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Do Phillies fans "owe" deference to players like Ryan Howard?

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A player is in a town for a long time. He gives the best efforts of his youth and adulthood to entertain people. He makes money, declines, and is in the twilight of his career. Must fans take it easy on the player?

Bet your plywood can't do this!
Bet your plywood can't do this!
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

An unhappy customer recently griped about an article I wrote comparing 2016 Ryan Howard to a 4x8 sheet of plywood. The article is here. As of today, it had 139 shares on Facebook, 1,713 votes in the poll, and it led the SABR-scored page view stats for TGP for a few days.

It was tongue in cheek, of course, but not without a kernel of truth that made it at least mildly fun to write and read. We all kvetch. We're fans, right?

In any case, the dissatisfied customer wrote the following in the comments:

Like all other players, he is past his prime. He never beat his wife, cheated, shop lifted cologne and underwear, etc., etc. Ryan Howard, former ROY and MVP is a class act, pro, gamer, and role model. He has dome much for the community and the Phillies Org….and you write this disrespectful garbage. Guess this is my last visit here, troll me at leisure I won’t return to read replies if any, and I hope some day Ryan finds out who the writer is, who’s too chickenshyt to use his real name, and smacks you over the head with said plywood, jack-off

I've written some really dumb stuff over the years that looks pretty appalling in retrospect, particularly my piece near the end of 2011 about the Phillies being fine for, essentially, forever and beyond. Oof. It's still funny to me.

I can take criticism -- one of the things I am most certain of here is that if I write something without thinking it through carefully, all of you will call me out on it within 3 comments. So I thought about the gist of the comment, and I wondered -- what do fans "owe" to players?

The baseline, I think, is to avoid threatening them, such as happened to Mitch Williams after the 1993 World Series. A certain amount of taunting invective may be OK, but you shouldn't step over the line. It's OK to boo. No, really. Sometimes, a player who mails it in deserves it. It's part of the fun to cheer heroes and bool at least the heels. Bonds? Cody Ross? Boo away!

Other pretty obvious rules: It is never OK to cheer an injury. It is never ok to threaten the player or a family member. Don't throw things at players although that seems like a waste of a beer.

A baseline for players, as established in the comment, is, and I paraphrase slightly: "don't beat your wife, don't cheat, and don't steal". I expect that from *everyone* not just baseball players, but OK. I'm down with that. In exchange, I give them the baseline all players get.

All pretty straightforward.

That said, I don't think any player, except one who is injured through no fault of their own, truly gets a free pass from criticism.  Players are free agents (when their indentured servitude is over).  Their careers are often short. This is their "shot" to make money. There are few "second acts" for most players. Around here, the size or length of a contract usually is waved off as a reason to criticize a player -- most folks at TGP take the perspective of "Hey -- if an owner gives them a contract, it isn't their fault for taking it." It's a millionaire taking money from a billionaire. None of us has a dog in that fight. That's pretty much where I'm at, too.

Since the end of 2011 -- four full seasons -- we've watched the Phillies major league team get worse and worse, culminating in the worst record in MLB last year. The teams were loaded with expensive players who were not performing at a level that would result in those contracts being re-awarded if a "do over" existed. People grumble about players who don't perform getting money and naturally compare the situation to their job, where if you perform poorly, you get canned. There is a disconnect with MLB practices there, but it is an understandable point of view.

Howard has taken his share of shots on this basis. Even if you set aside the "contract" issue, the bottom line is that Ryan Howard is an awful Major League Baseball player right now. And he's getting $25,000,000.00 for it. Because of baseball's collective bargaining, he can't be fired and lose that paycheck. I'm OK with that, but I don't have to like his performance. It isn't unfair for fans to talk about players, good or bad, is it? I am guessing the issue is how this is expressed - the "manners" of talking about bad players, if you will.

Because Ryan Howard was once good, roughly back in 2009, does that mean I should avoid criticism of him in 2016? No. Am I violating fan taboos by being critical of him? No. Is it ok if I point out that his fWAR over the last 4 seasons is -1.4? Is that unfair? No.

I suspect the beef here is that I didn't do the comparison in a dry, baseball analysis. Let me try expressing my sentiment in a different way, and see if it is less painful or perhaps kinder and more genteel:

Was that less unpleasant than wryly comparing him to a sheet of plywood? If he read the two articles side-by-side, which would be the harder to take?

Do we collectively have to look away and avoid facing the fact that he has been awful for years because he was exciting and fun to watch when he was young and healthy? Or that he is awful now? Is that written on the back of tickets? No.

And come on -- this doesn't excuse all asshole fan conduct, but Ryan Howard got paid. Seriously paid. And good for him, and for his family. That said, being high profile, with the rewards come the criticisms.  He got cheered. He was revered. He *still is* revered for *what he was*. We'll always cherish it.  I will always cherish it. I have no ill will for the guy. Nobody should be abusive toward the guy, but it does not justify, in my mind, ignoring that he is terrible or writing about it.

How then, should we write about it? What deference do we owe to the player?

We all kid each other -- about getting old, fat, our shortcomings. I'd rather deliver a message that way, than like this: "Ryan Howard is objectively awful, and here is the spreadsheet to prove it in excruciating detail." Unless the idea is to not talk about it at all, leavening that message with some humor would be the way I'd want to have it discussed. Your mileage may vary.