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April 22, 2003

Breaking Balls

Safety First

by Derek Zumsteg

Would you kill someone for $1,000? What about $10,000? How far do I have to go before you start thinking "Well, do I know them? Are they bad people?" Or the opposite question: How much would you pay to prevent someone from being killed?

This is the choice baseball faces when they consider their security. It's much like the choices architects make when they construct ballparks: price, speed, and ease of construction each weighed against comfort, quality, security, earthquake resistance.

Baseball this last week was forced to re-assess the balance it had struck, when four fans ran out onto the field during a White Sox game, including a guy who apparently was really fond of umpire Laz Diaz's leg (and was stomped for his love).

I've heard restrictions on alcohol mentioned in nearly every article I've read since then, from calls for a total ban to even more severe restrictions, if that's even possible. Now, I do most of my drinking at Safeco Field, and the only restriction I can think of would be to limit beer purchases to one per transaction, and that's still not going to keep me from ordering a beer every time a vendor comes by, which is frequent enough where I could still get drunk enough to charge the field.

As much as it pains me to admit this--being a big proponent of alcohol myself--I don't doubt that many of these morons are drunk. And while I'd love to be able to deny it, I grew up in white-trash suburbs and...yeah, these guys typically look exactly like I fear they will when people tell me there's been another incident at a baseball game. Is the solution then to keep mullets out of stadiums? Or perhaps to screen entrance to the stadium by asking fans if they think Trans-Ams are cool, followed by severe beatings?

Clearly, it's not, but every team should take a fresh look at their situation and re-work their security arrangements. At Safeco Field along the first-base line, fans sit separated from the field by a two-foot fence that seems to disappear as you watch the game over it (which I partly blame for these fans constantly interfering with balls in play). If the team takes on that kind of risk, shouldn't they be prepared to mitigate it?

There are obvious solutions. Increase gate security, so the severely sloshed can't get in. Many of these people are reported to have been feeling no pain even before they got into the park, and nobody should be able to stagger in without at least being eyeballed and flagged for personal attention.

For field-accessible seats, beef up the aisle security and have the ushers at the top of the aisles check all the tickets. At the bottom of the aisles, set up security: cops if you can get them, security if you can't--even if they're sitting against the rail, scanning the crowd. Demonstrate a clear, obvious, and attentive security approach. That way, if you're a crasher, first you have to get past an usher or two, and then make your way down into the middle seats sufficiently far enough away from the security to make your move--and by this point, if the team has any kind of attendance, you've started to cause a stir to attract the attention of the guys who are going to toss you.

This doesn't prevent everything, though. Buying a front-row ticket, for instance, staying sober, and keeping your head down until you decide to make your run for it is something that's still a danger. What does that take to prevent? Plexiglass or netting, as some have suggested? Or do you take the first steps to stop the random, wandering field-jumpers and then see if you're forced to escalate?

These are all hard choices. At the minimum, they require baseball to hire more people, to train more people to recognize warning signs, to intervene early, and probably to pay their ushers and security enough that they're willing to be much more active. That's expensive.

But let's be honest. If baseball dedicated even 1% of their alcohol-related sales to pure additional security, they would be able to run one of the safest, most intelligent and fan-friendly operations in pro sports. For a Mariner home game with low attendance, I sketch that out as at least 10 more off-duty cops (at time-and-a-half for four hours), which would cover every aisle-meets-field intersection.

Want to enjoy a beer at the game? No problem. Looking to cause trouble? You'd be out on the sidewalk facing city cops before you got 10 feet onto the grass.

The question isn't whether baseball can do this--it's whether they're willing to pay a modest cost to ensure the safety of the players and officials, or if they'll take continue to take their chances now that it's clear they've erred on the side of saving money.

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