OVER THE LINE

COVID may take a backseat to this newest threat to live sporting events

COVID may take a backseat to this newest threat to live sporting events
We've already seen fights in the stands at Astros games. Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images.
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It's nothing new, really, but there seems to be more unruly fan behavior than ever at American sports events: fistfights in the stands, spitting on players, throwing popcorn and a water bottle at NBA All-Stars, violating COVID protocol, profanity-laced jeers directed at individual players … where does it end?

Here's where it might – sports events played in empty stadiums with fans forbidden from attending. That's nothing new, either, especially in Europe and South America where out-of-control soccer fans ("hooligans") have forced the sport's ruling bodies, including FIFA and UEFA, to punish teams and fans by forcing matches to be played "behind closed doors." Typically this is the last resort against fan violence or racism.

"Behind closed doors" isn't limited to soccer. In 2009, Israel was scheduled to meet Sweden in the first round of tennis' Davis Cup international tournament. The host city in Sweden, fearing anti-Israel demonstrations, pre-emptively announced that the event would be held without fans.

"Behind closed doors" isn't limited to Europe and South America, either. It's happened here. In 2015, a game between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles was played without fans at Camden Yards. There was civil unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who was injured while in police custody. The Orioles and city of Baltimore could not guarantee the safety of fans attending the game. Since the game could not be rescheduled for later that season, the teams took the field without fans in the stands. It was an eerie sight in America.

Could current unruly fan behavior rise to events routinely being held "behind closed doors" here? It might, unless something is done now to address unacceptable fan behavior. Teams must strictly strengthen ("enhance") a code of conduct for fans. Perhaps stadiums should designate sections for fans of the visiting team. Family sections with no alcohol sales may be worth considering. Or sections for vaccinated fans only. Anything to lower the temperature in the stands.

Several years ago I was in Rome and bought a ticket from a scalper outside Stadio Olimpico for the big match between A.S. Roma and Juventus. I had never been to a European soccer match, but I had heard wild stories about fans going nuts. This I gotta see.

How was I to know, but my ticket was in the Juventus "supporters section." Enemy territory. The section was partitioned off with bulletproof glass and patrolled by police with automatic weapons strapped on their backs. That didn't stop A.S. Roma fans from tossing chairs and plastic baggies filled with urine over the barriers. The baggies would burst when they hit the ground dousing nearby fans. While disgusting, for an American attending his first soccer match, it was exciting, a story to tell when I got back home. Then again, I wasn't splashed with hooligan urine. Things would have been different then.

A couple of years later, my train from Amsterdam to Paris was delayed for several hours because of soccer "hooliganism." The announcement at Amsterdam Centraal station used that word. This time I was pissed.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Yankee Stadium for the Astros first games in front of Yankee fans since the Astros cheating scandal broke. I didn't expect Yankee fans to roll out the welcome wagon, but I was surprised when the sold-out crowd (COVID-limited to 10,800) chanted "F-Altuve" and "F-Houston" in unison like a well trained cheer squad. Yankee fans were so hostile that Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who just last year told critics to "shut the f-up," complained about the jeering.

No problem here. You want to jump and scream at the opposing team, have at it.

I've had a problem with fan behavior only one time. In 2002, I took my son, then 5 years old, to a professional wrestling event. I know, I'm a horrible parent, but I was "working." We were in the 10th row. In the 11th row, directly behind us, were five or six guys, I'm guessing in their early 20s, who were yelling graphic sexual insults at the wrestlers, especially the women grapplers. As the evening wore on, the guys got drunker and drunker, and their screams got filthier and filthier and more obscene and racist.

I've been to hundreds of wrestling events, but this was offensive even for wrestling. I'm sitting there with a child, what to do? If I turn and tell them to shut up, they'll tell me where I can go and what I can do when I get there – in front of my kid. I couldn't change seats, the venue was sold out. If I asked an usher for help, well, have you seen the ushers at Houston stadiums? By the time they make it down to the 10th row, it'll be tomorrow. My only option was to leave. Parents who bring their children to a sporting event should never have to leave because other fans can't behave.

The answer to growing fan violence and offensive behavior is difficult. I know that a fan spitting or throwing something at a player warrants more than simple ejection and banning from future events. Maybe it's time to arrest violent fans and throw them in jail for a few days.

If unruly fans keep it up the only answer may be empty stadiums, and nobody wants that.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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