Let me just preface this by saying that booing a pitcher for not doing his job doesn’t help him one bit. It decreases his morale, shrinks his self-confidence and frustrates him to no end. It makes matters worse if he’s putting in extra effort and trying his best to rectify the situation, yet still gets booed. There’s probably no worse feeling in the world than walking off the mound toward the dugout to a chorus of boos and chants of “you suck” raining down from the stands.
But in the case of Jim Johnson facing the wrath of the A’s fanbase, I’m siding with the fans and their right to boo to their hearts’ content.
For the general public, the world of sports is very results-oriented. And in today’s society, it’s more “what have you done for me lately?” Fans are extremely impatience with a player’s struggles these days. Your closer blows a save? Start looking at options to replace him. Your starter gives up six runs in a start? Send him to the bullpen. Your starting second baseman goes 1-for-12 in a series? Scratch him for a few games. In a fan’s mind, they are investing their precious time and money to watch their team play, and if a player isn’t meeting their expectations, they feel cheated in a sense. Fans don’t care about “potential,” or “hoping that things will pan out.” They don’t have the time or the patience for that. Fans want it all, and they want it now.
If they don’t get it, they’re going to make their voices heard. And if they still don’t get it over a longer period of time, they’re going to get louder and louder. Their boos will be in greater unison and increasing in volume. Twitter will explode. Forum posts on the player will increase exponentially. Anything to let the player know, “We’re not happy with you and we want you to get the message.”
Exhibit A of all this can be seen with Johnson and A’s fans. Even before he threw a pitch, fans weren’t happy about Johnson’s arrival because the A’s had essentially gotten rid of Grant Balfour, their popular closer, for Johnson. Everybody loved Balfour for more than the fact that he was a pretty darn good pitcher. Whenever he entered a game, fans would go into “rage-mode,” imitating Balfour’s reckless attitude. He would often talk to himself on the mound, letting loose an f-bomb or two after a bad pitch. Balfour was unique, rare, and one-off. He fit the bill of the team perfectly, and A’s fans cherished him.
But then he was let go in free agency this past offseason, as the A’s chose to acquire Johnson from Baltimore. Sure, Johnson had an impressive resume, leading the majors in saves the past two seasons. Sure, fans knew better than to question Billy Beane’s roster decisions. However, there was still some uncertainty in the air. Johnson also led the league last season in a dubious category with nine blown saves. He was joining a new team, and being put in an important role for a club with championship aspirations. More importantly, from a fan’s perspective, he was not Grant Balfour, the closer who was loved and respected. He was Jim Johnson, the closer who needed to deliver results immediately in order to appease the fans and rectify the team’s decision to get rid of Balfour.
When the results didn’t come, the ire started immediately – as in, the very first game of the season. It was the home opener against the Indians, and Johnson came into a scoreless game to pitch the ninth in his A’s debut. It was not a save situation, but an important one nonetheless; preserving the tie would be pivotal, especially this late in the game. But he walked the first batter he faced, Asdrubal Cabrera. Then David Murphy singled. Then Johnson hit Yan Gomes to load the bases with no one out. Nyjer Morgan hit a sac fly to give the Indians the lead, and then Nick Swisher singled to bring in an insurance run. Bob Melvin had seen enough, and walked out to the mound to bring in Fernando Abad. But as he took the ball from Johnson and the tall righty sauntered to the dugout, the crowd began to boo. Yes, A’s fans booed Jim Johnson, their closer, in his first game – his first inning, in fact.
It hasn’t gotten any better since then. The very next night, he allowed three runs in the ninth and blew the save, prompting more boos. He was eventually booted from the closer’s role, and wound up pitching mostly in blowouts. His ERA sits at an alarming 6.55, not a good look for the second highest-paid player on the team at $10 million. On Thursday, Johnson came into a game against the Tigers with the A’s down by a run in the seventh. He promptly allowed three straight hits, gave up two runs, and after getting through the inning, walked back to the dugout to the same boos that he has unfortunately become accustomed to in his short time with the A’s.
Any observer would feel sorry for Johnson. The boos are definitely getting to him; his home ERA is 14.04, while his road ERA sits at a robust 1.98. He has pitched more innings on the road as well: 13.2 away as opposed to 8.1 at home. He obviously feels more comfortable on the road, facing less pressure to perform to fans’ expectations.
A’s players are chiming in in defense of Johnson. Josh Donaldson went as far as questioning the fanbase.
“I get that these guys paid for their seats,” he told Jane Lee of MLB.com. “I don’t care what they do. At the same time, I know it makes me think different of our fans. There was a time when we were all kind of one, which made it so special. We fed off them, they fed off us. Now what?”
And here’s what Sean Doolittle had to say:
“The very first sign of trouble, they were jumping down his throat and booing him off the field. We were looking at each other going, ‘What?’ We don’t do this here.”
Look, I appreciate Donaldson and Doolittle defending their teammate. But what they’re saying about fans “not doing this here” or sticking by the team is not realistic. Fans are not blind. Yes, they support their team and come out to the ballpark every night, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have expectations. It doesn’t mean they have no right to boo a player who is being paid a lot of money to replace an extremely popular closer, and he doesn’t perform even close to those expectations. What are they supposed to do? Cheer after every blown save?
Also, it’s not like A’s fans are unique in booing one of their own. Several recent examples in the Bay Area come to mind. Look at Alex Smith after he was drafted No. 1 overall by the 49ers and was so horrid in his first few seasons that fans called for David Carr to replace him. Or how about Barry Zito after signing that albatross of a contract with the Giants and underperforming mightily? How many times was he booed off the mound? Both Smith and Zito faced high expectations before coming to their new teams. Both were booed and criticized to an extreme extent when they failed to deliver. But ultimately, both were celebrated after Smith took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game and Zito played a major role in the Giants winning the a World Series.
Johnson faces a similar challenge as Smith and Zito, and believe it or not, there’s not a single A’s fan – even the ones who are booing him – who doesn’t want him to turn things around. If and when he starts pitching well, those boos will turn to cheers, and nearly everything about his poor start with the A’s will be forgotten. Just like Smith’s early career is now a thing of the past. Just like a majority of Zito’s years with the Giants have been absolved.
Fans want it all, and they want it now. And maybe, just maybe, Jim Johnson will give the fans what they want.