Cut-off can't be missed when it comes to beer

Baseball is making alcohol management its top priority in the wake of this week's attack on umpire Laz Diaz.

Originally Published: April 18, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's one of the most serious problems in baseball -- in fact, in every sport. But we disguise it with all kinds of catchy terms:

"Fan violence."

"Unruly fans."

"Crowd management."

Chicago Fan
The attorney for the fan who attacked Laz Diaz said his client's stunt was alcohol-motivated.

But we all know what those terms really mean: Too many beers in too many people in too many stadiums.

Baseball didn't have to recruit Sherlock Holmes to find a quick common thread between the lunkheads who beat up Royals coach Tom Gamboa in Chicago last September and the bozo who attacked umpire Laz Diaz on Tuesday night. It was obvious.

These weren't fans. They were drunks.

But the best way to deal with drunks is never going to happen. In an ideal world, Bud Selig could snap his fingers and say, "No more beer sales in any of our ballparks." And you'd be amazed by how much better crowds would behave.

Well, enough of that hallucination. If you think there is ever going to be a time when no Coors is served in Coors Field and no Miller is served at Miller Park, we hate to break it to you -- but there's a better chance you'll be marrying Heidi Klum.

The prospect of banning beer sales in America's ballparks is "inconceivable," said Kevin Hallinan, baseball's esteemed senior vice president for security and facilities. And the reason for that is as basic as a 3-and-0 fastball.

"It's a very important revenue stream in baseball," Hallinan said. "But it's also something our fans enjoy. It's almost a part of baseball. And it can be a nice part of baseball. To me, there's no reason it SHOULD be banned. We're not doing our job if that's the case."

Most nights of the summer, in most parks in America, baseball does its job. And Hallinan and his security force do their jobs as well as Barry Bonds and A-Rod.

But Tuesday night in Chicago, baseball didn't do its job. Royals players said the nut case who went after Diaz "reeked of beer." And that isn't acceptable -- not for Hallinan, not for any player or umpire, not for any of us who occasionally spend a few hours of our lives at any ballpark in the land. "In many of our parks now, we have family sections," Hallinan said. "To be honest with you, I'm against family sections. The whole park should be a family section. This is our goal. And before I'm through with this thing, that's going to happen."

But how? That's the question all players, all umpires, all fans should be asking right now.

The answer clearly isn't simple. The White Sox actually had more security people than normal on hand Tuesday night, just because it was the Royals' first trip to Chicago since the assault on Gamboa. That wasn't enough.

Because of the attack on Diaz, baseball is now going to make a point of making its security people more visible, and of making sure fans can no longer slip down into the field boxes from the cheap seats. But that isn't enough, either.

Fortunately, Hallinan knows that. And he knew it before Tuesday night, too. So more than two years ago, he got baseball involved with a group known as the TEAM coalition, which stands for Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management.

All four major professional sports participate. But none are involved as extensively as Major League Baseball. For the first time, all 28 teams in the United States took part this winter in TEAM's alcohol-management training program. That involved more than 8,000 people -- from club officials down to ushers and concessionaires.

They were trained in how to recognize when the customers have had one -- or 10 -- too many, and in how to deal with it. It's an ambitious, exemplary program.

So how come it didn't work last Tuesday on the South Side of Chicago?

"That's a very good question that I don't have a perfect answer to," says Jill Pepper, TEAM's executive director. "The White Sox have been very involved. ... But unfortunately, if somebody has a will to do something stupid, it's very difficult to stop."

Baseball's work with TEAM is obviously a step in the right direction. Through TEAM, anyone who serves a beer in any ballpark is supposed to be trained on how to recognize an inebriated fan -- and on what the consequences might be if they don't.

"It's explained," Pepper said, "that just like a bartender, if you're proven to be the person who serves alcohol to someone who injures others ... you share the same personal liability."

Many of the people who are causing us concern have been drinking before they ever got there.
Kevin Hallinan, baseball senior VP for security

But anyone who has ever stood in a concession line, waiting to be served by people who seem oblivious to the concept of customer service, knows that it's tough to have faith in your average concessionaire. So TEAM goes further, giving the same training to ushers and ticket takers, even to parking-lot attendants.

"It starts at the front door," said Hallinan, who will become the chairman of TEAM on May 1. "Many of the people who are causing us concern have been drinking before they ever got there. That was the case with the Gamboa incident last year. That guy was in bad shape before he got there."

Nevertheless, there is more than enough time and more than enough suds for fans to work themselves into bad shape at the ballpark itself. The White Sox, as is their policy, didn't cut off beer sales until the middle of the EIGHTH inning Tuesday. Most parks, Pepper said, serve until the end of the seventh inning.

Baseball has no uniform policy on beer-sale cutoffs. So some teams -- including the Mets, Cubs and Brewers -- stop selling beer after the sixth inning of their own volition. The California teams, because of state law, have no beer vendors, period.

Those teams manage to stay in business. So why wouldn't baseball, especially after an incident like this, be more aggressive about cutting off beer sales earlier in the game in all its parks?

"It's easy to say: Sell less beer, and you'll have less problems," Pepper said. "But there are folks who can chug a whole lot of beers in 30 minutes. If that guy in Chicago reeked of beer, it probably didn't matter when you had the cutoff."

That may be true. But it's still a situation baseball needs to examine, and earlier cutoffs is a partial solution baseball needs to consider.

Nevertheless, we live in a world where there's NO true solution. The beer is going to continue to pour. The drunks are going to blend into the crowds. And no sport, Pepper said, will ever have "more security people than we have fans."

So the sad truth is that it's time for fans themselves to play a more active role in policing the ballparks -- to look for wackos and drunks around them and report them to people who can do something about it.

"As I told the players in Chicago the other night, we don't have barriers around our parks," Hallinan said. "If a person is determined to go out on the field, we can't stop everybody. But we're trying. What happened Tuesday was terrible. It means our plan didn't work. But this isn't a science. It's an art. ...

"Baseball, probably unbeknownst to a lot of people, is one of the leaders in alcohol management. We understand it's important that, if we want families to come to our games, we need to create an atmosphere to encourage them to do that."

That isn't the atmosphere they created Tuesday in Chicago. But every day is a chance to start over and do better. For all of us, that quest needs to start right now.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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