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We Can't Give Up the Boos

Ryan Howard has been spared the fans' wrath. But it's coming.

Disappointment always needs an outlet. Welcome to Philadelphia, the outlet capital of America.

It was in 1967, I think, well after Dick Allen's infamous batting-cage confrontation with Frank Thomas. Connie Mack Stadium was unusually full. The Dodgers were in town. The Phillies were out of the race. And the fans were cynical and angry.

By then, Allen had come to embody everything Phillies fans disliked about their hapless team and a rapidly changing world. When he struck out that day, the booing grew so intense and loud that it shook the Coke I held in my hand. I remember that detail because the soda spilled and coated by new Chuck Taylors hi-tops with a syrupy glaze. I wouldn't wear them again without being reminded of how much my hometown hated my favorite player.

Few great Philadelphia athletes are spared. We don't care so much about the average player, but we love to boo those we love the most. Allen, Del Ennis, Wilt Chamberlian, Mike Schmidt, Charles Barkley, Eric Lindros, Donovan McNabb all were hoagie-town heroes who heard it. Some, like Reggie White and Julius Erving, never really did. But we at least held the threat in abeyance. We love our superstars passionately, but God forbid they disappoint us.  Then, just as their glory is ours, their disappointment is ours. We let them have it with a full-throated fury.

Ryan Howard isn't Dick Allen. He is accessible and upbeat. And the only thing weirdly enigmatic about him are those prolonged periods when his bat seems to have been dipped in the wood-repellent Ray Milland used in "It Happens Every Spring". He has helped the Phils win two pennants and a World Series. He's got plenty of IOUs in his pocket.

Even so, it's coming.

It probably won't happen until the Phillies experience some truly unexpected disappointment, like falling below  .500 and staying there, or a meaningless late-September, or a series-long beat-down by the Mets. But sooner or later Ryan Howard will be booed.

I don't mean the smattering of vocal sneers he sometimes hears now. I'm talking about deep-seated derision. It won't be nearly as bad as Allen heard, of course. The Phillies have changed and so has their fans' mindsets. Today's jersey-wearing masses have experienced a Broad Street parade. They aren't nearly as frustrated or angry as their long-suffering 1960s' counterparts. They'll cut Howard some slack. But don't think they won't turn on him.

Like all baseball fans, we love home runs. And we love the guys who hit them. The more they hit them, the more we love them. When Allen mashed a baseball into the North Philadelphia night, we were ecstatic. But we wanted him to do it all the time. I mean, what else did late-'60s Phillies fans have? So when he didn't, we focused instead on his shortcomings – his chronic mysteriousness, his defensive lapses, his strikeout total. And suddenly all our unhappiness about that era's Phillies came pouring out in the bile of boos.

It's different with Howard. And yet it's the same. He's more likable. Less polarizing. But he strikes out at a frequently prodigious pace. And should – no, when -- these Phillies eventually make us angry, Howard too will be the target of our discontent.