting perspective and one I had not considered. I have often wondered what all the money, fame and pressure does to these young men; perhaps the overwhelming success is as destructive to the psyche as a true trauma.

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