Tell me something I don't know

Violent fans, pot-smoking players -- why do the sports media seem shocked by the obvious and predictable?

Published September 26, 2002 8:47PM (EDT)

Which one of the following baseball events had never happened before this month, and which one of them got virtually no coverage in the national media?

A) Unencumbered by security guards, fans ran out of the stands to attack a member of one of the teams.

B) One club was accused of having as many as seven marijuana smokers on its roster.

C) An American team moved toward a complicated agreement that will bring Japan's top player to the U.S. for two to four seasons, then send him back home.

The correct answer to both questions is C. Yet the media's continuing amazement in the face of the obvious and the repetitive -- especially in sports -- turned items A and B into unprecedented, unpredictable acts.

Tom Gamboa is the first-base coach of the Kansas City Royals who got poleaxed by the new poster boys for father-and-son togetherness at the old ball yard. While the attack on him was vicious, unjustifiable and resoundingly self-defeating on the part of the attackers, and while it has also resulted in what is at least temporary hearing loss for the victim, it is anything but an unusual occurrence at a major league baseball game.

Three years ago this month, a drunken fan at Milwaukee bet his neighbors in the bleachers that he could "tackle" a ballplayer. He jumped the right-field fence and blindsided Astros' right-fielder Billy Spiers. Spiers suffered whiplash. It was apparently coincidence that, as Gamboa previously worked as a coach in the city of his attack, Chicago, Spiers had previously played for Milwaukee.

In September of 1995, after Randy Myers of the Cubs surrendered a critical home run in a game against the Astros, a 27-year-old Chicago bond trader rushed the mound and took a swing at Myers. Unlike Gamboa or Spiers, Myers saw the man coming, and pummeled him. Afterward, the attacker said he had merely intended to yell at Myers, proving once again that your first idea is usually your best one.

Fans coming onto the field isn't even -- as was often suggested in coverage of the Gamboa incident -- some expression of growing frustration with multimillionaire athletes who are prone to going out on strike. Spectators involved themselves in an infamous on-field brawl between the Padres and Braves in Atlanta in 1984. Others came out of the stands in Cleveland a decade earlier -- one attacking Jeff Burroughs of the Texas Rangers with a folding metal chair -- during the most ill-advised promotion of our times: "Ten Cent Beer Night." In 1961, two fans at Yankee Stadium ran onto the field to attack outfielder Jim Piersall of Cleveland. And, if anything, the history of such incidents in baseball's first century is even more full than it has been in its last 40 years.

The difference, of course, is videotape. We don't even have film of "Ten Cent Beer Night," let alone the almost monthly fan assaults on players and umpires in the 19th century. So, we get endless replays of incidents like the attack on Gamboa instead of cogent analysis of how the safety of players, coaches and umpires depends more on luck and the goodwill of the fans than it does preventive measures.

Heaven forbid that a reporter criticize the teams themselves for making their people vulnerable. Last March, the cable television network owned by the Yankees, YES, promoted its broadcasts of the impending regular season games with a series of cutesy ads. In one, a woman joined the Yankee grounds crew rolling out the tarpaulin during a rain delay, to enable her to rush onto the diamond and ask Derek Jeter out on a date. Weeks later, during the Yankees' home opener, in two separate incidents, young women actually burst onto the field to meet Jeter. That they had hopes of only sex and not violence was sheer accident.

Meantime, after the New York newspaper Newsday reported that as many as seven Mets players had smoked marijuana this season, the city's TV and radio stations, and much of the national sports media, went crazy. Never mind that earlier this season, one Met, pitcher Mark Corey, went into seizures after toking up in a motel parking lot, and the teammate who got him medical aid, outfielder Tony Tarasco, told authorities he had been sharing the stash with Corey. The Newsday story was portrayed as some kind of apocalyptic portent. Nowhere in its repetition was the simplest piece of logic applied: The Mets have employed 42 different players this season, each of whom makes at least $33,000 per month. In how many groups of 42 extremely affluent 21- to 39-year-old males would marijuana use be less than 20 percent?

While these two stories were both run into the ground and still covered only superficially, the intricate saga playing out in offices in the Bronx and Tokyo went by almost unnoticed. I wrote in this space, and reported on radio, of the Yankees' negotiations with their Japanese equivalents, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, for the services of the slugger Hideki Matsui. Matsui homered twice on the night of Monday the 23rd to bring his season totals to 45 homers and 98 RBIs, cinching leadership in both categories. Through the 24th, he held a slim lead with a .339 batting average. He leads Japan's Central League in eight different offensive statistics, including the improbable combination of slugging percentage and on-base average. He is Japan's most productive, and most popular, player since Ichiro Suzuki left for the Seattle Mariners two seasons ago.

Were the Yankees' interest in him not enough to set off a few bells somewhere, there's the marketing angle of his nickname: "Godzilla." And then there's the lend-lease possibilities that would not only break new ground in the international aspect of American sports, but which also could permit George Steinbrenner to skirt the newly agreed upon "luxury tax," designed by the other owners to keep him from signing fresh talent like Matsui.

The Japanese outfielder will be a completely unfettered free agent, effective the end of this season. But he is also the classic Japanese corporate lifer, who dreams of someday coaching for, or managing, the Yomiuri team, or perhaps broadcasting for the television network co-owned with the club, Nippon TV. Seeing Matsui torn between his local loyalty and his dreams to play in the States, particularly for the Yankees, the two clubs have discussed a unique arrangement. The Giants have proposed that Matsui go to the Yankees for a pre-arranged number of years, probably three, and then have him return to Tokyo. In exchange for the Yankees' cooperation, the Giants would essentially underwrite Matsui's trip to North America by paying him a salary to report from the U.S. for Nippon TV. The Yankees could then sign Matsui for less than his full market value, certainly less than the $8 million he's making this season. Matsui would still make his money, but only some of it would count against the Yankees payroll.

Just to round out this international version of Machiavellian business, the Matsui deal could be a formal or informal part of two other transactions between New York and Tokyo. If they can get permission from their respective leagues, the Yankees would allow some of their games to be televised on Nippon TV, and would in turn import some of the Yomiuri Giants' broadcasts for the aforementioned YES network. The Giants have also asked Steinbrenner to drop his long-standing ban on having Yankee players participate in the American off-season all-star tours of Japan -- and have even proposed having Yankees manager Joe Torre skipper the touring all-stars.

The story earned two paragraphs inside the sports section of the New York Times. It has met with exactly the same degree of interest that followed reports two years ago that the seven-time Japanese batting champion, Suzuki, was headed to Seattle.

Of course, when Suzuki actually got to Seattle, and hit .350 to win the American League batting title in his first season in the West, media here treated his arrival, and his accomplishment, as if he had sprung, fully grown, from a turnip patch outside Tacoma, Wash.

Why, they were almost as shocked as they were by that unprecedented attack on the Royals' first-base coach, or that unimaginable marijuana scandal on the New York Mets.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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