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Paul Kengor / Sep. 10, 2013

Bad Sports: Virtue & Vice at the Ballpark

“If there be (no virtue among us), we are in a wretched situation.” –James Madison

This isn’t a year for complaints about the Pirates. So, forgive me while I complain not about the Pirates but a certain element of Pirates fans. This “element” is not unique to Pirates fans; it’s symptomatic of many fans nationwide and, sadly, our culture and nation at large.

I’m prompted by a recent piece in the Trib sports section (“Biertempfel: In left field, they have Pirates’ backs,” Aug. 4), accompanied by a photo. The photo captured Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday being taunted, mocked and jeered by Pirates fans after a ball bounced off his glove and into the bleachers, giving Andrew McCutchen a home run. The image is ugly: children, men, women, young and old, faces contorted, making hand gestures and hissing at Holliday.

They appear in all shapes and sizes, skinny and fat, barefaced and unshaven – united in their nastiness. Other than their vitriol, the one thing they share is that not one could have caught the ball Holliday chased down, certainly not without tripping like fools into the left field wall. For that matter, none could hit a ball like Holliday.

It reminded me of hecklings past. I’ve never forgotten a moment when a college roommate unloaded on an innocent member of the opposing team’s bullpen at Three Rivers Stadium. The poor pitcher had done nothing other than sit with a visible name on his jersey. That was enough for my roommate to unleash himself on this fellow’s character. The unsuspecting ballplayer did his best to ignore the unmerited insults. My buddy kept it up: “Hey, (name deleted), you (expletive deleted)!” I told him to knock it off.

I recall a later game my wife and I attended. A young Hunter Pence was in right field for the Astros. An unattractive threesome decided to have some “fun.” Pretending to applaud Pence and cheer him on, they got his cheerful attention. Once they did, the bile flowed. A stunned Pence was unsure how to react. Even crueler were the fans observing the spectacle. They laughed and joined in, relishing the wretched display.

I felt bad for Pence. He was green, unseasoned in assimilating the hate that athletes must endure with heroic virtue in the onslaught of vicious fans harboring no virtue at all.

In the end, it really comes down to that – virtue vs. vice.

To overflow with vice is to be vicious. That’s what I too often see at the ballpark. Certain fans can be not only mean but craven. Imagine the cowardice: The fan is unrestrained. So long as he doesn’t physically assault the much stronger ballplayer, his behavior is largely unchecked by authorities or conscience. The ballplayer, however, must instantly become a paragon of virtue, turning the other cheek and enduring a litany of barbs from vulgarians slopping down beers and choking down hotdogs and nachos.

If he dares to react in the way he ought to be forgiven for reacting, he will find himself attacked not just by the protected cowards who couldn’t hit a curveball but by ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Twitter and every sports show in America. That athletes don’t react, or do so only rarely, is an extraordinary testament to their character.

“Each new generation,” says John Howard, senior fellow at the Howard Center for Family, Religion, & Society, “must be trained to be virtuous.” Unfortunately, laments Howard, society today “is such that becoming virtuous is a monstrous chore.”

When virtues are not inculcated – at home, at school, in media and in popular culture – they lay desiccated upon the national landscape and we are in a wretched situation. The ballpark is no exception.

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