Perhaps unknowingly, Phillies fans engaged in a fascinating sociological case study this season, uniting in a gesture that was at once heartwarming, compelling and weird by daring to ask: What if they cheered — instead of booed — a deeply struggling star player?
Maybe New York can learn from it, too.
Phillies shortstop Trea Turner and people around him, including those who know about New York baseball environments, credit his extreme turnaround in part to the events of Aug. 4. In the first year of an 11-year, $300 million contract, he was having the worst season of his career, lost at the plate and in his head about it. He had been dropped from second to, eventually, eighth in the batting order. His defense suffered along with his bat.
Then something bizarre happened. In the first game of a homestand, in the city that once pelted Santa Claus with snowballs at an Eagles game, an on-the-fly social media and sports-talk radio campaign resulted in regular boos getting replaced by a series of standing ovations and chants for Turner.
That night, he had an RBI single. The next day, he homered. Since then, he has hit .346 with a 1.096 OPS, 15 home runs and 36 RBIs in 40 games heading into Friday against the Mets.
“What transpired here is something I’ve never seen,” said Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long, who previously held that role with the Mets and Yankees. “I truly believe that it had a positive impact on where Trea was at the time.
“It helped him relax. You want the people who are coming to watch you the most to have your back. In your toughest moments, if they have your back, just think what they’re going to do when you start performing well.”
Turner said: “It allowed me to take a deep breath. It reminds you that you’re a good player and they know you’re a good player.”
In New York, as in Philly, booing is a time-honored tradition. Baseball fans in both markets are smart and committed, ruthless when they want to be, and have experienced enough hints of winning — including in the past generation — to know how much they want more.
In MetsLand, the past few years have been especially eventful on the jeering front, maybe to the point of toxicity. Their own highly expensive shortstop, Francisco Lindor, was such a target in 2021, his mediocre first season, that we experienced the thumbs-down episode with him and Javier Baez. Justin Verlander, a future Hall of Famer who arrived with immense hype and a record-tying salary, was mocked on his way off the mound in his Citi Field debut this year. Even Pete Alonso briefly was not immune.
But here is the catch: Booing does not help. At least not those on the field, the people whose success or failure so often determines the happiness level of those in the stands.
Booing might be cathartic for fans. They pay good money for tickets and jerseys and whatnot, so it is their right. Boo-ees often say, post-booing, that they understand and fans act that way only because they want better.
But Philadelphia has shown us that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s OK to remember that these guys are people with emotions and self-doubt, as much as they might want to pretend otherwise.
“You see what the impact of a positive environment can be for somebody,” Brandon Nimmo said. “A lot of times in sports, they — fans or people in general — think that if you beat somebody down, it will motivate them to be better and lift them up. But there’s a lot of [players] who don’t operate that way . . . You switch that and all of a sudden you start getting the most out of him. Maybe even more.”
What impact does booing have on a player who already knows he has been stinking?
“Guys, when they’re struggling, they think the world is caving in on them,” Long said.
Zack Wheeler, veteran of boos as a Mets and Phillies pitcher, said: “Certain guys can handle it. Certain guys can’t.”
And Nimmo: “You already have your self-voice that’s telling you you’re not doing your best and you need to be better. It’s more negativity on top of that.”
Keep that in mind next week — when the Mets come home to wrap up their disappointing season, and beyond — when All-Stars inevitably endure a brutally rough stretch.
A little love can go a long way.
As Turner said: “We’re all human. We feel things.”
“Usually guys will be able to come out of [slumps] sooner when they can just figure it out on their own terms,” Nimmo said, “and not have a bunch of pressure of, ‘You need to figure it out right now’ and it turns on them.”