One line players can't cross is the fans'

September 15, 2004|By John Eisenberg

TED WILLIAMS once suggested that hitting a baseball was the hardest thing to do in sports.

But hitting a baseball isn't as hard as ignoring idiots in the stands who are calling you names while you try to do your job.

That is tough.

Players don't get to practice it, as they do other aspects of their craft.

Managers and coaches can't teach the fundamentals, imparting tips culled from years of experience.

The players are out there on their own and under orders not to succumb to the anger that might swell inside them.

Their only option is to take it, even when the abuse from the stands crosses the line into vulgarity, as it often does.

Sorry, but that's harder than hitting a 98-mph fastball.

The disrespectful idiots in the stands might have it coming, and of course, they're pathetic in their own right and obviously in dire need of a life.

But regardless, the objects of their derision can never be the ones dishing abuse back at them.

Players getting obnoxiously trashed can call security, refuse to play or, like nursery schoolers, hold their breath until they get their way. Whatever works for them.

But they can't go after the fans, and they certainly can't throw a chair into the stands, as Texas Rangers reliever Frank Francisco did Monday night in Oakland after someone shouted something that caused him to erupt.

He just can't do that, no matter what was said.

Francisco was arrested yesterday, assuring him, at the very least, of a court case and legal bills, not to mention a suspension from baseball. He will be sorry he lost control and unwittingly re-emphasized sports' eternal first commandment:

Fans who buy tickets can say what they want. Even the idiots.

They're all customers. Players have to deal with that.

As long as the fans remain in the stands, where they belong, they're off-limits.

Those who fail to stay in the stands lose their blanket protection; no one said the Kansas City Royals were wrong to pummel the blindingly drunk father and son who jumped their first base coach on the field in Chicago in 2002.

Other recent incidents along those lines include the Yankees' Karim Garcia and Jeff Nelson brawling with a Fenway Park groundskeeper who taunted them during the American League Championship Series last October, and some Dodgers going into the stands at Wrigley Field to retrieve stolen caps in 2000.

The Fenway groundskeeper is still on the Red Sox payroll and faces charges along with Garcia and Nelson, so the blame is shared in that one. But 19 Dodgers players and coaches were suspended after the cap episode, underscoring baseball's determination to protect its fans - even the ones who deserve ejection rather than protection for stealing caps.

Nothing of the sort has ever happened at Camden Yards, perhaps because the fans sitting in the cheap seats often are rooting for the visitors rather than heckling them. (Last weekend's series against the Yankees was so sad in that regard that the Orioles' David Newhan admitted it was "disheartening.")

But no ballpark is immune from the possibility of ugliness. It's not because our world is generally more disrespectful, as some believe. Fans have been acting up since the Romans were racing chariots at Circus Maximus.

In fact, the "conversation" that undoubtedly led to the incident in Oakland on Monday night is about that old. One doesn't need to speculate to know that it went something like this:

Fans: "You [fill in the verb] [fill in the noun]!"

Rangers: "Oh, yeah?"

As always, things quickly degenerated from there.

The Rangers' Doug Brocail screamed at a fan. Several other Rangers had to be restrained from going into the stands. And Francisco, 25, did his Bob Knight imitation and hurled a chair, reportedly plunking a female fan in the face and breaking her nose.

Who says the fading Rangers can't throw strikes in September?

Rangers manager Buck Showalter later said the problem was the fans "went over the line." His public show of support for his players was admirable, but Showalter, a veteran, knows they were wrong.

There is no line to cross. Players being unreasonably abused should ask for help from security, just as fans do. It's unclear whether the Rangers asked for or received such help before things got out of hand Monday night, but either way, they were wrong to confront the fans.

It's hard to take when the abuse is enough to test a reasonable man's willpower, but a pro has no choice. He gets paid to take it.

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