|Robinson Cano failed to hit a homer while Kansas City fans booed him Monday. (US Presswire)|
I’ve never really understood baseball cheering. Let’s say your hometown pitcher is one strike away from getting the third out of an inning. What’s the sound? You will hear people screaming and stomping and cheering. OK. Now, let’s say your hitter is one hit away from driving in the game-winning run. What’s the sound? Exactly the same thing. You will hear people screaming and stomping and cheering.
So, apparently that same exact sound of screaming, stomping and cheering is supposed to 1) rattle the hitter; 2) inspire the hitter; 3) rattle the pitcher; 4) inspire the pitcher. And it’s supposed to know which ones to inspire and which ones to rattle and vice versa, kind of the way aspirin is supposed to course through your body and find what hurts. All in the same sound. It’s like the players are supposed to interpret those cheers and screams, determine whether they are with you or against you, for you or for the other guy.
But, maybe there’s something to that. Maybe everything in cheering is really in interpretation. Because, if you think about it, why does a “boo” sound more ominous than a “yay” sound? They’re both just sounds. Why should one motivate you while the other alienates? Why should one sound prompt you to play better, while the other deadens your spirit and makes you play worse? It has to be how you take it.
Monday night, you probably heard, Robinson Cano was booed unmercifully by Kansas City fans during the Home Run Derby, and he probably had the worst Home Run Derby round ever. The defending Derby champion did not hit a home run. But perhaps more telling, he fouled three pitches back. Repeat: He fouled back three pitches thrown at batting-practice speed by his father. You can take from this what you will — that the booing got into head, that it just wasn’t his night and the booing did not matter at all, or you can find someplace in between. Whatever, it was striking.
There’s quite a bit to discuss about the ethics and point of all this, but first let’s state the obvious: Cano’s failure to hit a home run while fans booed him is almost certainly the only thing anyone around the country will remember from the 2012 Home Run Derby, maybe this entire All-Star Weekend. I know Bud Selig has called it sad, and others have expressed outrage about it, and maybe it merits both reactions, but one thing that is certain: In meaningless exhibition events like this very little sticks in the memory. I have been to numerous All-Star Games and honestly don’t even remember being there. Josh Hamilton’s crazy Home Run Derby round — that will stick. Michael Jordan’s lean-forward airplane dunk — that will stick. The way defensive players didn’t even try to tackle running backs during the Pro Bowl — that, too, will stick. It was so incongruous to watch a Kansas City crowd boo Cano, and then to watch him fail to hit even a single home run. I probably won’t remember that Prince Fielder won the thing in three days. I barely remember it now. But I’ll probably remember the Cano Boo Festival for a long time.
The basic premise behind the booing was that Cano had selected the American Leaguers to compete in the Derby, and he had not chosen local All-Star Billy Butler. You could argue that Cano had done the right thing both logically (Butler is not a home run hitter; he has never hit more than 21 in a season though he is on pace to hit 30 this year) and strategically (his team dominated the Derby). But it’s not that simple. Cano had basically said before choosing the team that it would be the right thing to pick a Kansas City player. He knew it. And for Kansas City fans — let’s face it — this meant something. This might be the only chance for the Royals to ever get someone in the Derby. They have not had one since Danny Tartabull in 1991. Heck the team home run record is still 36. Repeat: No Royals player has ever come close to hitting 40 homers in a season. And the All-Star Game comes here every 39 years.
Anyway, we’re talking about the bleepin’ Home Run Derby, not selecting who will be should be Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II. It’s all stupid fun. You wouldn’t exactly be marring the legacy of the thing by picking Billy Butler. Hee Seop-Choi was in a Derby. Hee Seop-Choi! Henry Rodriguez, Damion Easley, B.J. Surhoff (average 12 home runs per 600 plate appearances over his career), Alex Rios and, did I mention, Hee Seop-Choi were all in Home Run Derbies.
I hear people talking now about how there should be a “rule” that a local player should be in the Home Run Derby. That’s seems impossibly dumb to me — we need a rule for something that logical? Rule: You should invite the bride’s parents to the wedding. Rule: When hosting a charity roast, invite people who know the subject. Isn’t it kind of obvious that you might want a local player in something as aimless and trivial as the Home Run Derby? It’s a meaningless exhibition event inside a meaningless exhibition weekend — throw the local fans a bone, for crying out loud. Maybe baseball messed up by putting Cano in the line of fire rather than just insisting that a local player be chosen, but come on. This isn’t that hard.
Some found the booing offensive. Some thought it was classless. More than one person ripped KC to me, and later in print and comment. I have to admit, I didn’t see it that way. At all. For one thing, Cano is a Yankee, and the day it becomes uncool to boo the Yankees is the day we need to reevaluate what the national pastime is all about. For another, it’s just booing. I’m not a booer myself, and I usually dislike the “fans paid their ticket they can do what they want” argument, but in this case — you’re telling me that fans who pay 200 bucks a pop to sit in the upper deck to watch executive batting practice should cheer the guy who didn’t take the local player? Seriously? This is Wimbledon now?
Besides, Cano could have ended the booing any time he liked. All he had to do was hit a few home runs. That would have put a serious muffler on it. For somewhat obscure reasons, I was actually watching Cano’s Derby round with Kansas coach Bill Self, and he was sure Cano would use that booing as an impetus to crush home runs. He talked about how much his players would prefer being booed in a full arena than playing in front of relative quiet in a half-filled arena.
The former catching guru Jim Sundberg told a great story this week about slugger Willie Horton: On Sunday, May 15 — one day after Kansas City’s Jim Colborn no-hit the Rangers — Horton came up against Paul Splittorff and the fans booed him mercilessly. He homered. His next time up, the fans booed harder, and Horton hit a long fly ball to the warning track in right field. The next time up, a few less people booed but there were some, and Horton homered again. Next time up, fewer boos still, and Horton homered again. And that Sundberg said, was pretty much when the booing stopped.
I have no doubt that Cano’s struggles — the fouling back pitches, the way his long fly balls hit the wall — made the fans boo him more. If there’s one thing fans love more than anything it is their ability to affect the game. You’ve no doubt seen the self-congratulatory joy of people waving behind the backboard when a guy misses a free throw. I suspect the fans came in planning to boo Cano, but then they saw him foul that ball back. They thought: Hey, this is working. So they booed him a little louder. And a little louder. And a little louder. Until, at the end, the whole stadium wanted desperately for Cano to hit zero home runs, and the boos expressed that hope.
From what I can tell, Cano took the boos in stride. He tweeted out a couple of funny little bits — “I can’t believe I have so many fans in KC lol” — and he’s now part of Home Run Derby lore. I have little doubt he’ll be fine — he’s one of the great hitters in the game. I also have little doubt he will get booed whenever he comes to KC — it’s grown into legend now. The only thing I wish had happened was for Butler himself to have come out during the Derby, put his arm around Cano, maybe waved a white flag. That would have been cool. And maybe, with three or four outs to go, Cano would have turned the bat over to Butler. They should really have a lot more fun at these things.