August 14, 2003
Out of His Ligue
William Ligue Jr. did not get sent to jail last week. The judge instead sentenced him to 30 months of probation.
I've had a lot of jobs in my life, but I've never been a lawyer, or a judge. Yet even I can see that Judge Leo Holt has made a bad decision, based on flawed reasoning, and while one bad judicial decision may not affect the country (unless it involves an election), I worry about what this one means.
Judge Holt: "The violence that baseball players are exposed to comes from within. What fan has not seen a pitcher intentionally hurl a baseball at a player's head at 90 miles per hour? Who has not seen a batter leave home plate headed for the pitcher's mound bat in hand bent on mischief and mayhem?"
I understand what he means. And yet, the issue of on-field conflict is something baseball has struggled to control. Intent is difficult to determine when pitchers throw inside, and baseball's tried to strike a balance between letting the game play itself out and deterring on-field confrontations. You see this balance every time an ump decides to warn both benches, attempting to stave off further beanings at the cost of dramatically changing where pitches and even game strategy can go.
This is a bad argument, though. If a fan on the street strikes a boxer, that's still assault. It's also pretty stupid, but stay with me for a second. If the fan in the stands shoots a boxer between rounds, he certainly wouldn't be acquitted because boxing is an inherently violent sport. If Ligue and his young charge had come out of a bar in Chicago and beaten up Gamboa on the street, would Holt have decided the sentencing differently?
While circumstances certainly play a part in any case, there's no way that a confrontation between two players over a brushback excuses fans rushing the field with the intent of beating down anyone.
Judge Holt: "What is the expected conduct of fans who sit for two or three hours drinking unlimited quantities of beer? How did Comiskey Park come to be known as the world's largest outdoor saloon?''
Comiskey Park isn't known as the world's largest outdoor saloon any more than Wrigley Field, or Yankee Stadium, or indoor sports stadiums are known as large bars.
And the expected conduct of fans who sit drinking? It's no different than the expected conduct of fans who sit drinking in bars, or restaurants, or even at home: to obey the law. To not try and beat the crap out of other people.
There is an angle here that has been overlooked: Holt's sentence does require Ligue to clearly admit he has an addiction problem (he's admitted drug and alcohol abuse, and has several drunk driving convictions), and the sentence requires him to continue attending drug and alcohol counseling. But if Holt's intent was to encourage Ligue to continue to fight his personal demons, there's another solution--give him a suspended sentence. Tag Ligue with a jail term and hang it over his head. That's motivation, and as an added bonus you get the deterrent: the press can report on the 30-day jail sentence Ligue got, even if it's still dicey that he'd be forced to serve it. People read 'probation' and think Ligue got off scot-free. I understand that perception should hardly enter into sentencing, and yet this would seem to serve as a good compromise for everyone involved, giving baseball something to point to as what'll happen the next time some idiot tries to jump an unsuspecting player, coach, or umpire on the field.
And even here, though, Holt goes wrong:
"A sentence of probation should not be viewed as a pass or a slap on the wrist. The defendant is a convicted felon. He will bear that stigma for the balance of his life."
Ligue is a convicted felon because he previously committed burglary. Should prior convictions excuse future conduct from punishment? Can I get off free on any future speeding tickets because I got a whopper back in 1992 when I was a reckless teenager and drove home from Target way too fast one night in Tukwila, city of dark-colored police cruisers?
No. In fact, it's such a ridiculous argument I'm not even going to try it if I ever get another ticket.
It's easy to get too involved in a story, as it seems Judge Hold did, to look at every circumstance and the setting, to find a thousand secondary contributors and triggers. It's but for the grace of genetics that many of us don't fight the same addiction problems Ligue does. None of this means that Ligue stayed in his seat, and committed no crime.
This decision will encourage players and other on-field personnel to make themselves the deterrent. If the players feel that they're in danger from fans, and that the legal system won't protect them, they're going to protect themselves.
I was appalled at how badly Ligue got beaten after he was subdued. The next guy who goes on to a field and heads towards a player is going to wish he got a beating that was "only" that bad, and then perhaps we'll see the players prosecuted as well, all because a judge in Chicago wanted to make his own statements about the state of baseball.