Blaming the fans

KANSAS CITY – Some years ago, guess it’s been almost 20 years by now, I wrote one of those columns that I suspect just about every young columnist writes … and later regrets. I’ve written many of those kinds of columns, of course -- I believe that comes with the territory of always trying to be as honest as you can. This particular column happened in Cincinnati back in 1995. The Reds had reached the postseason. And those October games were not sold out. There were thousands of empty seats.

So, I ripped the fans.

I mean I ripped the fans good. How could they not sell out an October baseball game? This was supposed to be a baseball town? How could this happen? I don’t remember much of the column because I have repressed it, but I do remember the gist of the ending. It was something charming like, “Cincinnati is where professional baseball began. That’s good because it died here last night.” The reaction from Cincinnati people was measured in the way that the townspeople reaction to the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast" was measured. I remember when I got to the ballpark the next day, my friend Marty Brennaman came up to me and said, “I read what you wrote. I’m going to take a piece of your hide on the radio.” I assume he did. Calls poured in. Letters so hot they burned at the touch showed up. I was a new columnist then, and I thought I understood the reaction. I thought people were angry because I had criticized them. Hey, I caused a reaction, right? It couldn't have been too bad.

But, like I say, a lot of years have gone by. And I realize now that it was bad. It was not my criticism that sparked their anger. It was the brazen stupidity and incoherence of what I had written. I had missed the whole point.

I think about this today because Tuesday night, Royals manager Ned Yost – in the moments after what was perhaps Kansas City’s signature baseball victory in 20 years – decided to unload on Royals fans for not showing up. You can go to the most excellent Sam Mellinger to get a full recap of Yost’s blundering nonsense, but I think the essence can be condensed into his sarcastic, “I mean, what, 13,000 people got to see a great game?” opening shot. He then celebrated Atlanta baseball fans for their loyalty in 1991 when the team finally got good. And finally this: “We’ve been working on trying to build this team for the last three or four years to put ourselves in a position where we can contend for a championship … It’s really, really important we have our fans behind us at the stadium.”

Well, every year we'll get two or three of these blunders from managers or players. It's early morning on Wednesday, so the fallout has not yet come but it's obvious how it will go. First, the statement will be widely discussed – fans lambasting Yost, a few fans will counter that he has a point and Kansas City fans must represent, other fans will lambaste those fans – and before the day’s out we’ll have Yost backtracking from the statement, probably saying he was speaking emotionally, and it was misunderstood and he loves the Kansas City fans and just wants them to be a part of things.

But I’m not sure he will get, even then, why what he said was so insulting and stupid. I didn’t get it for a long time.

First, there are the obvious things. One, you can’t win a few games and expect people to just stop their lives for you. This was one of my big mistakes in 1995. I saw things through a telescope, missing all that was around me. That was the year after the strike, and I would argue that no city in America was hit as hard by the baseball strike as Cincinnati. That’s a working class city, and the strike happened with the Reds in first place, and you bet there was lingering bitterness. You can’t kick a customer in the face like that and then get angry when they don’t come back. Tickets are expensive. Families make plans. School night is school night. The real question I should have been asking in 1995 was not why there were empty seats but why anyone had shown up at all. Marty was right. I deserved to have a piece of my hide taken on the air.

Yostnoy’s complaint, if possible, was even more illogical. It showed a fundamental misunderstanding how baseball tickets are sold.

1. A large percentage of tickets sold are season tickets – those were sold way back in the offseason and are unaffected by the Royals recent surge.

2. A large percentage of tickets sold are bought well in advance – that's why certain nights of the week do way better than other nights. Tuesday night games tend to be some of the smallest crowds of the week for obvious reasons. Bill James, years ago, wrote about the myth that Nolan Ryan drew significantly more fans to the ballpark. People, for the most part, don’t say “Hey, Nolan Ryan’s pitching tomorrow night, let’s all go out.” They say, “Hey, we’re free next Friday night, let’s go to the game.”

3. Families build their plans around their children’s schedules – and school started this week. I wouldn’t take my kids to a night ballgame on the first week of school if Lou Gehrig and Satchel Paige came back to play. Well, MAYBE if Lou Gehrig and Satchel Paige came back – but for a late August Royals-Twins game? Are you bleepin’ kidding me? Again, the question was not why there were empty seats. The question was why anyone at all showed up.

There were other problems with Yost’s statements. He talked being there the extraordinary loyalty of 1991 Braves fans when that team came out of nowhere and jumped into first place. Well, I was there too – the fans DID get excited about the Braves. In September. In late August, for a Montreal series that ended up putting the Braves in first place, there were back-to-back nights of 12,000 and 15,000.

What’s more, I was at their first home World Series game – the first EVER in Atlanta – and that game went into extra innings. Fans POURED out of that stadium before the end. I mean there were so many people leaving before the game was decided that I finally left the press box and just watched the march to the parking lot. It was like Godzilla had attacked the stadium. And this was, again, at the first World Series game in Atlanta history. And the game was tied at the time.

My thought then was, “Wow, Atlanta fans are not the best.” But that’s because I was young. And this, finally, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with blaming fans for anything: The fans are right. I don’t mean they are right in the “customer’s always right” sense, though that’s true too. What I mean is that fans aren’t a PART of spectator sports. Fans are the REASON for spectator sports.

Let’s see if I can get this concept down right because I admit it’s somewhat blurry: Every year people moan about the choices the fans make for the All-Star Game. I don’t anymore. Why? Because it occurs to me that whoever the fans choose is the right choice. The fans, by definition, cannot be wrong about the game they define. I might think another player has a better case to start in the All-Star Game, but that is a different argument. The fans are never wrong about who will start in the All-Star Game. I’m wrong.

Let’s try again: If more fans buy one book than any other, it goes to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. If more fans go to a movie than any other, it becomes the No. 1 grossing movie. If more fans buy one song than any other, it shoots to the top of the ITunes list. People can and do complain about the choices of these lists and what they say about society, but what they’re not complaining about the lists themselves. The lists are reflections of the fans wishes. The fans define those lists. They cannot be wrong. A director who moans that more people should have watched his or her movie is not just ludicrous, he’s by definition wrong. Exactly as many fans watched the movie as watched the movie.

When 13,000 or so fans showed up for the Royals game Tuesday night, that was what the Royals had wrought. They had not engaged more fans. They had not played well enough to draw a bigger crowd. They had not done a good enough job making the product good enough to draw a bigger crowd. They had not inspired enough hope. They had schedule a game on a Tuesday night after school started.

The fans have no responsibility here – the fans are the whole point of the game. You want more fans, try lowering ticket prices. You want more fans, try being a bit more active in the community. You want more fans, try getting into first place more once once or twice every quarter century. You want more fans, go get a job in a bigger market. You want more fans, make the game more interesting or don’t play on Tuesday nights or show Guardians of the Galaxy between innings. These things might work, they might not, but the point is that to think of fans as anything other than the defining purpose of all this is to misunderstand the game. How many people you draw to a game is not a reflection on the people. It's a reflection, entirely, on you.

A sales person cannot blame people when he falls short of his quarterly quota. A writer cannot blame people for not buying her book. A president cannot blame people for losing hope. The very JOB is those people.

That’s what I did not understand when I was young and in Cincinnati. That’s what Ned Yost did not understand Tuesday night. Heck, a lot of fans might not have shown up Tuesday night because they have no faith that Yost can pilot this team to a division title, and they don’t want to have their hearts stomped on again. Look inward, Ned. In any case, I suspect a lot of people will take a piece of his hide for this. That’s OK. It taught me.