A few days ago, I was watching a random special about memorable moments from the 2009 season that was airing on MLB Network. Inevitably, a good amount of attention was given to game 163 against the Twins, including the now infamous shot of Brandon Inge’s jersey getting brushed by a pitch. The highlight they played started with Inge walking to the plate while the announcer declared something to the effect of “This is exactly what the Tigers want to see- Brandon Inge at the plate with the bases loaded”.
My, how things change.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a fairly shameless defender of Inge. I harbor no delusions about his statistics over the past 10 years- you don’t make any friends with a .230 career average- but I also think he’s a valuable third baseman (fielding percentage generally above league, with flair) and have a bit of a soft spot for him as an overall player. He’s only ever played for the Tigers AND survived The Dark Years of the early 2000’s. He seems willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win, even if that means playing five different positions in one season. Last year, he handled a demotion with humility and worked his way back to the team in time to contribute during the playoffs. His recent feisty comments to the press about the possibility of being a platoon player this year seem to be getting a bit of “yeah, you talk big now” reaction from people but, you know, good for him. He’s pissed at himself for last season, but if it comes down to it, I really think he’ll gracefully accept a platoon with Kelly if that’s what’s best for the team. I respect him as a player, and I get irritated when fans inevitably start pinning the whole team’s failures on the fact that the Tigers keep letting Inge hang around and play good defensive third base.
And, let’s be honest, last year sucked. A lot. Even factoring in illness, it wasn’t pretty. Lowest average since his rookie season, .548 OPS, 3 home runs, 23 RBIs, and I could go on and on. The thing is, though, this is the same player who was an All-Star in 2009 because fans fought for it to happen. 27 home runs, .720 OPS, 84 RBIs . . . and a .230 average. .230, people. I hate BA as a statistic, but that is . . . very not good. That’s just Inge as a hitter. He’s up and down with the numbers but generally maintains an overall level of mediocrity that justifies keeping him around for his fielding. Still, it was pretty obvious that he was struggling early last season, even for him, but with a possible playoff spot on the line, a player who was championed less than two years ago, who has been loyal and supportive to the city and generally gets hearty cheers when he comes to the plate, started to get booed.
I bring up Inge in particular to make illustrated a broader, more troubling point about last season. Tigers fans have a twisted love for hating Inge and he became a crazy easy target for blame from the start, so the rise of the Inge haters wasn’t particularly surprising. It wasn’t even that surprising that nearly every Tigers fan on my Facebook feed felt that every problem with the team could be solved by shipping Inge (and Raburn) to a small tropical island. What did surprise me was the booing and the observation that, as the team won more games and a playoff spot looked to be a lock, it not only continued but spread. I wish I had been thinking of starting a blog at the time and had taken notes because I’ve lost track of how many different players got this treatment at home games, but I do know that there were instances in which I was truly speechless at the fans’ reactions to certain players. Good players. It reached a point where I was disgusted, embarrassed and just prayed that Austin Jackson would make contact with the ball because I couldn’t bear what would happen if he struck out. There was even a wonderful column in the Detroit Free Press addressing the issue, so I know I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
Booing the opposition isn’t cool, but booing your own team is completely uncalled for. It isn’t like players don’t know when they’re struggling and they definitely don’t like it. Psychologically, I’m sure it feels cathartic to be able to loudly express your displeasure, but it helps nothing. Absolutely nothing. Why, when you want someone to do better at their job, would you do the least supportive thing possible? For the player, the psychology of a slump is already a vicious cycle. You aren’t doing well, so you become frustrated, then overly aware of everything you’re doing, which leads to trying too hard, which means to more mistakes, and so on. Now let’s add the anticipation that, when you make a mistake, your fans will loudly express their displeasure, and you’re going to work even harder to avoid that. Hard work can correct problems, but there’s a fine line between working hard and overworking. They know they’re doing badly, their coaches are telling them this every day, and they don’t need you being nasty about it, too.
Supporting your team means supporting your players and cheering them on, even in the bad times. Sometimes that’s hard, but we need to all be adults and realize that every player can’t be great every day, and that every team can’t win every game. It doesn’t work like that, so suck it up and remember that players are people, that they’re probably actually doing a great deal to try to get better, and they’re ultimately the who are out there failing while the world watches.