When good fans go bad
Getting blacklisted from a stadium is no walk in the park
Spend enough time in the stands and you're bound to see it happen. A fan, fueled by frustration or delusion or too much beer, hops the wall dividing the faithful from the field and leads security on a chase worthy of Jason Bourne. Fantasy fulfilled, he either surrenders willingly, collapses from exhaustion or, if he's about to have a really bad day, gets a taste of the Taser. The last image the crowd sees is the culprit being hauled away amid a dueling chorus of boos and cheers. The game resumes, his 15 minutes ends -- and our story about rule-breakers and rule-enforcers begins.
As Bill Squires walks the concourse of the New Meadowlands Stadium on a Monday afternoon in mid-August, readying the arena for its first NFL game, he feels a beat of pride. Squires, a former Giants VP and past president of the Stadium Managers Association, is now a consultant for the Giants, Jets and their new digs, where he oversees everything from parking to security to the placement of trash bins. In a few hours, 67,000 fans will file into a building he considers his second home, and it's his job to ensure the safety and satisfaction of every one of those guests. "When someone comes to my house, they expect the bathrooms to be clean, the food to be warm and the drinks to be cold," Squires says. "It's the same here. They expect to have a good time and to feel safe."
Protecting fans -- from outside threats, from each other, from themselves -- is what often puts pros like Squires at odds with the very people they're charged to keep safe. "I consider myself VP of fans," he says. "When we have to eject someone from the stadium, I feel like we failed that fan. We should have caught him before he became completely intoxicated or threw the bottle or ran onto the field. We don't get paid more for kicking people out. To us, a perfect game is a day with no ejections."
When a runaway fan is clotheslined in the outfield, or overzealous snowball fighters are arrested in the stands, the security team is thrust into the spotlight as a bunch of killjoys in bright yellow shirts. But the gatekeepers and gatecrashers are more alike than either side might think. At heart, they are all über-fans who love their teams. Squires resigned from active duty as a Navy fighter pilot when George Steinbrenner offered him a stadium operations job 24 years ago, after they met at spring training. A native of South Orange, N.J., Squires grew up rooting for the Yankees and Giants, and he is convinced that, if pricked, he would bleed navy-blue pinstripes or red-and-blue swirls, depending on the season. So it's no surprise he hires staffers equally enamored of the home team. "I protect this stadium as if my family is inside," says New Meadowlands security director Dan DeLorenzi, a former deputy chief of police in Newark and a lifelong Giants and Jets fan. (Yes, both.) "And most games, my wife and son are inside."
Unfortunately, some fans get a little too comfy inside their favorite stadium, not unlike the drunk guy who makes an ass of himself at his cousin's house, assuming he'll eventually be forgiven. In the real world, most people know they shouldn't run naked across their neighbor's lawn or start a brawl with the person next to them on the train. But after years of watching on-field fights, reading stories glorifying wall jumpers and even getting away with their own bad behavior, fans tend to separate the sports world from the real world and its laws of decorum. They think they're in the trust tree.
Except they're not.
They're in public arenas housing tens of thousands of people. A stadium is like a gated community, and security personnel always know where the rowdiest inhabitants live. DeLorenzi oversees a safety services staff of about 700, including in-house security, local police, firefighters and EMTs. But in many ways, security encompasses the entire event staff -- all 4,000 employees. "Communication between every level is essential," DeLorenzi says. "It's important for everyone to understand where their responsibilities begin and end." For example: A vendor spots an intoxicated fan shouting obscenities, then alerts an usher, who reports the incident to a supervisor, who notifies the security command center (typically located midfield, next to the press box), which sends two or three staffers to the scene. Fans can also text complaints directly to the command center via a number displayed on video screens repeatedly during the game. "We teach our people our use-of-force policy," DeLorenzi says. "If a fan doesn't listen to verbal instructions, or there's an assault or crime, the next step is to call in the police. This happens a couple of times a game."
In other words, fans are constantly being watched -- in their seats, in the hallways, at concession stands -- by ushers and beer men, cops and custodians, and a vast network of high-tech cameras (more than 400 at the New Meadowlands). If someone shows up wearing a visiting team's jersey, security knows where that person is before the first insult is hurled. "It's our job to protect them," Squires says. "Even the knuckleheads."
Meet Craig Coakley. Some people might call him a knucklehead -- and he's okay with that -- but he prefers to be known as the Citi Field Streaker, because he sacrificed a lot for that title. Born and raised in Queens, the 30-year-old Coakley has a Mets logo tattooed over his heart, and he talks about getting more ink, "a teardrop falling from the logo," to show just how much Mets fans are willing to suffer. "I've never gone a season without seeing my Mets in person," he says. "I had no idea that's what I was risking."
On the morning of May 12, 2009, Coakley woke up determined to live out a dream he'd had for seven years. He and his girlfriend had broken up a few days earlier, so he'd been seeking comfort in the one enduring love of his life, the hard-luck not-so-Amazins. But love makes people do foolish things, and Coakley suddenly became besotted with the notion of streaking across the Mets' brand-new ball field. No one had done it yet; he would be the first, forever linked to his team. So he called a lawyer to find out what repercussions he'd face if he hopped the wall, ran onto the field and slid, au naturel, into second. "He told me I would get a night in jail and maybe do community service," says Coakley, a plumber who moonlights as the lead singer for an "alternative hybrid hip-hop" band called One Time. "He advised me not to go fully nude, and said he'd represent me afterward. Then he said my call was the funniest he'd received in 25 years of practicing law."
A night in jail and community service? For Coakley, it was a small price to pay for eternal love. Besides, he figured that as soon as team officials heard how dedicated he was, they'd laugh it off, drop the charges and make him an unofficial mascot. He loved the Mets, and the Mets were sure to love him back.
Emboldened, he cut a pair of jeans down the seams and taped them back together, on the inside, for quick removal. He painted the name of his YouTube channel on his chest and had a friend paint "LETS GO METS" in orange and blue on his back. Then he headed to Citi Field and bought a $350 ticket on the first baseline, along with a Mets rally monkey to wear around his waist and cover his, ahem, strike zone.
"I had a few beers to loosen up while I waited for the right opportunity," he says. "Then, in the bottom of the fifth, a foul ball came flying my way. When everyone's heads turned, I stripped off my clothes and jumped over the wall. It was the scariest moment of my life."
The next few moments went exactly as Coakley expected. With security giving chase, he slid into second and then -- hoping to avoid injury or a scuffle -- ran to centerfield and lay down, monkey-first, in the grass, where he was quickly pulled to his feet and escorted off the field to a chorus of boos and cheers.
What followed was not part of his plan but is typical of what happens after a trespassing fan is led away by security, disappears into a tunnel and becomes little more than an afterthought for the people whose game experience he interrupted. Coakley was taken to a holding cell in the ballpark (most stadiums have one or two cells and often a police substation as well), processed and detained until the end of the game. "I asked for something to cover up with," he says. "The security guards were like, 'You just ran naked in front of 40,000 people, and now you're embarrassed?'" He was handed over to police (who gave him clothes), transported to a local precinct and booked. He spent the night in jail and was released on $1,000 bail the next afternoon. When he called the lawyer who thought he was funny the day before, the guy acted as if they'd never spoken and wanted nothing to do with him, he says. Grandma was furious. Mom was mortified. Dad wouldn't talk to him for days.
Coakley eagerly snatched up copies of every newspaper mentioning his name, but each one brought more bad news. "They said I was facing up to a year in prison and thousands of dollars in fines," he says. "One story said they wanted me to do 60 days at Rikers Island. There are murderers at Rikers. All those months of not knowing if I was going to jail were the worst part of it all."
On the day of his sentencing, Coakley avoided jail time, getting hit instead with 20 days of community service and a $3,000 fine. (All in all, he estimates his naked dash cost him nearly $20,000 in fines, lost work and legal fees.) But the Mets proved a much harsher judge, delivering a devastating blow he had never imagined: He was banned for life. He can never purchase season tickets. His name and photo are in the team's computer system, and if he's seen inside the park, he'll be ejected.
Like hundreds of sports fans each year, Coakley has been blacklisted. "That was the saddest moment," he says. "I can't even go to spring training. I had no idea of the legal ramifications. I just wanted a good story to tell the grandkids."
Of course, the rule-makers are much more concerned with the here and now. "The day you decide to jump the wall, the team may have received a bomb threat, the national terror alert may be on high, or they might have dealt with several incidents already that week," says Jim McGee, a former FBI agent and the current program director at the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety & Security, at the University of Southern Mississippi. Every intruder must be treated as if he or she could be carrying a weapon. Everyone is viewed as a potential William Ligue Jr., the 34-year-old suburban Chicago man who, along with his son, ran onto the field at Comiskey Park in 2002 and attacked Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa. Anyone could be the next Günter Parche, who slipped from the stands at a tennis match in 1993 and stabbed Monica Seles with a knife. "Field intrusions, worldwide, are taken very seriously now," says Erik Stover, managing director of MLS' Red Bulls and the former GM of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. "Players, coaches and refs are exposed and unprotected in a big open space. The only thing a team can do is have a zero-tolerance policy."
All of which means that the just-trying-to-have-fun defense falls on deaf ears. Witness 17-year-old Steve Consalvi, who jumped onto the field at a Phillies game this past May and was Tasered by a police officer, ejected from Citizens Bank Park and charged with defiant trespass, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Security can't take any chances. "When we show up, the person is always very shocked," says Philadelphia police sergeant Chris Bee, who heads the police effort at Eagles and Phillies games. "They think they're going to be ejected for that game, but they don't expect to be charged criminally, even though that's announced before every game."
And they don't expect to be blacklisted.
Johnny Macchione sure didn't. In August of last year, with his hometown Cubs down 12-2 to the Phillies in the bottom of the fifth, Macchione's love for his team turned to anger -- over the season, over the game, over another wasted at-bat. With one out and two runners in scoring position, Cubs third baseman Jake Fox hit a fly to deep center. As Shane Victorino moved under the ball, Macchione reached over the ivy-covered wall and dumped his beer onto the Phillies centerfielder, who still made the catch. "It was an impulsive thing, and alcohol-fueled," says Macchione, who's 22. "It wasn't the brightest decision, but I thought it would be a lot more petty than it was."
He watched and said nothing as security members removed the wrong fan. After reviewing the tapes, the Cubs notified police of the mistake, and a warrant was issued for Macchione's arrest. "I woke up the next morning, and there was a manhunt for me," he says. After he turned himself in, he was charged with battery and illegal conduct in a sports facility. "It was crazy. I thought I was going to jail. Reporters were calling my house, showing up outside. A lot of bad things were said about me. It cost me more than I ever thought it would."
Macchione was banned from Wrigley Field for the 2010 season, an unthinkable fate for a guy who had regularly attended Cubs games since he was a kid. Now he watches from home, alone, pining for opening day next year. "My friends are always calling me, saying, 'Guess where we're at?' It wasn't worth it."
Security officials can only hope that most blacklisted fans feel the same way, because the fact remains that it's hard for teams to enforce those bans, unless the transgressors are dumb enough to buy tickets using their real names, or to sit in their usual sections (with friends or family members on the same ticket plans), or to otherwise draw attention to themselves. There are no banned-fans lists at stadium turnstiles, no photos of guys like Coakley and Macchione posted inside ticket windows.
Facial-recognition software and fingerprint scanners? Maybe one day, but not yet. Coakley claims to have attended three games at Citi Field this year, in disguise and on his best behavior. But teams catch blacklisted fans more frequently than you might imagine. "If someone does something stupid enough to get themselves banned, people will remember them," Squires says. "The security guards who were involved will recognize the person. It happens all the time. I don't know why fans are willing to risk it."
Maybe because love makes people do foolish things.
ESPN The Magazine: September 20, 2010
Check out the content from ESPN The Magazine's September 20, 2010 issue -- the List Issue -- below.