Most of the handwringing, when athletes decide to take on fans, happens in the expected way: A wildly successful (or wildly unpopular) athlete does something that damages the home team, and the home crowd lets him have it.
The Malice in the Palace, when the Indiana Pacers and the entire Palace of Auburn Hills squared off, is the most notorious example of this (and if you haven’t yet, check out the documentary on Netflix), but there are others. The Bruins famously climbed the boards at Madison Square Garden once. Reggie Smith, playing for the Dodgers, once took on a few unruly Giants fans at Candlestick Park.
You can understand that.
Us-versus-them is logical.
Us-versus-us is less so.
And look, the Mets probably did the best possible job of minimizing what, in the moment, seemed headed for a gruesome, ugly mess when Javy Baez revealed a week ago that he and his teammates — notably Kevin Pillar and Francisco Lindor — were doing that thumbs-down silliness as a way of “booing back” at booing Mets fans.
“When we don’t get success, we’re going to get booed,” Baez explained, “so they’re going to get booed when we’re a success.”
Then Baez and his buddies apologized, the Mets immediately swept a doubleheader, and Baez provided the most electrifying moment with a mad dash home from first base to cap an improbable comeback. All may not be forgiven, or ever forgotten, but it was a positive gesture.
Players don’t go after their own much. But when they do, it almost never ends well for them. Our pal Andrew Marchand was covering the Mets in 2002 when Rey Ordonez gave him this gem of a quote: “I don’t want to play here no more. The fans are too stupid. You have to play perfect every game. You can’t go 0-for-4. Are we like [bleeping] machines?”
(Ordonez got his wish, exiled to Tampa Bay in 2003, then to the Cubs in ’04, and then out of baseball by ’05. It does seem all is forgiven, though, as he was all smiles at Edgardo Alfonzo’s Mets Hall of Fame induction a few weeks ago.)
The Yankees, of course, featured one of the grandest us-versus-us moments back on July 18, 1995, when 21,188 fans at Yankee Stadium gave Jack McDowell the business when he walked off the mound after surrendering nine runs and 13 hits in 4 ²/₃ innings against his former team, the White Sox.
McDowell responded by thrusting his middle finger in the air, twirling it for all to see, and becoming an instant hero to headline writers (The Post’s classic take: “YANKEE FLIPPER”). The Yankees immediately fined him $5,000. He was publically crushed by both George Steinbrenner and Rudy Giuliani. And though he expressed regret, McDowell never actually apologized.
“It’s not something I’m going to get used to,” he said of the booing, “but I’ve got to learn to handle it better. … Realistically, I don’t need to win anybody back. My job is to go out and win games, not necessarily to further my placement with the fans.”
(Interestingly, McDowell was terrific from that moment on in ’95, pitching to a 2.81 ERA, the Yankees going 9-4 in his 13 starts. Yankees fans still dislike McDowell, but it has more to do with him blowing Game 5 against the Mariners a few months later than his infamous middle-finger salute.)
Of course, the most famous example of us-versus-us came on April 29, 1983, when Cubs manager Lee Elia, fed up with hearing boos and cat-calls at Wrigley Field, unleashed this classic after a loss to the Dodgers (it went on a long time; these are the highlights):
“I’ll tell you one [bleepin’] thing: I hope we get [bleepin’] hotter than [bleep] just to stuff it up them three thousand [bleepin’] people that show up every [bleepin’] day. Because if they’re the real Chicago [bleepin’] fans, they can kiss my [bleepin’ bleep]. … What … the [bleep] am I supposed to do, go out there and let my [bleepin’] players get destroyed every day, and be quiet about it? For the [bleepin’] nickel-dime people that show up? The [bleepers] don’t even work! That’s why they’re out at the [bleepin’] game! They ought to get a [bleepin’] job and find out what it’s like to go out and earn a [bleepin’] living. Eighty-five percent of the [bleepin’] world is working, the other 15 come out here!”
Amazingly, it took until August for Elia to get fired and join the other 15 percent.
There is no reason to concede the division just yet, of course, but if things shake out this way, I can think of a lot worse baseball things than Gerrit Cole vs. Chris Sale at the Stadium in a winner-take-all.
MLB finally got it right, scheduling Mets-Yankees for Sept. 11. Fourteen members of the 2001 Mets will be at Citi Field next Friday for the opener of the series, including Todd Zeile, whose most powerful memory was from the team bus as the Mets traveled home from to Pittsburgh to pause the season: “We all looked to the right and there was just smoke. The towers were gone. There was stone silence all the way back to Shea.”
“Stillwater” is a terrific movie, and Matt Damon is his usual great self, solidifying his status as this generation’s De Niro — in terms of being able to willing gain and lose extraordinary amounts of weight for a given film. Personally, I find it much easier to go one way as opposed to the other.
Friday in Flushing Meadows was a wonderful reminder of the power of New York City at the Open, the way the crowd carried both Carlos Alcaraz and Leylah Fernandez home.
Whack Back at Vac
Tom Fox: I’m 58 and have seen it all with the Mets. I said to my son the other day, “This is the most overachieving/underachieving team I have ever seen. I really hate them, but I’m addicted and I love them.” That describes your 2021 Mets.
Vac: That may be the greatest description and explanation of the word “fan” that I’ve ever seen.
Richard Siegelman: Now that Howie Rose’s 2021 broadcasting season has been sidelined by surgery, the Mets had better not go on an epic winning streak and win (!) the World Series in his absence!
Vac: It’s always amazing to see the bond that forms between Voice and fans, and Howie is worthy of every positive vibe and happy thoughts you can send his way. Also, I think Howie would be OK with that scenario.
@blumenauer_joe: I don’t think the Mets have done a background check on a GM since Frank Cashen.
@MikeVacc: I was going to suggest Johnny Murphy, but Cashen works.
Bobby Nelson: Your column on Derek Jeter’s effect on kids brought memories and smiles. My own son was born in ’95. When he played in the Rockaway Little League, he would come to the plate, do that “ask-for-time” motion with his right hand while tapping the bat on the plate with the left. When the coach opened the box of T-shirts, he dove in with both hands and proudly came out with No. 2!
Vac: So many similar stories in so many of our communities. The Jeter Effect, in full.