Fools Without Rules

While serving what he saw as a two-year sentence with the Colorado Rockies, pitcher Mike Hampton won 21 games and lost 28, complained endlessly about his misfortunes and collected more than $20 million from a team to which he contributed almost nothing. Now the pest has gotten his way and shipped out to Atlanta, by way of Miami, where he will get a chance to revivify his career, or -- if baseball still has a just god on the job -- fall on his ass.

The irony is that both the Rockies and the Florida Marlins will be paying big chunks of Hampton's outrageous $84.5 million salary over the next six years. For now, the specific financial arrangements are obscured by the usual cluster of agents and lawyers, who are banging out a complex three-team deal involving six players and $146 million in contracts. Suffice it to say that no matter who picks up what parts of his tab, the ill- tempered lefty will get away with grand larceny -- even if putting on a Braves uniform suddenly transforms him into Cy Young.

Meanwhile, consider this: What if, through some miracle of regeneration, the hapless Marlins or the oxygen-deprived Rockies were to face Atlanta in the National League playoffs sometime before 2008? Florida or Colorado would find itself in the bizarre situation of competing against a pitcher whose freight they're hauling. As ironies go, this one is exquisite: Park a fleet of Mercedeses in the guy's driveway, build him a guest house and a pool, then possibly watch him beat your brains out for a pennant.

And you thought baseball had gone crazy when those two drunks attacked a visiting first-base coach in Chicago, or when that female Anaheim Angels fan swatted San Francisco outfielder Reggie Sanders on the head with a noisemaker during game seven of the World Series. Truth is, there are no longer any restraints, fiscal or social, in the pro-sports world. Out-and-out thieves like Hampton believe it is their right to stick up their present and former employers for sums rivaling the federal budget, while lunatic fans fueled by booze and a twisted vision of entitlement born of high ticket prices, the stupidities of "reality" TV and the loudmouth democracy of talk radio see it as their right to dish out any public abuse they can dream up.

How long will it be until some wild-eyed Bostonian tries to release poison gas in the Yankees clubhouse? When will a crazed Denver Broncos fan fire a pistol at Al Davis? Once you've paid seven bucks for beer at the stadium, after all, or watched the crew from Jackass stuff toy cars into their butts, the sky's the limit when it comes to behavior. Or, rather, the sewer is the limit.

As arrogant and presumptuous as the Mike Hamptons of the world are, they shouldn't be spat on or physically abused. I don't know about you, but I'm dreading Hampton's regular-season return to Coors Field next year as an Atlanta Brave. Rockies fans are by no means the most unruly in baseball -- some of them are still yapping on their cell phones or trying to figure out the difference between a sac bunt and a squeeze play -- but it could get ugly when Hampton takes the mound here in 2003. Rox fans, too, watch the self-destructive idiocies of Survivor on the boob tube, and a lot of them play video games in which spilling virtual blood and gore is the main objective. Too many of them feel no compunction at all about extending the adolescent hungers for violence and aggression well into middle age. They paid for their tickets, didn't they? Doesn't that give them the right to run across the field naked, dry-hump a couple of cheerleaders or Mace the visiting catcher?

Hey, Mike Tyson bit a guy's ear off, and all they did was slap him on the wrist.

Is bad fan behavior completely the fault of the fans? Or of the athletes? Hardly. Even the mellowest Denverites have been subjected to the Pavlovian conditioning sports franchises use to work their crowds into a frenzy. You don't need to slug down eleven shots of Old Grand-Dad in the parking lot before an Avalanche game to find yourself worked up by the shouting announcers, ear-splitting music and mind-blowing scoreboard visuals designed to provoke hysteria. Hitler knew what he was doing when he inflamed the Nazi masses with martial posturing and lunatic ranting. The electronic wizards who work for sports teams know even better what they are doing when they throw "Gimme Some Noise!" commands up on the Diamond Vision and show the readouts from decibel meters in hopes of pumping up the volume even more. So do the architects of stadiums like Invesco Field. They were, in no uncertain terms, instructed to build the thing "noisy," so that it would reproduce the thumping, screaming din of the old rattletrap Mile High Stadium.

At the same time, increasing numbers of sports fans who can't play the games themselves want their heroes to be rough, raw and rude -- all the better to embody their own frustrations with the rules and regulations of day-to-day life. Who gets more attention? A quiet professional like Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith, who's one of the finest players in the game? Or flashy bigmouth Shannon Sharpe, whose skills have declined at about the same rate his syllables have multiplied? Who does the dyed-in-the-wool, face-painted sports fan embrace? Quiet artist Greg Maddux? Or the testosterone-whacked Roger Clemens? Professional wrestling may be on the wane, but cheap theatrics still sell. Tune in to SportsCenter and catch the latest end-zone dances. Or watch, if you can stand it, as a group of ill-dressed sportswriters sit at a table screaming at each other about whether Tiger Woods should skip the Masters or whether Barry Bonds should have the Dungeness crab instead of the T-bone.

In this overheated sports atmosphere -- half marketing, half madness -- the fans now have another role model they can love. The new Winston Cup champion, Tony Stewart, drives a Pontiac for a living, but he's developed secondary careers shoving photographers, trying to punch out fellow racers in the garage and snarling at fans. He told NASCAR officials to drop dead when they ordered him to wear a head-and-neck restraint, and he's publicly said that his job begins and ends on the speedways. Like Charles Barkley in the early 1990s, Stewart says he has no social responsibility to the kids of all ages who worship him. Such a baaaad boy.

Perfect. Like John Rocker or Dennis Rodman before him, his celebrity and the myths of competitive spirit give Tony Stewart the right to be an asshole. Like the Miami of Ohio football coach who shoved a fan to the ground a few weeks ago after his team lost to Marshall, he thinks his station in life gives him special privileges. Like former Nuggets coach Dan Issel, who answered a fan's taunt with a crude ethnic epithet, Stewart has as much contempt for the public as he has an inflated sense of himself. No wonder those who worship sports heroes so often find their emotions commingled with envy and rage.

In the end, we might ask ourselves who the real villians are. Arrogant men-children like Stewart or overpaid complainers like Mike Hampton? The poor shlub who operates the exploding scoreboard? Or are the Joe Six-Packs of the world to blame, guys who would throw Hampton down two flights of stairs if they had the chance and who feel compelled to make fools of themselves at every game? In a pro-sports arena where the rules have been written out of the books, you can take your pick.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo