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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

In Defense of Frank Francisco?

I'm becoming more of a headline writer, I suppose, in my later days as a blogger, and perhaps I just wrote this to get your attention. You can read a good analysis of fan incidents in today's USA Today by clicking here.

I am not here to defend what Frank Francisco did. What Frank Francisco did was wrong. Period. And after some jousting between the players' union and Major League Baseball, Frank Francisco will receive an appropriate punishment. The precedent is about 8 games (read the USA Today article), and it may be that Mr. Francisco, a good reliever who was the AL rookie of the month for August, is done for the year (thereby setting a new precedent). He's also facing criminal charges in Oakland, and he'll get slapped with a civil suit too. Fair enough, he transgressed, there were plenty of witnesses, and there is film of the incident. All of those processes will take their course.

But then the whole incident should be over. Mr. Francisco probably regrets what he did, and I'm sure that the whole Texas Rangers' team wishes that they could have handled the situation differently and that no one got hurt. Mr. Francisco is a good pitcher who did a bad thing. He didn't kill anyone, he didn't cripple anyone, he didn't crash a country's economic system. He just did something stupid, he'll pay in terms of forfeited salary, a fine, a plea bargain and a negotiated settlement in a civil case. But that should be it.

There has been a good deal of public outrage at what happened at the Oakland Coliseum, and many former athletes have been quoted as saying that regardless of the behavior of the fans, that players never should take matters into their own hands unless they have to defend themselves. And that advice makes a lot of sense. Complain to security, hope that the home team's personnel can handle the situation, and then walk away. One of the most notorious hecklers in the NBA was reported to be a Washington-area lawyer and Wizards fan who used to sit behind the visiting benches and mercilessly heckle visiting players. My guess is at times he said some pretty mean things (he was featured in reports on the major networks), but no one ever took a swing at him in the NBA. Ever.

Would you be able to do the same thing if a customer of your company or shareholder or vendor were at your cubicle or in your office not just questioning your company's product, but yelling insults about your family, about you personally? Are you sure?

I would be interested in the Sports Law blog's take on what speech the First Amendment protects at public stadiums and whether teams can deny fans their seating in certain areas based upon what they say, as almost anything short of terroristic threats is protected speech. That said, it could well be that there is language on the ticket that enables the home team to remove fans for unruly behavior (the question becomes, in essence, whether, despite the disclaimer on the ticket, the teams have the right under the First Amendment to remove someone for disagreeable speech directed at a visiting bullpen -- I am not so sure that they could do so and withstand a challenge in court). In short, I don't think that teams want to post speech codes because they'll get a lot of negative publicity and spends tens of thousands of dollars defending them.

There are three factors that can make it challenging, at times, for players to exercise restraint (but, given the rather large number of games and small number of incidents, pro athletes by and large have behaved themselves very well in this regard). First is the increased proximity of fans to players. Second is the relatively low priority home teams give to security. Many of the so-called security personnel, as Jayson Stark pointed out on ESPN Radio this morning, are retired people who make $25 a game and might need defibrillation after stepping into a melee. And many of the fans like to congregate near exposed bullpens in new stadiums to get close to the players. Case in point is the new Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, where the bullpens are stacked in left center, with, of course, the opposing team's pen on top of the home team's, meaning that the visitors are closer to the fans (which is probably good for the Phils, given that some of their so-called firemen have actually proved to be incendiaries this year). There is plenty of beer out there, and, well, the language can get pretty rough. I joked with my friends that when I took my young son to a game there in August, I told him that "You Suck" was the name of a Korean reliever for the Astros because of the number of times it was shouted at the visiting players in the bullpen. Third is the availability of beer. Jayson Stark reported this morning that while he is in favor of having beer served in ballparks, perhaps teams should eliminate vendors from the areas near the bullpens or at least try to reduce consumption there. His is a point worth studying.

Fan behavior, of course, has always been a problem and perhaps always will be. People pay a lot of money for tickets, life in the U.S. is stressful, people like to jeer the visiting team as a means of blowing off steam, and beer is available. It's probably a good time for teams to re-assess the security they provide in vulnerable areas, such as visiting bullpens, dugouts, benches, entryways to a field or arena and the like.

And it's probably also time to stop ease out of conversations about this topic. This really is an isolated incident, incidents like these don't happen that often, and once in a great while a player can lose his cool.

Albert Belle didn't get banned for life because he hit a heckling fan with a baseball. Juan Marichal made it to the Hall of Fame despite hitting John Roseboro with a baseball bat during a game with the Dodgers. Robbie Alomar spat on umpire John Hirshbeck several years ago and is still playing in the major leagues.

And, after the dust settles, and assuming that the incident was nothing more than a young man's losing his cool, a promising young pitcher named Frank Francisco should be playing in the majors too.


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