It’s all right to be appalled at what happened Monday night in Oakland. But we have no right to say we are surprised or even to go into hand-wringing mode and ask, "How could such a thing happen?"
It’s better to ask, "How could it not happen?" And, "Why doesn’t it happen more often?"
This is no apology for what rookie Texas reliever Frank Francisco did. Hurling a chair at a crowd of people, aiming indiscriminately at innocent and guilty alike, is impossible to defend. He broke a woman’s nose and cut her face. He was reportedly arrested, as anyone should be who commits such an assault, and he should be prosecuted.
Every player is taught from an early age that, no matter what the fans do, you don’t respond. And you never, ever go into the stands, no matter what the provocation.
But what we expect of athletes doesn’t stop there. They aren’t supposed to yell at fans, either, nor are they to gesture to them. They are surrounded by screaming, foul-mouthed boors who believe that the price they paid for a ticket gives them license to heap abuse on the players, and if a player so much as flips a one-fingered salute in return, he is excoriated in the media.
This is a level of self-control far beyond what most of us can muster. But we not only expect it of athletes, we demand it.
Considering the way we behave at the games, that’s a good thing, because we not only tolerate behavior in the stands that we tolerate nowhere else in society, we condone and encourage it.
A friend sent me an e-mail today on the subject. It’s one of those jokes built around the "priceless" theme, and its foundation is the picture of a Steelers’ fan, his face twisted by rage and hatred, throwing the middle finger at the enemy. What makes it priceless is that the fan is maybe five years old.
The kid was taught that this is what makes a real fan — hatred and vulgarity. Daddy must be really proud.
But it’s not just Daddy. The teams themselves encourage such behavior and don't do nearly enough to prevent the inevitable confrontations that must arise when someone hears or feels something that makes him snap.
Buck Showalter, the Rangers manager, said that whatever happened in the Oakland stands Monday night went beyond normal. "It was a real break from the normal trash you hear from fans," he said without elaboration.
Things were bad enough earlier in the game to prompt Showalter to request extra security in the bullpen, he said. A’s officials said there was no request for additional security.
It doesn’t really matter who’s right on that debate. No one should ever have to request extra security anywhere. There should be security guards in the bullpens and every other area where fans and players come into intimate contact as a matter of policy. A uniformed cop would be even better — not watching the game, but facing the stands and keeping an eye on things.
The NFL surrounds its benches with security guards and police. They are the buffer who can tell a fan to cool it or step in front of an enraged player and prevent him from doing something that he will regret.
But baseball doesn’t do nearly enough in that regard. Too many teams wink at obnoxious behavior by their fans, thinking of it as a virtue rather than as an embarrassment.
And too many fans think that because they paid for a ticket, they can say and do anything they please. I’ve never understood that. You pay for the right to attend an event, and you abide by the rules of the people who own and run the facility. You pay a lot of money to go to the philharmonic, too, but that doesn’t mean you can leap to your feet during the third movement of Beethoven’s Third and inform the oboist that his mother is a woman of loose morals and his daughter hangs around at the gates of the army base.
If you yell on someone’s back swing or shout profanities at a golf tournament, you get thrown out. Same goes for tennis.
At team events, you accept a lot of conditions that go with the ticket. You can’t sit anywhere you want. You can’t bring in your own six-pack. You can’t bring in a backpack. You must leave when the game’s over.
But you can act like an uncivilized jerk? You can behave in a manner that — unless you’re a Steeler fan — you wouldn’t want to see in your children? You can be foul-mouthed and abusive in front of families and small children? You can call people things you would punch somebody for calling you?
And then you can act surprised and offended on the incredibly rare occasions when someone strikes back?
If you answer yes to any or all of those questions, you’re a hypocrite. If you answer yes, then you really need to get a grip on what it means to root for a team. If you have to hate the other guys in order to prove your love for your own, you’ve got a problem.
And the team that encourages you to behave that way has a bigger problem. You can condemn Francisco all you want — he deserves it. But you can’t wonder why he’d do such a thing. You wanted a reaction. You got it.
If you don’t want another, it’s up to the teams and the game and all decent fans to demand a higher standard of behavior.
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