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From the stands, the battle lines are being drawn

photo
[AP photo: Ron Frehm]
A black stockade fence barrier and a blue awning have been added to isolate the visiting bullpen area from the bleachers at New York's Shea Stadium as a safety measure due to the presence of Atlanta reliever John Rocker. 

Mets' preparations for John Rocker underscore how much relations between fans and players have soured.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


Welcome to sports' other Interactive Age.

The one with batteries, bottles, beer and fists -- as opposed to computers, Web sites, links and a mouse -- and a border between the stands and field of play that seems to be no more impassible than the Rio Grande.

In other words, not at all.

So what's going to happen tonight at Shea Stadium? Can any amount of stadium security be enough? Will a two-beer minimum, imposed for the occasion, achieve anything?

It's John Rocker's return to New York and its foaming-at-the-mouth Mets fans, the Braves relief pitcher's first visit since his December diatribe in Sports Illustrated against homosexuals, AIDS patients, foreigners, minorities and single mothers riding the No. 7 subway train to Shea, and around the city in general.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of fans are certain to be thoroughly beered up before they ever reach the turnstiles. It's tough to imagine that not one will be armed with a projectile, that not one will sneak into the stadium a battery, bottle, rock; something with which to, ahem, make a statement.

"If one person in the crowd is doing something beyond the rest of the crowd and singling himself out, he can become a hero with his gang, his colleagues," said Dr. Gilbert Trachtman, professor of applied psychology at New York University. "In a ballpark, we're all one big temporary gang. It can backfire; people can boo or even attack (a violent fan). But in the athletic arena, anything like this is usually cheered.

"If players retaliate, they become even more an identified enemy for everybody," Trachtman said. "After that, throwing stuff on the field is normal behavior against a deeply hated enemy."

That was the evolution of the May 16 melee at Wrigley Field. A fan near the bullpen swiped Dodger catcher Chad Kreuter's cap, Kreuter and several teammates climbed over the low railing into the stands and fans responded by throwing punches and beer.

Twisted zeal

This is the era of, "I paid for my ticket; I can do whatever I want." Spectators, occasionally lubricated by alcohol, still confine most of their mayhem to the stands during the game or in the neighborhood after it: trashing downtown Detroit after the 1984 World Series; looting in Los Angeles 10 days ago.

But some fans view athletes, too, as fair game.

"Most fans root with a fervor, but when things go wrong on the field, for some it turns into a twisted zeal," catcher-turned-broadcaster Tim McCarver told the Washington Post.

There are countless incidents of fans firing objects, some lethal, at players, umpires and anyone else who might be on the field.

Batteries were thrown at Dave Parker, Pete Rose and other outfielders. Mickey Rivers was hit in the head with a bolt. Steve Howe was hit in the face with a 5-pound bag of flour. Fred Lynn said batteries, darts, grapefruits, whiskey bottles and golf balls whizzed past him. Juan Gonzalez mentioned batteries, keychains, lighters and crumpled pop cans. Dodgers pitchers in the bullpen in San Francisco reported being the target of batteries, ice cubes, golf balls, coins, chicken bones and condoms.

If the violence seems to be limited to baseball, to be relatively recent or to be a one-way street, it is not.

A metal object thrown from the stands in Denver last season hit Broncos cornerback Dale Carter, causing blurred vision. Detroit fans threw tomatoes at Cardinals outfielder Joe Medwick in the 1934 World Series. In 1886, umpire George Bradley was hit by a beer mug during a melee in Cincinnati.

Occasionally fans do more than throw objects. They throw themselves onto the playing field.

In 1995, a Cubs fan attacked reliever Randy Myers, who had just given up a tiebreaking home run. And in 1940, a Dodgers fan knocked down and pummelled umpire George Magerkurth (although there are reports that the fan was creating a diversion while his pickpocket partner worked the Ebbets Field stands).

The players' behavior toward the fans isn't always exemplary, either. Last season, Raiders tackle Lincoln Kennedy climbed into the stands after a game in Denver to confront snowball throwers. In 1995, Houston's Vernon Maxwell climbed 12 rows into the stands at an NBA game in Portland to punch a heckler in the jaw. In 1991, Charles Barkley spit on an 8-year-old girl (he was aiming for the heckler behind her). In 1912, Detroit's Ty Cobb went into the stands to throttle a heckler.

"There are all kinds of triggers that can understandably cause somebody to lose his cool for a minute," NYU's Trachtman said. "Look at what happened for a few years with the Knicks and Heat (in the NBA playoffs). Ballplayers knew if they came off the bench, they'd be suspended for the next two games. Still, they did it. What kind of mentality is that? ...

"Irrational as it can be, a certain action, a comment about you, your mother, or your race, or even your team, can throw you for a moment. It may be unforgivable and stupid, and yet it's understandable."

Fans imitating players

Rarely has a team, a city, been given so much time to prepare for the arrival of one athlete caught in the cross hairs of potential violence as New York and the Mets are for Rocker's return. J.D. Drew in Philadelphia, Eric Lindros in Quebec, Bryan Cox in Buffalo, Bill Laimbeer and Albert Belle anywhere: child's play.

All 56,521 seats at Shea Stadium are likely to be occupied tonight and for the rest of the Braves-Mets four-game series, particularly those overlooking the visitors' bullpen beyond the leftfield fence.

A police spokesman said 500 extra uniformed officers, along with the usual 60, plus plainclothes officers will be there. Is that enough?

Rocker apologized for his Sports Illustrated diatribe and was suspended by commissioner Bud Selig for the first 28 days of the season (reduced to 14 by an arbitrator). But on June6, he encountered SI reporter Jeff Pearlman, accused him of portraying the Braves closer in the worst possible light and made a veiled threat. The next day Rocker, who had been pitching ineffectively anyway, was banished to the minor leagues. Eight days later, he was back.

Since then he has been ... well, if not contrite, at least silent and on his best behavior. He said he would begin the Braves' visit by riding the No. 7 subway to Shea.

That's a reference to, and maybe even an apology of sorts for, one of his comments in the infamous interview: "Imagine having to take the 7 train looking like you're (in) Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing."

(New York's Daily News reported Wednesday that Major League Baseball informed the NYPD that Rocker would not ride the No. 7 train to Shea Stadium.)

Rocker's suspension, demotion and apparent contrition hardly are sufficient rebuke for Mets fans. To many, a couple of game-winning grand slams off him would be a nice start.

To some, nothing less than assault and battery will do.

Violence "is clearly on the rise," said John Byrnes, president of the Center for Aggression Management in Winter Park. "We have prizefighters taking bites out of their opponents' ears, baseball players spitting in umpires' faces, basketball players choking their coaches. It's no surprise that the fans are imitating the players. ...

"Don't think for a minute they're not tackling (along) with those people on the field. They're going through the same thing psychologically. It's like crying at a movie. These people are vicariously having adrenaline rushes through the players."

Byrnes said fan violence has escalated because as it does, it is considered acceptable behavior. "You wouldn't go to an airport and yell, "Bomb!' because they take that seriously," he said. "Not enough people take this stuff seriously."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Rocker returns to New York

  • WHAT: Braves at Mets, Game 1 of a four-game series, 7 tonight. It marks Atlanta reliever John Rocker's first appearance in New York since he insulted the city.
  • TV: FSN and TBS.
  • NOTES: Rocker had said he would ride the No. 7 train to games, but he may have been persuaded not to. Major League Baseball told police Rocker would not take the subway, the New York Daily News reported. In addition to the usual 60 officers, an extra 500 uniformed police and an unspecified number of plainclothes officers will be at Shea Stadium. The Mets are installing a canopy over the visiting bullpen to protect Rocker from projectiles.
  • OFFBEAT: Mets reliever Turk Wendell approached reporters Tuesday wearing a riot helmet, complete with shield. "I'm ready for Rocker," he said. "I've been waiting to break this out for a special occasion."

Jeers through the years

Some notable moments of aberrant behavior by fans and athletes:

  • 1886: Umpire George Bradley is hit by a beer mug during a riot at a Cincinnati Reds game.
  • 1912: Detroit's Ty Cobb climbs into the stands to choke a heckler. Several teammates follow.
  • 1934: Detroit fans throw tomatoes at Cardinals outfielder Joe Medwick at the World Series.
  • 1940: A Dodgers fan pummels umpire George Magerkurth on the field.
  • 1949: A barrage of bottles from fans protesting a call by umpire George Barr over a trapped fly ball results in the Phillies forfeiting the game to the Giants.
  • 1961: A fan at Yankee Stadium charges Jimmy Piersall. The Indians centerfielder kicks him in the butt.
  • 1971: An inebriated fan runs onto the football field in Baltimore and tries to swipe the football. Colts linebacker Mike Curtis becomes an instant celebrity by flattening him.
  • 1986: Red Sox traveling secretary Jack Rogers is bloodied when hit in the head with a beer bottle as Mets fans celebrate the World Series.
  • 1991: NBA star Charles Barkley, aiming for a heckler, spits on an 8-year-old girl behind the heckler in a game at New Jersey.
  • 1991: Indians outfielder Albert Belle throws a foul ball at a heckler, hitting him in the chest.
  • 1993: Tennis star Monica Seles is stabbed by a fan of her rival, Steffi Graf.
  • 1995: Houston's Vernon Maxwell climbs into the stands in Portland and punches a heckler in the jaw.
  • 1995: Pitcher Jack McDowell responds to booing at Yankee Stadium by giving fans the finger.
  • 1995: Angels DH Chili Davis goes into the stands in Milwaukee and pokes a heckler in the face.
  • 1995: A Cubs fan attacks reliever Randy Myers, who had just given up a tiebreaking home run.
  • 1995: Football fans at Giants Stadium hurl dozens of snowballs at the Chargers' sideline. One knocks San Diego equipment manager Sid Brooks unconscious.
  • 1996: A hunting knife thrown out of the Yankee Stadium stands grazes the arm of Angels infielder Wally Joyner.
  • 1999: A metal object thrown from the stands at Mile High Stadium in Denver hits Broncos cornerback Dale Carter in the cheek, causing blurred vision and a bruise.
  • 1999: Raiders tackle Lincoln Kennedy climbs into the stands in Denver to confront snowball-throwing fans.
  • 1999: Fans at Wrigley Field protest an umpire's call by pelting the field with baseballs, bottles, coins and beer. No one is arrested but 75 are ejected.
  • 1999: Braves coach Frank Pultz is hit in the head by a bottle at Shea Stadium.
  • 2000: A melee breaks out at Wrigley Field after a fan swipes Los Angeles catcher Chad Kreuter's cap and several Dodgers climb into the stands to pursue him.

Compiled by Times researcher John Martin.

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