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Original Issue


The fans' taunting of athletes keeps getting more and more vile

In my day, they just called you a bum.

It's hard to imagine a nicer place on earth this Monday evening in May than Fenway Park. The weather is warm, the air is faintly fragrant with the perfume of lilacs, the Boston Red Sox are in first place, and 29,000 fans have come to watch the home team play the Milwaukee Brewers. Many of them are savoring a close, well-pitched game. Then, in the fourth inning, the Red Sox's struggling designated hitter, Jack Clark, whiffs for the third out.

"You lousy, overpaid piece of——!" yells one young lout in the bleachers. "Sit down and——." Here, gentle reader, the man suggests that the batter should perform an acrobatic sexual act.

In the next inning Mike Marshall steps to the plate. He is hitting a mere .333, but as many fans know from reading the newspapers, he would like to play more often. Marshall pops up. "So what are you——complaining about, you——?" shouts another boorish fan. What would Miss Manners—not to mention Mrs. Mike Marshall—have to say about such a remark?

While most people who attend sporting events conduct themselves in a decorous manner, there has been, in recent years, an undeniable slippage in the behavioral standards of many fans. The sort of epithets shouted at Clark and Marshall are commonplace nowadays, and they can frequently be heard in ballparks and arenas across the land. People feel free to say anything to a player, and they often do. Says Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Dale Murphy, "It has become a little more personal, a little more profane, a little more vulgar, and sometimes it's just plain sick. Players always say, 'Just ignore it. If you say anything, it'll get worse.' But it has gotten worse; worse than it ever was."

Consider these recent scenes at America's ballparks:

•Cleveland Stadium, May 10. Indians outfielder Albert Belle, a recovering alcoholic who was once known as Joey Belle, had just returned home from a West Coast swing during which he was harassed by fans who shouted racial insults and made references to his drinking problem. In the seventh inning of a game against the Angels, a Cleveland fan named Jeff Pillar yelled from a seat near Belle's position in leftfield, "Hey Joey, keg party at my house after the game. C'mon over." Belle heard the taunt and reacted viciously, picking up a baseball and hurling it into Pillar's chest from a distance of 15-20 feet. (Three days later, fans wearing T-shirts with bull's-eyes on the fronts and ALBERT BELLE FAN CLUB on the backs began showing up in the leftfield stands. American League president Bobby Brown, less amused, suspended Belle for seven games without pay.)

•Yankee Stadium, May 13. Early on the morning of May 10, Oakland Athletics rightfielder Jose Canseco, always a magnet for controversy, had been spotted by a New York Post photographer emerging from pop singer Madonna's Manhattan apartment building. Consequently, Canseco found himself on the tabloid's front page. While Canseco stood in the on-deck circle in the first inning, a fan named Kenny Shabs reportedly unleashed a stream of bigoted and salacious insults from a box seat. After lining out, Canseco made a beeline for Shabs and began yelling and pointing at him before being restrained by A's manager Tony La Russa and some of his teammates. For the rest of the game, hundreds of fans in the rightfield seats shouted insults and made obscene gestures at Canseco. Some of them threw bottles and pieces of fruit at him. Said Canseco after the game, "I don't mind basic heckling. But when it gets into your private life, it's uncalled for."

•Candlestick Park, May 13. The Phillies—without centerfielder Lenny Dykstra and catcher Darren Daulton—had just arrived for a three-game series against the Giants. A week earlier Daulton and Dykstra had been seriously injured when Dykstra, who was charged with drunk driving, lost control of his car while driving home from teammate John Kruk's bachelor party. As Kruk took his position in leftfield, Giants fans waved car keys at him, and someone yelled, "Where's Lenny? He out drinking?" Said Kruk, "It was all I could do not to go into the stands and hit somebody. They were making fun of two friends of mine who were almost killed. If one of those fans' friends got hurt, would I yell at them? Don't tell me they haven't had a few drinks when they say that stuff. How do they get home? And if they wrecked, should I bad-mouth them? It gets out of hand, the things they say; things about my wife. It gets to you after a while."

•Yankee Stadium, May 15. California Angel outfielder Luis Polonia, convicted by a Milwaukee court in 1989 of a misdemeanor charge for having sex with a 15-year-old girl, was taunted by fans who made graphic reference to the Milwaukee incident. A few even threw chicken bones at him. Last July, at a game in Oakland, Polonia reacted to a similar situation by hitting a young fan. This time, wisely, Polonia didn't react.

As president of both the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Braves, Stan Kasten has a good vantage point from which to assess the situation. "Fans have gotten out of hand," he says. "They are getting away with things that, if they did them on the street, would be called assault. It isn't good for the games, the players, the fans." There never was a time when all fans were well behaved, of course, but athletes, generally speaking, used to be treated with much more respect than they are today. Joe DiMaggio was right: "Bum," as in "Ya bum, ya," was usually the worst a player ever heard. In 1951, Brooklyn Dodger relief pitcher Ralph Branca gave up baseball's most famous home run, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, to Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants. Yet he hardly ever heard about it from the fans after that. Recalls Branca, "To be truthful, I don't remember anybody getting on me because of the homer." Cut to 1988 and Game 1 of the World Series, when Athletics relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley gave up the dramatic, game-winning, ninth-inning home run to Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Says Eckersley, "People just try to hurt me. Every time I warm up they say, 'Kirk Gibson.' "

What in the world has happened to the sports fan? That question is, in part, an answer. The world has changed, and the yahoo fan and the retaliating athlete may just be reflections of an angrier era. Says Chaytor Mason, a behavioral psychologist at the University of Southern California, "We live in a more hostile time. We're expressing ourselves in ways we didn't used to. Before World War II we were nicer."

There's more to it than that, of course. Alan Fiske, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, sees the abusive fan as someone "who's feeling small and anxious because of life's problems. Here's a hero out there, and he's probably not going to attack you, and you can humiliate him, defeat him verbally. It's a peculiar way of defeating a person of high status." Money has a lot to do with that status. When athletes get their ears singed, they are, in a sense, paying for their multimillion-dollar salaries.

"The public's perception of players has changed," says Mets second baseman Tommy Herr. "We were once thought of as role models or great athletes. Now we're just looked upon as rich. That provokes hostility. There's more of it in baseball because we're average-looking people. We're not six-foot-nine guys playing basketball or 250-pound linebackers. We're the same size as fans, and we do something that looks relatively simple." As if the money weren't enough to provoke jealousy, there are the late-night meetings with rock stars, the Mercedeses and Porsches, the demands to renegotiate already lucrative contracts. Fans may also feel betrayed when their favorite star heads off for greener pastures; they expect a player to show the same loyalty to the team that they do.

Another reason fans are getting more personal is that they have more ammunition. There are, first and foremost, the myriad statistics that are flashed on the scoreboards and printed in the newspapers. The scrutiny doesn't stop on the field. If an athlete suffers from some form of physical or emotional distress, be it drug or alcohol addiction, Tourette syndrome or hemorrhoids, the public hears about it. If he gets into a fight outside a bar, carries on an adulterous affair or steals a pizza, the public may well get wind of that, too. "Fans have a lot more to work with," says Boston Bruin coach Mike Milbury. "Television, the print media and talk shows examine every minor detail of a player's life. There used to be some sort of sanctity."

Make no mistake: The players who hear the abuse feel it. "It hurts like hell sometimes," says Milbury, who was unmercifully booed toward the end of his playing career with the Bruins. Allan Lans, the team psychiatrist for the New York Mets, says, "The players' distrust and their pain is acute. It's very difficult to play in an environment where you are being examined all the time." But, as Lans also notes, "That's a part of being a major leaguer."

While there are many reasons why fans are more abusive, there is still no excuse for the player who goes into the stands or who fires a baseball at a fan. What Belle did was reprehensible, and a longer suspension would have been warranted, if only to warn other players to calm down. Instead, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis said, "Albert should have hit the guy in the head," and Reds pitcher Norm Charlton suggested that the league players take up a collection to cover Belle's lost income.

Fortunately, there are cooler heads who realize that retaliation is not the answer. Says New York Yankee rightfielder Jesse Barfield, "They can say anything they want to, I don't care. They paid to see me, and I have to conduct myself in a manner suited to kids. Hecklers just give me an incentive to do better. Hit a three-run homer or throw somebody out at the plate, and that shuts them up better than anything. Jose [Canseco] should have just gone back into the dugout."

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," says Boston's Wade Boggs, who should know. Boggs has been a constant target of fan ridicule since details of his extramarital affair with Margo Adams were divulged in 1989. "I've heard it all," says Boggs. "After a while, it doesn't bother you."

But it obviously bothers a lot of other players. A's pitcher Eric Show thinks of a baseball crowd as "a bunch of dirt-mouthed, uncivilized, uneducated people." No wonder Oakland vice-president Sandy Alderson says, "There's a greater distance now between players and fans than ever before." And unless something is done to curb the abusive behavior—and the animosity players feel toward the public—that gap will continue to grow.

At the heart of the matter is the public's right to free speech and the athlete's right to be allowed to perform. Fans shouldn't have to sit quietly during a game, but neither should players have to endure personal abuse. Alderson, who has a degree from Harvard Law School, says, "The fans have a wide latitude of expression that has to be recognized. But they also have to recognize that there is a limit at some point. Once that line is crossed, the players have a right to have that limit enforced. It seems now that players and fans are feeling their way towards a definition of that limit."

NBA commissioner David Stern also recognizes the quandary. Says Stern, "There has to be a line drawn in all sports, between what you are allowed to shout because you paid for a ticket and what is unacceptable no matter what you paid. We have to begin drawing that line now."

That won't be an easy task. Already, legal experts are choosing sides. Now batting for freedom of expression, Floyd Abrams, a New York City attorney known for his work on First Amendment cases: "As a general matter, teams that own ballparks would be quite within their powers to limit certain kinds of conduct, including speech. To say that it is legal is not to say that it is necessarily wise. It wouldn't be baseball if you couldn't cry 'Kill the umpire.' People ought to lighten up a little bit. Once we start defining what words may or may not be said at a ballpark, we'll be cutting into the uninhibited nature of ballpark repartee. Players ought to learn to take it rather than advocate steps that can dampen the excitement and vigor of language used at games."

Pitching for restraint, Mari Matsuda, professor of law at UCLA: "It's no longer permissible to put up a whites-only sign outside ballparks. If you allow racist comments in ballparks, that's the functional equivalent of putting up such a sign. Certain words are wounding and degrading. We clearly wouldn't allow a fan to throw something at a player, and there are certain symbols such as swastikas and burning crosses and the most incendiary words—we all know what they are—that are the equivalent to slugging someone. It should be permissible to limit them."

Drawing the line will be a complex, unwieldy, perhaps even impossible job. Can anything else be done to curb this trend? Dale Murphy suggests that stadiums and arenas 1) post signs to encourage civility, and 2) employ monitors to discourage troublesome fans. There may be some merit in those suggestions. More could also be done to restrict the amount of drinking at sporting events, and beer with low or no alcohol content should be made more readily available.

Perhaps the best solution, though, is education, both for the fans and the athletes. A conscientious effort by baseball is needed to make fans more sensitive and players less sensitive. The boorish fan should be made aware, perhaps through public-service announcements, that he is ruining the game for the people around him. As for the player who wants to take matters into his own hands, he should be advised that his actions not only encourage the jerks but also jeopardize the player's livelihood. Sooner or later—and it looks like sooner—an athlete is going to be hit by a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by a fan he went after at a game.

In the meantime, the rest of us must sit and suffer the fools. On that Monday evening in the Fenway Park bleachers a few drunken fans roared obscene insults at ballplayers, threw rolls of toilet paper onto the field and sexually harassed women in the crowd. A young man wearing a torn black shirt with the words THEATRE OF PAIN on it walked up and down the aisles, screaming inarticulately while raising a clenched fist in the air. He said his name was Joe and that he did this "because I want people to have a good time." Yet in the fifth inning of a taut 1-0 game, he had no idea what the score was or who Boston was playing.

In the midst of this scene sat Billie Manning and her nine-year-old son, Kenny. This was her first Red Sox game in 10 years, and she and Kenny were having a hard time keeping their minds on the game. "I don't think my son should have to listen to obscenities," said Manning. She said she wasn't sure she would ever come back.

Since many consider Miss Manners, the pen name of columnist Judith Martin, to be the last word on etiquette, we'll give her the last word here:

"In the past the American sporting audience was a wonderfully spirited audience—very forceful and opinionated, with strong loyalties and ways of expressing them. But the feeling that one has the right to do anything that's not against the law has crept into all of society, and it has very much to do with all this. The fact that something ruins the experience for other people ought to motivate etiquette for the sporting crowd. They say everybody should be free to behave as they like. Try applying that concept to the game itself. If you had no rules, you couldn't have the game."



Abusive fans have turned baseball into a field of screams for players such as Belle (above), Canseco (top) and Polonia (left), all of whom have struck back at the ugly epithets that have been hurled at them.



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Dykstra is still recuperating, but the inevitable insults have already begun in absentia.



At a playoff game in Chicago, the Detroit Pistons' Bill Laimbeer got a tailor-made greeting.



Old-fashioned booing by the fans seems downright quaint in these far cruder times...

PHOTO does a player thumbing his nose at the spectators, as Jimmy Piersall did in 1962.



Cub fans smoke-bombed the Padres' Tony Gwynn in 1984.

"It has become a little more personal, a little more vulgar."

"The things they say. It gets to you after a while."

"Hecklers just give me an incentive to do better."