Fan Reform    (09/06/00)

It's gotten out of control.  No, not the home run barrage - that seems to be slowing down considerably thanks to the dog days of August and the emergence of the next big wave of good young pitching.

No, it's the fans.  They are completely out of control.  This year, there have been 2 reprehensible incidents involving players and fans and BOTH were instigated by the fans.

The first was a Mid-May fracas between the Dodgers and Cub fans.  One of the fans grabbed back-up catcher Chad Kreuter's cap off his head.  Sounds harmless enough - a sophomoric prank.  Except the fan was utterly drunk and had very little control of his movement, so what he ended up doing was whacking Kreuter in the back of the head as hard as he could swing.  Kreuter took offense, turned around to confront his tormentor and the rest is on video.  Harsh words are exchanged as the confrontation expanded to include more players and fans and a melee ensued where several Dodger's players ended up in the stands wrestling with the fans.  Major League Baseball publicly frowned on the incident, fining and suspending many of the Dodger players for their part in the melee.  To add insult to injury, several of the fans involved have filed frivolous lawsuits against the Dodgers in an effort to extort money for a conflict they instigated.

The second incident occurred just a week ago.  Autograph-seeking fans surrounded Mets pitcher Rick Reed's family van while the pitcher and his family were trying to leave the parking lot.  When he refused their requests, citing that his little girl was not feeling well, the fans became incensed and attacked his van, pounding on it and rocking it.

The media pundits have called for better security.  But security, fines and suspensions aren't the solution, because the players aren't the problem.  The fans are.  Or at least these particular fans are.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents.  Worse still, they have been growing in frequency over the past 15 years.

Last year, Atlanta Braves coach Frank Pultz was hit in the head by a bottle thrown from the seats at Shea Stadium.  Several Mets fans spit on the wives of Brave's players during last year's playoffs.  Braves' reliever John Rocker was hit with batteries during the playoffs, both at Shea and Yankee Stadium, which was the fuel for his misguided diatribe in Sports Illustrated just months later.  (A little side note to that - isn't it ironic that, of all the "journalists" Sports Illustrated had to choose from to do the Rocker interview, that they chose the guy who just two months before had written an article for the magazine that, among other things, called Rocker a melonhead and a punk?).

On the AL side, Red Sox fans hurled a hailstorm of bottles onto the field when an umpire made a terrible call against them.  True, the call was one of the worst in history - I believe it was the Knoblauch phantom tag double play, where he actually missed the runner by nearly 2 feet - but throwing bottles?  Yes, throwing bottles harkens back to the early years of baseball.  In fact, it was because of bottle throwing that  the wire basket was installed at Wrigley Field 30 years ago.  But, it's also the reason that paper and plastic cups are now used at the ballpark for serving drinks.

Unfortunately, the fan misbehavior hasn't stopped there.  It's gotten downright dangerous.  In 1988, a fan at Yankee stadium threw a hunting knife at Wally Joyner - then with California - after an Angels victory.  Fortunately, the knife just grazed Joyner's arm and he escaped serious injury.  In 1996, a fan at Wrigley Field rushed Randy Myers on the mound after he had given up a game tying homer.  Myers decked him, but he had ample time to prepare as he could see him coming: the fan came from the seats on the first base side behind home plate.  Last year, a fan in Milwaukee leaped onto the field and tackled Houston Astro Bill Spiers as he was taking the field.  Spiers was shaken but unhurt by the ambush as security guards wrestled the assailant away fairly quickly.

But this is getting serious.  Is it gonna take a serious injury to a player before this becomes a serious issue?  As it stands now, the media and Major League Baseball cry havoc whenever a player gets out of control.  However, let a fan run amok and those same people merely say, "Bad fan", the way a doting mother addresses a spoiled child who just spit up on the neighbors couch.  No charges, no lawsuits, no lifetime bans... no repercussions.

It's time fans changed.  Enthusiasm is greatly welcomed.  Obscenity, belligerence and most of all violence, is not.  Your $20 ticket to a ballgame is not a license for anger therapy.  If your life is hard, or fate has conspired against you or you're just having a bad day, I'm truly sorry.  But that is no excuse to take your frustrations out publicly on another human being in the form of spiteful language or behavior.  You simply need to find a new way to channel your emotions.

I was at a Phillies game this year where a fan was getting out of hand.  He was shouting things at the players that would embarrass even Andrew "Dice" Clay.  Before the game, the public address announcer had stated that any unruly fans would be escorted out of the stadium and that if you found anyone who fit this description, to please notify the ushers.  Well, a number of people in our section, including several who had children present, did just that with regard to this guy.  As soon as the ushers showed up, no one on earth showed more contrition.  After much plea bargaining, he was allowed to stay, but only after he bought everyone in the section a beer and all the kids cotton candy.  Needless to say, his commentary after his absolution was much more family-friendly.

The moral of the story is that doing the right thing has more reward than you can possibly imagine.  I got a free beer for doing it.  We'll all get a better game.

(Editor's note: It has since come to my attention that the reason the screen was installed at Wrigley was not to prevent fans from throwing things on to the field (a la Oh Henry bars), but, according to Cubs' Media Relations, to prevent drunken fans from falling onto the field of play.  Apparently, a few years back it was not an uncommon occurence for Bleacher Bums to try to tightrope walk the wall during a game.  My apologies.)