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Hi, my name is baseball, and I have a problem

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 22, 2003

In the commissioner's office, they are outraged. In the clubhouse, they are concerned. In the bleachers, they are ordering another round.

Baseball has a substance-abuse problem and it has nothing to do with Darryl Strawberry being loose on the streets.

For too long, the excessive consumption of beer has been a disgrace from row A to Z in our nation's stadiums and arenas. It's just that, lately, the outrage has left its seat and encroached on the field.

A fan in Oakland throws a cell phone from the upper deck and hits Rangers outfielder Carl Everett in the back of the head. A fan in Chicago scales a wall and tries to tackle first-base umpire Laz Diaz. A group of baseball officials wear grave faces and say there is little they can do.

That these incidents have occurred within days of one another does not make this an epidemic. Nor does it mean it should be blithely dismissed.

This is real and it is dangerous.

And the concern is it's getting worse.

There appears to be no fear among these dolts. No sense of shame, no glimmer of intelligence. They seem drawn by the lure of instant infamy and fueled by the bravura of alcohol.

Eric Dybas, the 24-year-old man who attacked the umpire in Chicago, says he wanted to outdo three fans who earlier had run around the field evading security. This, apparently, is how you separate aspiring fools from the seasoned ones.

The unemployed Dybas also claims he put in a full day's work at getting liquored up. Between a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and the White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field, Dybas said he drank at least a dozen beers.

At the same stadium, in nearly the same spot on the field, a father and his teenage son attacked Royals first-base coach Tom Gamboa in September. While Diaz escaped without injury, Gamboa still suffers from a slight hearing loss.

That episode, like last week's, was attributed to alcohol.

To say baseball has been slow to react would be misleading. The game's higher-ups have hardly reacted at all.

There have been the expected condemnations. Security officials have been flown in to monitor the situations. But nothing, really, has been done.

Baseball officials say it is impossible to monitor the conduct of thousands with a small security force. To some degree, this is true. Yet that does not mean baseball cannot be more diligent in its security attempts.

When it comes to making sure fans do not bring dangerous sandwiches or lethal peanuts into stadiums, teams seem to find enough security officers to work the front gates. You think, maybe, those special contraband guards could be more wisely deployed in the bleachers?

Even without a larger security force, teams could curtail many of these issues by curtailing the sale of beer.

Say it is naive. Say it is simplistic.

But can you honestly say it wouldn't make a difference?

Alcohol seems to be the common thread in many stadium-violence issues. The more fans drink, the more bold and irrational they become.

Already, the park has become a less family friendly environment. Language has gotten so raw and behavior so lewd, some stadiums have designated certain sections as family zones where alcohol is not served.

It's certainly a nice gesture, but shouldn't it be the other way around?

If baseball were truly serious about making ballparks a safer and more pleasant venue for players and fans, it would limit the number of beers a customer can buy. It would be difficult to come up with a foolproof system, but any attempt would at least make excesses more difficult.

This, of course, is not likely to happen.

Not when a team can get $5 or more for a 16-ounce beer.

You know how the players' union resists the idea of drug testing for performance-enhancing drugs even in the face of medical risk and death?

This is the same thing. The players are willing to turn a blind eye toward steroids because more home runs mean higher salaries. The owners are dragging their feet on unruly fans because more beer means higher profits.

Understand, these incidents are not new. Nor are they unique to baseball.

Football fans in Cleveland have used bottles as weapons to hurl on the field. The ice at the MCI Center was littered with debris after the Lightning beat the Capitals in Game 3 last week. University towns across the country have seen riots disguised as victory celebrations.

Accountability, ultimately, rests with individuals, with each person who thinks it is fun to storm a field, wise to overturn a car or harmless to toss a projectile.

But that does not mean leagues and teams do not have an obligation to provide a safe environment. The cost of safety cannot be too high.

This is not a happy hour.

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