Fan on the field: Harmless idiots or a disaster in the making?

Jim McIsaac

The Orioles' Adam Jones had some choice words for two Yankee fans who ran on the field during Tuesday's game. Does he have a point or is he overreacting?

If you've been to more than a few baseball games, you've probably seen it. Things are moseying along, usually in the later parts of a blowout, when some fan, emboldened by seven or eight beers in six innings is suddenly on the field, getting chased around by security like the chicken in Rocky. The crowd laughs and cheers until the guy or girl is finally tackled and dragged off, kicking and screaming, into the nether regions of the ballpark.

It's a part of the game the way overpriced concessions are. There was Morganna the Kissing Bandit who sneaked onto countless diamonds and smooched 37 major league players between 1970 and 1990, including Pete Rose and Nolan Ryan. Or that girl who rushed out to give Derek Jeter her phone number at the Yankees' home opener that time (he never called, as far as we know). There was the guy who charged center field at Yankee Stadium to get Ken Griffey Jr.'s autograph (on a football, for some reason), and the two fans who are etched in our collective memories for being the first to congratulate Hank Aaron on number 715. And what about the hundreds who stormed the field after Chris Chambliss' epic walk-off in '76? There were so many of them that he couldn't even find home plate. Sure, it's criminal trespassing - a class "B" misdemeanor in New York - but it's harmless, right? A little unexpected surprise in a game that can sometimes drag.

The Orioles' Adam Jones doesn't see it that way. After two fans made their way into the action during the bottom of the eighth in the Yankees' 14-5 defeat Tuesday afternoon - one of them crouching behind shortstop Ryan Flaherty to evade security - Jones had some interesting words.

"I think it's idiotic for people to run on the field, and I think the punishment needs to be a lot harsher, and they should let us have a shot to kick them with our metal spikes on because it's stupid. You look like an [idiot] when you run on the field.

"We don't go to other sporting events and do that to their jobs, but they come to ours and do that. I get it, you're drunk and you want to be on Sports Center. Your ass is going to jail with a fine, and you might not be allowed to come back to the ballpark.

"I remember a couple of years ago, one dude broke his ankle in Baltimore. I was laughing at him. I wish he shattered his femur because it's stupid. It's just plain old stupid. Anybody who does it, I wish the cops tase the [hell] out of them. I wish that."

Jones' solution of spiking a femur smashing might be a little over-the-top, and it's hard to take the term "idiot" too seriously coming from someone who spent the hours after this particular game eating giant donuts off a baseball bat. Odds are none of the people running on the field are pro athletes from other sports as his words seems to suggest. But if you can get past all that, Jones is right that the whole thing puts players in an unenviable spot. These aren't the days of Morganna in the 1970's. We live in a world now where random shootings and terrorist attacks are commonplace. It's not safe to assume, for an athlete or for anyone, that the guy racing toward you is just fooling around. In 2002 a couple of shirtless spectators attacked Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa at a White Sox game, one of them carrying a folded up pocket knife. What if it's a gun next time?

Even with every reason to be afraid, athletes can't really do much to aggressive fans. In 2003 Dodgers outfielder Jason Romando knocked a guy on his back with a hard elbow, but that's not a wise choice. If a player who makes millions every year hits you, kicks you with his spikes as Jones suggests, or hurts you in any way your first stop after you're released from your few hours in jail might be your local attorney's office to try and cash in. Yes, what happened would be your own fault, but that hasn't always stopped courts and lawyers.

MLB is also in a tricky position when it comes to trespassing fans. Teams need to balance the need to protect their players - and everyone at the game - with the proximity to the action fans enjoy, a closeness that helps sell the sport. A Plexiglas partition surrounding the field, or a moat filled with hungry crocodiles and anacondas might prevent fan incursions, but it would also change the way the game is viewed, especially for the people who pay the most for their tickets.

Baseball's made a concerted effort in recent years, at least, to discourage bad fan behavior by not showing it on TV. Instead of seeing the drunk dude stumbling around the outfield, you'll be treated to a shot of the batter or the pitcher looking awkward and uncomfortable and a little bit amused while the announcers try and come up with something else to talk about. But modern technology has made that effort a fairly futile pursuit. Maybe YES won't show you the wacky fan high jinks, but they won't be hard to find on YouTube later. A Google video search for "fans running on the field at baseball games" gets you plenty of results including some that I'm not ashamed to admit, are pretty damn funny.

For the past well...forever, MLB's modus operandi has been to react to bad things that happen instead of proactively preventing them. It took years of scandal and several Congressional hearings before PED testing became a thing, and by the time we finally got instant replay, multiple playoff games had been decided wrongly, and Armando Galarraga had been robbed of a perfect game. On this topic though, we're not talking about an incorrect call being made or someone getting away with maybe sort-of cheating. The potential is there for someone to get hurt or killed.

The first team that actually installs some kind of notable barrier between the stands and the field will get hit hard with criticism. They'll get hammered by the media for destroying tradition and for punishing the many for the insane actions of a few. They'll get bitter complaints from their most important season ticket holders...they might even lose some. But that team will be doing the right thing. It's too easy to imagine where one of these incidents might someday lead. This time baseball should act before, not after.

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