Players' unprofessionalism forces Robinson's hand

May 26, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Major League Baseball can't have players going into the stands after fans. It's just a no-can-do, regardless of the circumstances. Even if an idiot fan does something that deserves a knuckle sandwich.

That's the hard line Frank Robinson rightfully drew as baseball's minister of justice Wednesday when he suspended 19 players and coaches from the Los Angeles Dodgers for brawling with fans at Wrigley Field.

It might be true that too many fans are behaving appallingly, with brazen and odious disrespect for the players they pay to see, but chasing a fan into the stands is the height of unprofessionalism.

That's what the suspensions are saying, and that's all the suspensions are saying. You have to be a big-leaguer. No matter what happens, you can't stoop to behavior that warrants "time-outs" in kindergarten.

Sure, the fan who started the brawl in Chicago was a fool, and something obviously needs to be done about all these idiots whose sense of entitlement is way out of hand.

But going into the stands isn't the answer. Vigilante justice from players and coaches just can't be tolerated - by any sports league, not just Major League Baseball.

If a fan does something to a player, the player should do what anyone else does - notify the police or security officials. That's why they're there. To police the dolts and drunks.

When a fan leaned over a wall in Chicago last week, conked Dodgers catcher Chad Kreuter on the head, swiped his cap and taunted him, the Dodgers should have alerted security, pointed the guy out and watched him get pancaked and carted off. That's what usually happens.

If they didn't get the support from security they felt they needed, they could have resorted to the ultimate weapon and stopped the game. It's happened before.

The course several Dodgers chose to take, following Kreuter into the stands, was just wrong.

Yes, it was a sheer, gut reaction everyone can relate to - "Gimme back my cap, you #$%&!!"

But it crossed the line of acceptable player behavior. And Robinson, the former Oriole, knows those lines as well as anyone. He keeps stinging players with his sense of discipline in his new role, drawing criticism. But he couldn't care less. Knowing him, he's more worried about his beloved Los Angeles Lakers beating Portland.

This baseball stuff, he knows he's got that right.

If Kreuter didn't get his cap back, that's unfortunate. But it was just a cap. Players and coaches going into the stands and fighting fans to get it back was too much.

Sure, some of the players and coaches were just trying to keep the peace. Maybe Robinson went a little overboard in some cases. With the players' association appealing and the Dodgers howling about harsh treatment, who knows what might happen to the sentences?

But the spirit of Robinson's punishments wasn't out of line.

When basketball's Vernon Maxwell went into the stands and punched a fan who was taunting him in 1995, the NBA suspended him for 10 games and fined him $20,000, making precisely the same statement Robinson is making now: Sorry, that's not acceptable under any circumstances.

In Maxwell's case, the fan reportedly was taunting him with racial epithets and making suggestions about a daughter of Maxwell's who died in childbirth. Lovely.

Hitting Kreuter and stealing his cap wasn't quite as outrageous, but it was still a gross, personal violation, the kind of fan behavior happening all too often now.

Somewhere along the line, insulting and vilifying players has become acceptable ballpark behavior. Routine, even. And it's not just louts in the bleachers. It's guys in suits with cell phones. Pathetic losers with front-row seats and something missing somewhere in their lives.

Ask Albert Belle. Whatever you think of the Orioles' slugger, he endures disgusting, personal insults every night. So do dozens of other major-leaguers.

It's not just baseball, either. It's every sport. When the Maryland Terrapins played in the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden last fall, a group of middle-aged males with money on the game sat in the front row and screamed vicious insults at 19-year-olds all night. Cracked each other up with their "wit."

How did we get here? When pros started making more money years ago, too many lost touch with the fans and lost respect for them. Now, too many fans, in turn, have sensed the change and lost respect for the players.

It's either that or just the world we live in, with the Internet bulletin boards and talk radio turning everyone into a wise guy with an opinion, in search of an audience.

Whatever, the mutual animosity between players and fans was at the core of what happened at Wrigley Field last week. What can be done? Nothing in the sense that players and fans are going to continue to believe what they want. Can't change that.

But teams can do a better job of providing security, and league offices, on those occasions when players go into the stands, can send a strong signal that such behavior won't be tolerated.

That's all Robinson did. His ruling was tough, but appropriate. Even if the fan who stole Kreuter's cap was wrong, the Dodgers were wrong, too.

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