Last week, Albert Belle hit a home run in Texas. This is not big news. Belle hits home runs everywhere. But this year he wants to collect his home run balls, perhaps because he plans on building a shrine to himself. If you know Albert Belle, this would not surprise you.

Anyhow, after his home run in Texas, he had one of the staff people find the fan who caught the ball. That fan was brought to the clubhouse, where Belle asked for the ball back. The fan began to negotiate. He said he’d be willing to surrender his ball if Belle signed a new one for him.

“Why should I give you a ball when all you do is sit in leftfield and boo me?” Belle said. “It’s my ball. I’m not giving you bleep.”

Belle stormed off.

The fan kept the ball.

A few weeks earlier, Tony Phillips, who now plays for the White Sox, went into the stands to confront a fan who had been heckling him. He told the guy if he were so tough, why didn’t he meet Phillips under the bleachers? (This was during a game, by the way, a game in which Phillips had already exited.) The fan did indeed meet him there, and Phillips punched him in the jaw.

Both were charged with disorderly conduct.

In the NBA last year, Houston’s Vernon Maxwell ran into the stands to whack a heckler. In hockey last week, the Red Wings’ Kris Draper was clobbered from behind by Colorado’s Claude Lemieux, and not only did the Colorado fans cheer the hit — which broke Draper’s jaw and nose — but when he finally got up, bleeding into a towel, they booed as if he were faking.

I don’t know about you, but I think the word “fan” ought to be retired. The roar of the crowd

Call it anger. Call it attitude. But being a sports spectator no longer falls in the “root-root-root for the home team” category. It’s more like blood lust. There is this perverse sense of entitlement among sports fans, that they are owed something, that they have the right to hurl whatever poison they bring, from the season-ticket heckler in Washington who yells personal insults at players every game — he has become locally famous by doing this — to the organized group cursing that you hear in college basketball arenas.

Anyone who goes to a pro sports event these days might have to cover his children’s ears. In Denver last week, whenever a penalty was over, the arena announcer would say, “The Red Wings are at full strength” and the crowd would reply, “AND THEY STILL SUCK!”

This was followed by lots of laughter and fans high-fiving, as if they’d just done something wonderful, instead of collectively behaving like morons.

Fans against athletes. Athletes against fans. How did things become so adversarial?

1) Money. The players now earn so much, fans feel they can say anything.
“After all,” they reason, “if these guys don’t want to hear criticism, let them stuff their ears with their $1,000 bills.”

2) No Sense of Connection. Because free agency in sports is so prevalent, fans don’t see athletes as symbols of their city, but as mercenary talents willing to pull on the uniform of the highest bidder. Why show respect?

3) A Piece of the Action. As America becomes more and more a place where you are nobody if you’re not famous, or at least on TV, the average fan feels compelled to do something to get up there. By distracting a player, even with a curse, the fan gets a momentary twirl of the spotlight.

4) Alcohol. Self-explanatory.

Now, all but No. 4 are united by one emotion: Jealousy. Jealousy of fame. Jealousy of wealth. Jealousy of special rules and preferential treatment the athlete receives. And what the lords of these sports don’t realize — as they collect more and more money from higher ratings and new stadiums — is that you can draw a large crowd with jealousy, as large as one drawn with admiration.

But it is not the same crowd. Gimme a break!

Take this fan in Texas. Once upon a time, it was a big thrill to catch a baseball. But once upon a time it was also a big thrill to meet a ballplayer. And most fans would have happily handed over a ball just for the opportunity. Unfortunately, Belle has been such a creep during his career — and he still gets paid a fortune — that meeting him led to only one emotion: Gimme mine.

So the fan negotiated. He got his little moment of power. Just like the fan screaming at Phillips. Or the ones cheering Draper’s blood. In a strange way, this makes them all feel important, even as it further distances the players and the watchers, until the only emotions in the building are resentment and rage.

It’s sad. It’s regrettable. Think about what Belle said to that guy. “It’s my ball.”

It’s not his. It’s not the fan’s. It belongs to the game, although I’m not sure anyone even understands the word “game” anymore.

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