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Fanning the flames

Chair tossing can't be condoned, but boorish behavior has no place

Posted: Thursday September 16, 2004 1:34PM; Updated: Thursday September 16, 2004 2:45PM
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Bullpen fan fight
This incident couldn't have been a good example for youngsters.

We can all agree, I think, that throwing chairs is not a good idea. It's not good if a 4-year-old does it. It's not good if a cranky old basketball coach does it. And it's certainly not very good if some semi-anonymous Rangers reliever with an aggression problem and a surplus of testosterone does it.

Chair throwing is bad. It should not be tolerated. People, as a general rule of civilization, shouldn't throw furniture of any kind.

But exactly what is it, do you think, that makes an otherwise normal person -- a fan, so to speak -- stand up in a large, public gathering, open his too-big mouth and spit up anything that has come into his empty little head?

If some three-sheets-to-the-wind nincompoop spends all evening at the local ballpark screaming himself hoarse at the visiting team, is that funny? Is that clever? Is that OK?

Why is it, I wonder, that "You Suck!" has become such an accepted part of our sports culture?

I watched the video of the bullpen brouhaha in Oakland the other night, then I looked at the photos in the paper. And not to go all touchy-feely liberal on you, but the one thing that struck me -- like a folding chair in the schnozz -- were the faces in the crowd.

Not the contorted-in-rage ones, or the mouth-agape ones, or the slightly bemused mugs. I was looking at the kids. Maybe 10 years old, maybe a little older. Maybe even a little younger. But there they were, a couple of them, stuck in the middle of this nasty, shameful, ridiculous public melee.

And all I could think was: Nice example we're setting for the youth of America here.

Nice freaking example.

"So there we were," Jimmy says the next day at school, "and the one Rangers guy with the goatee was yelling 'F--- you,' really loud, and the guy in the stands was screaming back 'You guys suck ...,' right to his face, and everybody was cussing, 'F--- this' and 'F--- that,' and the security guards were getting shoved around, and then somebody grabbed somebody, and then some player -- I don't know who he was -- threw a chair into a bunch of people right next to me. A chair! Hit some woman in the face. And then the whole team came over and everyone started booing and screaming some more ... man, it was just so coooool."

The ballpark can be a scary place these days, and not just because of flying furniture. It's been a scary place for a lot of years, truth be told. There's a famous story about Ty Cobb jumping into the stands to beat up a handicapped heckler. Babe Ruth once challenged a whole section of fans to a fight.

Drunken fans have pummeled coaches and players, there are beanballs on the field, there are brawls everywhere. The national pastime, sorry to say, can be a national disgrace at times.

The worst part, though, has less to do with the players on the field than it does the people in the stands. Somewhere along the line -- and this started back before Cobb, Ruth or Rangers reliever Frank Francisco performed the most famous chair toss since Bobby Knight's -- fans got the completely wrongheaded idea that they can do no wrong.

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Oh, it's always been clear that throwing things on the field is a no-no. And if someone is goofy enough to actually jump onto a field during a game ... well, saints preserve 'em.

Other than that, though, fans have long clung to the notion that, if you pay your money, you can do and say whatever you want.

"It's a part of the game," said one of the fans in the middle of the Oakland mess the other night. "It's an American tradition."

Well, fans, that's just plain idiotic. It's imbecilic.

A ticket gets you into a game. It does not give you the right to curse at the top of your lungs. It does not give you the right to question someone's lineage, or make fun of his legal woes, his family situation or his sexual orientation. It does not give you the right to be loud and obnoxious all night long when there are a lot of people around you -- they paid their money, too, you know -- who would prefer that you just shut up and sit down and let them watch the game.

This isn't about protecting players. They ought to be able to turn a deaf ear and play on. Most of them do. Every once in a while you get an idiot like Cobb or Francisco who allows something get to him. That's no excuse for going after a fan.

But, again, this isn't about the players. It's about the loutish loudmouth in the stands, the frustrated accountant or fireman or middle manager who comes to the park to blow off a week's worth of steam without a single regard for the people around him.

I looked at the photos of the kids in Oakland the other night, wide-eyed, ears burning like everyone else out there, and I wondered what kind of fans they'd turn out to be. I wondered if they'd be the loudmouth jerks or whether they'd be like the other 95-plus percent of the people in the park.

Or, after that episode, whether they'd be fans at all.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.