From Here to Boo-ternity: The Boo in Philadelphia Sports Culture

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By my quick calculations, the 2008 World Series winning Philadelphia Phillies were only World Champions for fifteen pitches before being booed again in the second inning of the first game of the new season.

From Andy Martino’s recap of the game in the April 6, 2009, Philadelphia Inquirer:

[A]t 8:27, rightfielder Jeff Francoeur hit Myers’ first pitch of the second inning into the left-field stands. Some in the crowd, so boisterous during the pregame ceremonies, voiced the first boos of 2009.

At 8:30, centerfielder Jordan Shafer, in his first major-league plate appearance, hit a 3-1 pitch into the stands in left-center field, and the booing became louder and more widespread.

Phillies Opening Night on flickr.com by furnstein, via a Creative Commons Attribution License

Sounds about right. As a fan of Philadelphia sporting teams myself, I understand the love-hate relationship that exists between the fans and the teams in the much-maligned City of Brotherly Love.

But it’s an easy trope to trot out, a broad brush to paint a city’s fans with, this whole “Santa-booing boors” thing, and many point to the city’s relative paucity of championships in the past few decades as deriving from the apparently negative atmosphere the fans create. Perhaps a fair point.

No doubt there are athletes who do not perform well when they are derided for their efforts, who prefer to play in comforting arenas filled with unstinting supporters. They don’t tend to do well in Philadelphia, and perhaps they have played below their potential while there because of their rough treatment. But for every athlete who wants to get out of town, there’s another excited by the prospect of playing there.

Take former Flyers goalie Brian Boucher, quoted in Pierre LeBrun’s great article about the Flyers eternal goaltending woes:

“I can remember going to the bench for a TV timeout and getting absolutely berated by a fan,” he said. “He was hanging over the glass. It was something you expected to hear on the road. You act like you can’t hear him, but you do hear. Hey, the Philly fans threw a snowball at Santa Claus one year at an Eagles game. You enjoy that passion. I’ve played in places where there is no passion and there is no fan support.”

If Philadelphia fans didn’t care about the effort on the field or on the ice, they’d just sit there and eat their pretzels and wonder how long the drive home will be. Some fans in other cities do just that, making their arenas and stadiums temples of sport in a very literal way.

But Philadelphia fans do care. Really, it’s not just their team out there, it’s them. There’s a psychological transference at work that surpasses mere vicarious entertainment. When they care more than the athletes seem to care, they boo. They don’t boo mistakes born of passionate play, they don’t boo lustily committed losing efforts. They boo lethargy, they boo a phoned-in eighth inning and poor play selection with no time-outs left and lazy penalties caused because someone didn’t want to skate.

It’s a fan’s right to boo in those circumstances, one Philadelphians have embraced. And in return, when the teams leave it all on the ice or the field, the Philadelphia fans know it and applaud it just as loudly as they booed. I dare say that athletes can tell the difference between polite applause and well-earned cheers. Those cheers don’t mean quite so much without a leavening of boos.

(Image courtesy of furnstein via a Creative Commons Attribution License.)

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