Mets’ reprimand is a willful misunderstanding of fans’ role in the game

The Mets didn’t boo back, per se. They “booed” (metaphorically, with a disapproving hand gesture — although not that disapproving hand gesture) because the fans didn’t boo, didn’t have something to boo about in that particular moment. As Javy Báez explained, and as he and his teammates demonstrated on Sunday, if the fans boo when the team struggles, the players will boo when they succeed.

(Or at least, they did for a few weeks, until the explanation around their not very new but rarely necessary celebration was made public, and in response was roundly renounced by the organization as part of an ongoing inability to manage the message.)

If the fans didn’t relish watching the team go 7-19 on the month until that point, plummeting from first place to somewhere south of playoff contention, then they shouldn’t get to enjoy a 9-4 victory over the husk of the Washington Nationals.

This is, plainly, petty. And not an especially strong position from which to claim the moral high ground about the maturity of sports heckling. Or especially compelling evidence that the boos aren’t getting to them, as Báez claimed.

Spiking the football on fans invites predictable scrutiny of players' recent performance, and unflattering juxtapositions between payroll and results. It’s chum in the water for a famously bloodthirsty media corps tasked with coming up with new spins on the Mets’ protracted mediocrity.

It also willfully misunderstands the relationship between athlete and fan base — which is definitionally unequal and exists only insofar as the latter cares passionately about the former. It’s not the first time this summer that the Mets have made a mockery of that emotional investment, essentially giving fans the finger for expecting accountability or answers or daring to have an opinion.

Even before I watched the majority of my baseball games from a press box, I didn’t boo. Not because I’m better than you — I don’t yell on roller coasters either — but because it just sort of bums me out to watch people struggle. Which, incidentally, is also why some people do boo. Different manifestations of helpless disappointment — one is just a little tinged with toxic masculinity, but what cultural aspect of sports consumption isn’t?

The tension between celebrity and privacy is a delicate, imperfect paradigm. I balk at the idea that at a certain level of fame or fortune, people abdicate their right to react earnestly to outrageous behavior from overly invested strangers. There’ve been several instances this year of players speaking out about fans targeting their families after poor performances. We’ve heard about players receiving death threats, or being the subject of racist jeers. There’s no income bracket that makes actual harassment or anything even borderline dangerous a reasonable response to sports frustrations.

Athletes should feel empowered to express the emotional toll of public pressure and expect sympathy in the wake of more serious infractions. Báez was right that baseball players aren’t unfeeling machines and that the Sisyphean nature of baseball makes optimism all the more important. I bet being booed sucks and I don’t blame players who say — an actually sympathetic position which, again, Báez denied — that it does bother them.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 29: Javier Baez #23 of the New York Mets reacts after hitting a two run home run during the bottom of the fourth inning of a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on August 29, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
New York Mets infielder Javier Baez explained the meaning behind the thumbs down sign after homering during Sunday's win over the Nationals. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

Fame has always engendered a measure of critique from an invested public. Being the target of opinions from people who aren’t as talented as you is not an unintended consequence or ancillary component to being famous — it’s kind of the whole deal. Certainly boundaries exist — they just start somewhere beyond the confines of the baseball stadium.

The Mets aren’t trying to explicate the dark unseen underbelly of fame or even humanize the athletes who are often propped up as heroes — they just want the benefits of celebrity with none of the critiques. Which is to say, they want to be paid handsomely to play a sport that’s value is as an entertainment product without having to experience any negative emotions from people who find it entertaining.

Certainly New York fans are not the most patient during the tough times, but losing together was always going to be tougher than winning together. And by “booing” their would-be celebrants during a win, Báez, Lindor, and Kevin Pillar opted to sour what they already perceived to be a strained relationship, sacrificing the chance to succeed together to punch down at the people who don’t actually impact the outcome.

Amidst the predictable fallout from sentencing the crowd to mass execution pollice verso-style (please don’t make me explain that this is a joke), the Mets took to Twitter to claim that the whole thing was “fake bulls***,” the result of the “media always searching for anything to cause controversy.”

Except that’s just not true. The media didn’t make the Mets play poorly, the crowd boo, the team boo back, or put words in Báez’s mouth. Marcus Stroman is taking issue, as he has in the past, with the reality that there are public opinion ramifications for the actions players take on the field. The media ask questions because people care, and also to perpetuate that caring so that players can have fans.

Unless, of course, they don’t want that.

What is true is that fans don’t truly know the players — a point that Pillar correctly identified. And yet, as the fan in question was just saying, they respect the athletes anyway. It’s a ridiculous, nonsensical, largely unrequited relationship.

The reality is that it won’t really be impaired by yet another mini Mets melodrama — that is, if management can avoid making it worse. But as the team sputters through the final month of what will end up as a disappointing season, the fans still want to see them win. Can everyone just enjoy it when that happens?