Baseball shouldn't overreact to attack

Thursday's incident was shocking, but ballparks are relatively safe places, and don't need to be turned into armed camps.

By King Kaufman

Published September 20, 2002 4:40PM (EDT)

My dad took me to a lot of baseball games when I was a kid, but we never got around to a moment of father-son bonding like the one enjoyed by the two shirtless lunatics who ran onto the field Thursday night and attacked a coach at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

William Ligue Jr., 34, of the Chicago suburb of Alsip, and his 15-year-old son jumped Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa in the ninth inning of Thursday's game against the White Sox, knocking him down from behind and landing a few blows before the Royals poured out of the first base dugout and overwhelmed the attackers. Gamboa, who was mostly able to fend off his assailants by kicking at them after he was knocked down, escaped with some cuts and a bruised cheek. He described himself as stiff, sore and shaken.

The attackers, who face aggravated battery charges, appeared uninjured after the melee, which ended when security pulled them away from the Royals. Fortunately for the shirtless pair, the first Kansas City player to reach them was Neifi Perez, who doesn't hit much. Royals players say an unopened pocket knife was recovered at the scene.

The assault was shocking, frightening, bizarre and disgusting. But baseball would be making a mistake if it responded to the incident by turning stadiums into armed prison camps.

Little was known Friday morning about what motivated Ligue and his son, who is being charged as a juvenile. Were they crankheads? They did have that look, didn't they? Were they drunk? Did they have a beef with Gamboa, who used to coach for the crosstown Cubs? Did Gamboa somehow -- and I can't imagine how -- provoke the attack? Was this an "assignment" from one of those moronic reality TV shows?

Long before Sept. 11 made us all jumpy and nervous about situations we used to take for granted, like flying on an airplane or going to work, I found it amazing that incidents of fan violence beyond drunken fistfights in the stands were so rare. How can it be, I used to wonder, that with all the millions of people who gather in arenas and stadiums every year, with beer flowing and passions sometimes running high, nobody ever pulled out a gun and took a potshot at a player?

There have been incidents, and they do have a way of happening in or near Chicago. A man rushed at Cubs reliever Randy Myers, who saw him coming and defended himself, in 1995 at Wrigley Field. Five years later at the same park, members of the Los Angeles Dodgers swarmed into the crowd in pursuit of a fan who had stolen the hat off catcher Chad Kreuter's head as he sat in the bullpen. (Chicagoans are quick to point out that it was a Dodgers fan.) Up the highway in Milwaukee in 1999, Houston Astros right fielder Bill Spiers was left bruised and bloody when a fan attacked him on the field. Fans also occasionally throw things -- usually beer but sometimes more dangerous objects like batteries -- at players.

The most famous on-field attack on an athlete happened in Germany in 1993, when a deranged fan stabbed tennis player Monica Seles on the court.

As scary and nonsensical as all these attacks have been, they are also notable for their scarcity. Ballplayers are on record as being increasingly nervous about their personal safety on the field, but they're actually quite safe. There have been four fan assaults, counting a hat-snatching, on major league players and coaches, none of them resulting in serious injuries, over the last eight years -- which is about 19,500 regular season games. With 50 players in each game, that's roughly 975,000 player workdays. If you had a business with 100 employees and the same rate of violent incidents, that would mean one of your employees would get attacked every 9.37 years. That's not exactly a terrible safety record, especially since we're classifying grabbing a cap off someone's head as a violent incident.

It's even better when you throw in spring training and the postseason, and when you consider that you can go back a lot farther than eight years without more incidents, though it's only fair to consider the current climate, an era ushered in by the 1995 Wrigley Field attack.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, "Risk factors for workplace violence include dealing with the public, the exchange of money, and the delivery of services or goods." The vendors in the stands are far more vulnerable to fan violence than the players and coaches are. For every attack on a player by a fan, there are hundreds by another player, something ballplayers aren't overly concerned about.

As Gamboa put it Thursday, "When you get in brawls with the other team, you have a chance to anticipate this type of thing."

All of which is why baseball shouldn't overreact to Thursday's incident with Draconian security procedures. There will be pressure to do so. "If it takes installing X-ray machines, install them," wrote columnist Jay Mariotti in Friday's Chicago Sun Times. "If it takes constructing a moat between the stands and field, as they've done in European soccer stadiums, then construct it. If it takes erecting a shock fence, as we saw in the 'Rollerball' movie, then erect it."

Of course the White Sox should review their security procedures to see if there are weaknesses that can be shored up with reasonable means. But as Gamboa acknowledged, there's no way to guard against everything. "I don't know what we can do to eliminate stuff like this," he said. "If people in the stands are going to be on drugs in the ballpark, or drinking, or whatever provoked this thing, there's only so much security you can do."

There is crime in the real world, which is to say the world outside of baseball games, but we don't want to live in a police state. We live with a certain amount of risk, and we hope the police do their job when someone breaks the law. There's no reason for our approach in the relatively safe environment of the baseball stadium to be any different.

More than 70 million people go to major league games every year, and you can count the number of attacks on athletes and coaches on one hand. That's still several fingers too many, don't get me wrong. But it's no reason to turn ballparks into gulags.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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