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Surely one of the more mind-boggling developments of this baseball season has been the Oakland Athletics' edict against smoking in their ballpark. Smokers who light up at the Oakland Coliseum are merely reprimanded on their first offense, but if they persist in fouling the premises, they become candidates for summary ejection. The hopelessly addicted among them are permitted to huddle in mutual shame at designated spots behind the stands or on ramps leading to the upper decks, at safe remove from normal folk. As one such fugitive, Jennifer Riordan of Walnut Creek, Calif., muttered the other day through the fumes of a dank passageway behind Section 114, "They make you feel like a leper or something."
The smoking ban was an arbitrary decision by the A's management, not one forced on them by militant nonsmokers. An Oakland vice-president, Andy Dolich, advised the San Francisco Examiner that the team simply decided to "keep the Coliseum environment one of the better ones in which to watch a ball game."
Hoo boy! Now, we are not talking about a domed stadium here. The Oakland Coliseum is no smoke-filled room. It is a spacious open-air ballpark, and a breezy one at that. Smoke from cigars or cigarettes is no more liable to linger in the zephyrs off San Francisco Bay than are the exhaust fumes belched up from traffic on the Nimitz Freeway just outside the Coliseum. As one angry fan suggested, maybe the A's should ban trucks from the freeway during games if they're so worried about what their patrons are inhaling.
The fact is, the Athletics have gotten a lot of mileage out of the so-called family atmosphere they have created at their ball yard. No team in baseball has been more successful in conveying to the public through advertising and public relations what a swell place its park is to take the kiddies—and gramps and grandma too. No hooligans or cutpurses lurk in the Coliseum's brightly lit corridors. Newspaper columnists regularly applaud the wholesomeness of life in the stands there, particularly when they compare it with the disreputable rowdiness at Candlestick Park across the Bay. It's almost as if the Coliseum were the set of a 1940s MGM musical, its stands peopled with chaps in white ducks, lovely young women spinning parasols, and darling little nippers lapping up cotton candy.
It's not easy to buy a beer in such a place. Oh, you can get one, if you must, you derelict you, but first you must show proof of age. And I mean everyone must have an ID at the ready. I hadn't been carded in more than 30 years until I tried to buy a draft in that joint. And if I look under 21, so does Gene Autry. The guy ahead of me in line told me he was 74. The vendor demanded to see his driver's license. It's flattering, sure, but you get the idea they would rather you'd stayed in your seat like a good boy.
In levying their smoking ban, the A's are reinforcing their Disneyland image and at the same time pandering to those health fascists who want all smokers burned at the stake. I wonder how much further this persecution of a besieged minority can go. From what I've observed, it's already permissible to disregard the rules of common courtesy in dealing with smokers. People no longer ask them to desist; they command them in language they might normally employ with a cocker spaniel. Freed at last of all civilized restraint, the crusaders hound their prey with impunity.
I should say here that I do not smoke. Never have. Never will. Oh, at age 16, I tried a cigarette, but upon inhaling, I found the resultant gagging served only to detract from the very worldliness I'd hoped to convey by lighting up. I'd wanted to look like Paul Henreid, not Oliver Hardy. So, as I told a world then fairly wreathed in smoke, "I gave it up." These assuredly are more enlightened times. We all know now that cigarettes are very bad for you. But that's hardly an excuse for badgering those hapless souls who, in the face of all the damning evidence, still find a drag or two relaxing. And it's certainly no cause for throwing them out of an outdoor stadium, where, in the parlance of their dogged tormentors, "the space" of their neighbors is violated minimally, if at all.
The health nuts don't see it this way, of course. And it is their insufferable sanctimony that I find most galling. Most of these oppressors, in my experience, are reformed smokers, and as we should all know by now, a reformed anyone, admirable though he may be in other ways, can be a monstrous pain in the neck. I suppose the day will come, as Garrison Keillor so hilariously forecast in The New Yorker some time ago, when the last smokers on earth will be found cowering in a box canyon south of Donner Pass while tobacco agents in a helicopter overhead demand they surrender. Oh, how merciless the righteous can be in saving us all from ourselves.
I'm saddened to see the Athletics, such a benevolent organization otherwise, join the forces of intolerance. The Haas family, which owns the team, is justly famous for charitable good works. It's not like them at all to be in the business of suppressing the downtrodden. But you wonder who'll be the next to go over there in Familyland. Gum chewers? Unattached women? Unmarried couples? People who make too much noise? I think the A's should be advised that a lot of us grew up going to ballparks where there was cigar smoke, beer fumes and all kinds of sights and smells and sounds and weird goings-on. We survived.