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WHEN FANS ATTACK
S.L. Price
April 28, 2003
Ten years after Monica Sales was stabbed, security is tight throughout professional sports, but are athletes really any safer from increasingly belligerent spectators?
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April 28, 2003

When Fans Attack

Ten years after Monica Sales was stabbed, security is tight throughout professional sports, but are athletes really any safer from increasingly belligerent spectators?

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He was a perfect victim. As the father and son ran up behind him, Tom Gamboa was leaning forward, knees slightly bent, watching intently as Kansas City Royals centerfielder Michael Tucker popped a bunt into the air. It was the ninth inning of a meaningless game at Chicago's Comiskey Park last September, but Gamboa, then the Royals' first base coach, takes pride in his concentration. He didn't hear them coming. When the two shirtless men hurled themselves at Gamboa's back, his body offered no resistance. The 54-year-old coach buckled and pitched forward, breaking the fall with his head. His neck crumpled. He went into shock.

When he rolled to his back, Gamboa saw two faces twisted with rage, mouths moving, veins straining as if they were about to burst through the skin. But Gamboa couldn't hear a sound. He wondered, Who are they? Why are they swinging at me? Then the man on the left—the father—punched Gamboa in the face, and he knew all he needed to know. I'm in trouble here.

Gamboa kicked once at the father before Kansas City players swarmed them. When Gamboa emerged from the pile, he heard his first words: "Hey, there's a knife! Pick it up." Gamboa saw that his hands were covered with blood. He was sure he had been cut. As he patted his side and back, he had what he called an "instant flashback" to April 30,1993, when, as he sat watching a telecast of a tennis match between Monica Seles and Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, Germany, a man reached over a fence during a changeover and drove a boning knife into Seles's back.

"It was like watching something out of a movie—I couldn't believe I was seeing what I was seeing," Gamboa says. Now he was in the movie. Again there was a knife (though it was not actually used in the attack) and blood and disbelief on the playing field. Again there would be moves to increase security, and the usual fall back into complacency. When the Royals returned to Chicago on April 15 for the first time in seven months, Gamboa, still suffering hearing loss in one ear, said he felt no fear because "lightning doesn't strike twice."

Then it did. Three times during the seventh inning of that afternoon's game with the White Sox, fans halted play by running on the field. After the eighth inning, just yards from where Gamboa had fallen in September, a man grabbed first base umpire Laz Diaz around the legs before being shoved away by the 40-year-old Diaz, then stomped and punched by Royals players. Gamboa's horrified look as he watched from the bullpen told the story best: Ten years after Monica Seles—even with more guards and a heightened awareness of athletes' vulnerability—no one coaching, playing or refereeing these days should feel safe.

On Jan. 6, 1994, Seles was home in Florida, watching television. It had been eight months since G�nter Parche had attacked her in a successful attempt to make Steffi Graf No. 1 again. Seles had gone into seclusion, beset by depression and nightmares: Parche's face looming above her, the sound of her own voice screaming. Now the TV was reporting that Nancy Kerrigan had been assaulted at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, clubbed above the knee after a practice session at Detroit's Cobo Arena. "Oh, my God," Seles said. "It has happened again."

Seles's stabbing began the tensest phase yet in the long, strange relationship between player and public. When Hank Aaron rounded the bases after hitting his 715th home run in 1974, he wasn't sure whether the fans running alongside had come to congratulate him or kill him. But before Seles, no high-profile spoils figure had been so savagely assaulted on a playing field. Since then, while no athlete has been stabbed at a game or match in the U.S., erratic and threatening behavior by fans has become more and more prevalent. "It's just gotten crazy," Sacramento Kings coach Rick Adelman said earlier this month. "[The fans are] so close. Maybe it's time we looked at the situation."

It has been looked at. In response to the Gamboa attack, Major League Baseball security director Kevin Hallinan placed additional guards in the stands along the baselines for the rest of last season. In December he required officials at all 30 stadiums to draw up security plans and charge someone with protecting the field during games. To little avail: After the April 15 debacle, the Royals refused to take the field again at the White Sox' park until given assurances that the players would be safe. Fourteen guards were added, and White Sox and major league officials asked prosecutors to seek more stringent penalties on belligerent fans (INSIDE BASEBALL, page 71).

Who can blame them? Clearly what happened to Gamboa's attackers served as no deterrent. Last winter the 15-year-old son of William Ligue promised not to misbehave again and—with Gamboa's blessing—got five years' probation. The boy grinned as he was driven from the courthouse. His 34-year-old father, who faces battery and several related charges, showed up for his court-ordered drug-and-alcohol assessment in January appearing to be "under the influence of alcohol," according to the evaluation. His hearing was set for April 25.

"If this guy were to get off with a slap on the wrist, what's to keep people in all stadiums and all sports from jumping on somebody's back?" Gamboa says. "A coach has the least impact of anyone on a game's outcome. What about a visiting player who hits a game-winning home run or pitches a shutout? What about the risk he's at?"

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