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Thoughts On Curtailing Boorish Stadium Behavior From A One-Night Heckler

May 15, 2017
This column comes with an admission of guilt involving an incident I'm still embarrassed about -- nearly 30 years later.

I was that guy once -- the drunken idiot at a sporting event screaming at a professional athlete. There was no particular reason. It's just something I did. Thought it was funny. 

That memory came rushing back to me this month because of what happened with center fielder Adam Jones and the Orioles at Fenway Park May 1. So much has been written about the two-week ordeal between the Orioles and Red Sox and the subsequent spiking, beanballs and ejections that it makes little sense to rehash all of it.

But what Jones endured May 1 -- racial slurs figuratively hurled at him and a bag of peanuts literally hurled at him -- is worth mentioning again. And again.

Because that kind of hate spewing is not acceptable in ballparks or anywhere else in this country.

When I consider Jones jawing with the fans that night, I have two immediate thoughts: 

One, what was said to and thrown at Jones must have been particularly disturbing because Jones gets verbally brutalized plenty of times each season. 

This was not an isolated incident, nor an incident isolated to Boston. Jones has heard negative comments from opposing fans throughout his career, and some of them have been of the racial-taunt variety. He usually ignores it, but snapped in Boston. I'd imagine having something literally thrown at him was the catalyst for his tirade there.

As uncomfortable as it was for baseball to acknowledge the racism, Jones deserves credit for standing up to it, making a point about the ignorance and answering questions from reporters, though that public stance will likely make him a further target of abuse from those who revel in hatred.

My other thought about this was equally uncomfortable for me.

Because, to a group of strangers around me on a summer night in the late 1980s, I must have appeared to be reveling in hate as well.

I was in my late teens, early 20s. A college student home in Baltimore for summer break. A group of friends and I went to a whole lot of Orioles games back in those days. It was cheap entertainment and the team was interesting, whether it was the historically awful 1988 club or the invigorating ‘Why Not?' squad in 1989.

We imbibed a lot of alcohol at those games, well beyond responsible drinking. Another fact I'm not thrilled admitting now that I'm in my 40s, a father of three and a professional sportswriter.

Anyway, on one particular night during that era, the Orioles were playing the Chicago White Sox at Memorial Stadium. I was with a group of friends in the bleacher seats above right field. It was a sparsely attended game and, if I remember correctly, one that wasn't particularly compelling.

At some point, White Sox right fielder Ivan Calderon misplayed a ball in right. He might have ultimately caught it, I don't remember, but I know it wasn't pretty. That began our initial harassing of Calderon, who by that time was about halfway through a solid, 10-year, big league career. 

I never had any impressions of Calderon up to that point. He just had the misfortune of playing right that night when the beers were flowing and the game was boring.

The last couple innings were particularly brutal. Egged on by friends and liquid courage, I kept yapping at Calderon, spinning jokes about his nickname -- "Ivan The Terrible? Should be Ivan, Your Terrible," -- ripping his well-coiffed black curls -- "Spend less time on your hair and more time on your defense," -- and expertly instructing him that he couldn't "carry the jock" of Maryland favorite son and his White Sox teammate, Harold Baines. 

I think we caught him grinning at the Baines comment. Otherwise, Calderon ignored us, with the occasional side glance to see who we were (and probably memorizing our faces if he ever saw us on the street when he was off-duty).

At the time, I thought it was harmless. There were no racial epithets, no coarse language I can remember. And, besides, everyone around me was laughing. Even strangers. They all enjoyed it, right?

Well, now that I'm a dad and a general hater of idiotic people, I would have liked to slap that previous me across the face. Hard. Several times. It was boorish behavior and completely unnecessary. I never did it again. 

I thought one day I might actually run into Calderon while doing this job, recount the story and apologize. (I never had a chance. In 2003, two years after I became a full-time baseball writer, the retired Calderon was tragically shot in the back and killed in a bar in his native Puerto Rico, reportedly by members of a drug gang searching for his son.)

My experience as a one-day heckler of a baseball player stuck with me, though. And I lean on it today when I think about the Jones incident.

I honestly believe if one fan in our section that night -- and there weren't many people there -- had told me to shut up and sit down, I would have. In retrospect, I was just doing it for attention, trying to get some laughs.

And I guarantee if an usher had told me to pipe down or leave -- or worse, be threatened by arrest and/or a hefty fine -- I would have zipped it. Oh, I would have complained loudly for effect, but I wouldn't have risked real trouble.

Again, I wasn't belligerent or hateful. Just being an idiot for giggles. There's certainly a line there.

But when the Jones situation arose, plenty of solutions to stop this stuff from happening again were bandied about -- from limiting alcohol sales to imposing prosecution for verbal harassment. Certainly, those concepts could help curtail such behavior, I suppose. Though those are slippery slopes, too.

The ultimate goal here is to make the ballpark experience enjoyable for all, not to spark a debate about free speech. We're not going to change what's in someone's heart. But we can make it more difficult for the crass minority to ruin the experience for the respectful majority.

So, if you're ever in that situation at a major league stadium, and a heckler is stepping over that line and making you uncomfortable, contact the section's usher and let him or her get the proper people to step in. I'm not saying overreact, just use common sense.

The heckler may be thankful for that interaction later. Trust me on that.

Issue 233: May 2017