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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Byline: Tracy Ringolsby, Rocky Mountain News

PHOENIX -- Just a hunch, but the problems between players and fans are only getting started. One of the nice things about the new ballparks is their intimacy. One of the bad things about the new ballparks is their intimacy. The closer the fans are to the action, the closer baseball is going to be to ugly confrontations like the one that happened Monday night in Oakland, Calif., where Texas reliever Frank Francisco threw a plastic chair into the stands and opened up a legal nightmare for himself, the Rangers and the Oakland Athletics. Jennifer Bueno, whose husband admits to having heckled the players sitting in the Rangers bullpen, wound up with a broken nose, heavy medical bills and more legal advice than she can ever imagine. There is absolutely, positively no excuse for Francisco's actions. And he's going to pay for his transgressions in this litigation-happy world. The truth, however, is that it's surprising there aren't more serious confrontations between fans and players. The Network Associates Coliseum is far from one of the new-look ballparks, but over the years the stands around the visiting bullpen in Oakland have developed a vile reputation. Maybe they are Raiders renegades who couldn't find their way out of the park, but they are known for their obscenities, for hitting players with various objects and for pouring cups of urine on visiting relief pitchers. "In Milwaukee, you'd go down the line to get a ball and you would know a cup of beer was coming at you," Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "In Oakland . . . well, it wasn't beer." In 1976, when Kansas City was battling Oakland for the American League West title in the final week of the season, things got so ugly around the Royals bullpen that Kansas City players charged from the dugout. The next morning, the photo on the front of the Kansas City Times sports section featured Royals designated hitter Hal McRae in the stands, swinging an umbrella. And, last season, outfielder Carl Everett, then with Texas, was hit in the head by a cell phone thrown from the stands in Oakland. But the problem isn't Oakland's alone. In 2000, on the north side of Chicago, Los Angeles Dodgers players got into a brawl with fans after one reached over the wall, hit Dodgers catcher Chad Kreuter in the head and stole his cap. Frank Robinson, baseball's discipline czar at the time, initially handed down a record-setting 84 games of suspensions for 19 Dodgers players and coaches, although by the time the appeals were over, five players and two coaches missed games. Ty Cobb was suspended in 1912 for hitting a fan who, according to newspaper accounts, couldn't fight back because he had only one hand - and there were only two fingers on the hand. A year ago, four fans jumped out of the stands at U.S. Cellular Park in Chicago, with one attacking umpire Laz Diaz. The incident occurred one year after Kansas City first-base coach Tom Gamboa was attacked during a game in the same stadium. And one of the two most famous fan frenzies in history happened at old Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979. The White Sox, looking for a promotion to pump up attendance, decided to stage Disco Demolition Night. Between games of a doubleheader with Detroit, White Sox personnel blew up disco records that fans had presented to gain admission for 98 cents. The next thing anyone knew, fans from the sellout crowd were flooding the field and tearing down fences, and it took a half-hour for riot police to get things back in order. Fans don't always need an enticement like Disco Demolition or 10-Cent Beer Night, which forced a forfeiture in Cleveland in 1974, but they had better be aware whom they're attacking. In September 1995, Cubs reliever Randy Myers gave up a two-run, pinch-hit home run to Houston's James Mouton that gave the Astros a 9-7 lead at Wrigley Field. While Mouton circled the bases, John Murray, a 27-year-old-fan, jumped out of the stands and headed toward the mound, where Myers, well versed in martial arts, was waiting. "I felt the look in his eyes, that he wanted to hurt me," Myers said at the time. "He reached for his pocket and I thought it could be for a knife or a gun, so I dropped him with a forearm. I tried to defend myself and my teammates." INFOBOX 1 Game over There have been at least eight forfeits in Major League Baseball history because of fan involvement: Year Team Reason 1995 Dodgers Dodgers fans throw souvenir baseballs onto the field three times during a game with St. Louis. The Dodgers trailed 2-1 in the ninth inning. 1979 White Sox Disco Demolition Night sparks a riot between games of a doubleheader, forcing Chicago to forfeit the second game to Detroit. 1974 Indians 10-Cent Beer Night turns ugly, prompting Cleveland to forfeit to Texas with the score tied 5-5 in the ninth inning. 1971 Senators Fans swarm the field with two out in the ninth inning of the final game in Washington as the Senators lead the Yankees 7-5. 1949 Phillies Fans riot over an umpire's call in a game against the Giants. 1913 Phillies Fans waving handkerchiefs in center field are considered a distraction, resulting in the Phillies' ninth-inning forfeit of a game in which they led the Giants 8-6. 1907 Giants Fans throwing snowballs lead to a forfeit of an Opening Day shutout to the Phillies. 1901 Reds Fans come on the field, forcing a forfeit to the Giants of a game the Reds were trailing 25-13. INFOBOX 2 On second thought... Looks like Twins are planning ahead Even amid his team's battle for a postseason spot, Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan must take time to look at the future. And, so far, Ryan has shown the ability to get a good glimpse. The Twins are on the verge of clinching a third consecutive title in the American League Central, and already Ryan has made a major move for 2005: He traded first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, a popular figure but a growing financial concern who was expendable because Justin Morneau had proved his worth in the minors. And once the postseason comes to an end, Ryan will have other major decisions to make in an attempt to maintain a contending team with a payroll that barely is above $50 million. The left side of the Twins infield - third baseman Corey Kos- kie and shortstop Cristian Guzman - has free-agent potential. The Twins wouldn't mind keeping Guzman, but not at his $5.75 million option. And there is concern about whether the budget can accommodate two players eligible for arbitration, second baseman Luis Rivas and outfielder Jacque Jones. The potential loss of so many critical players would create consternation for most teams. But for the Twins, it's business as usual. They have been able to cope with such circumstances the past couple of years because Ryan and his staff, without much attention, have put together a farm system rich in talent to supply replacement parts. Think about last winter. Closer Eddie Guardado and his primary setup man, LaTroy Hawkins, were free agents, and left-handed starter Eric Milton's guaranteed salary of $9.3 million exceeded the reality of the Twins' financial situation. So Ryan traded catcher A.J. Pierzynski, whose $3.5 million price had exceeded his value to the Twins, to San Francisco for a couple of young pitchers, including Joe Nathan. Ryan shipped Milton to Philadelphia for unproven right-hander Carlos Silva. The general manager promoted catcher Joe Mauer, the No. 1 pick in the draft three years ago, then filled in by signing veteran free agents Henry Blanco (to back up Mauer) and Terry Mulholland, a left-handed swingman to fill bullpen and rotation needs. Get the picture? Ryan unloaded $18.3 million of salary in Guardado, Hawkins, Pierzynski and Milton; the replacement parts were paid $2.43 million. Despite all their moves, the Twins are preparing for the postseason, even if their Opening Day payroll of $53,585,000 ranked 19th - about $6 million less than Oakland, the only other contender in the same financial neighborhood as the Twins. INFOBOX 3 American League Anaheim has new ownership, which doesn't have the long-term loyalty to retain homegrown players such as third baseman Troy Glaus and right-handed closer Troy Percival. Baltimore has to regroup after failing to add any quality arms during its free-agent shopping spree in the winter. The Orioles will free up some money by unloading the contracts of designated hitters/first basemen Rafael Palmeiro and David Segui and left-hander Omar Daal. But they do figure to retain outfielder B.J. Surhoff, who has family reasons to remain in Baltimore - unless he decides to retire. Boston feels an urgency to re-sign catcher Jason Varitek, who has become a stabilizing influence on the roster, but it's going to be a challenge because of the presence of agent Scott Boras. The Red Sox are making sounds about keeping right-hander Pedro Martinez, but that could be more of a publicity stunt than reality in light of the heat Martinez has taken this season concerning his desire to be the highest-paid pitcher in the game. Chicago's four-year, $16 million offer to outfielder Magglio Ordonez was rejected, but it's not out of the question he'll re-sign with the White Sox on a one-year deal. His value has been affected by a season-ending injury to his left knee and the development of bone marrow edema. Cleveland is debating what to do about right-hander Scott Elarton, whose in-season improvement provides reason to believe he finally has overcome the injury problems that led to his release in Colorado. The Indians want a veteran presence in the rotation, but they also believe they have young starters waiting for an opportunity, so it could come down to how much money Elarton wants. Detroit made its free-agent move last off-season, signing outfielder Rondell White, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and right-hander Ugueth Urbina. The Tigers don't have any major decisions to make this off-season: Right-handers Esteban Yan and Al Levine are their only potential free agents, as long as the team exercises a $4 million option on Urbina. Kansas City made its major off-season move this week, re-signing outfielder Matt Stairs to a $1.2 million deal for 2005 that carries $500,000 in incentives. The Royals also would like to retain left-hander Dennys Reyes and infielder Desi Relaford, though Relaford wants to start, and Kansas City likes him in a utility role. Minnesota right-hander Brad Radke has indicated a desire to stay and has admitted he is not going to get a deal similar to the four-year, $36 million contract he is playing out this season. The Twins also would like to keep third baseman Corey Koskie, but he'll have to settle for less than $3 million or the job will go to Michael Cuddyer. New York is faced with a challenge to re-sign right-hander Orlando Hernandez. The Yankees, who have looked for ways to unload the Cuban defector, have a new-found appreciation for Hernandez, who has been responsible for the Yankees' ability to stay atop the East this season while Mike Mussina struggles and Kevin Brown fights injuries. Hernandez has gone 8-0 and the Yankees have won 11 of his 12 starts. There also is interest in keeping outfielder Ruben Sierra, but the price will have to be right. Oakland wants to get the price down but would like to keep its free agents - catcher Damian Miller, right-hander Chad Bradford and outfielder Jermaine Dye. After the Athletics deal with Dye's $1 million buyout on a $13 million option, they'll start to talk with him about 2005. Seattle is ready for Miguel Olivo to become the No. 1 catcher. But, in a bid to keep some continuity, the Mariners will make an effort to retain Dan Wilson, who, with Edgar Martinez's decision to retire, will become the senior member of the team in terms of continuous service. Tampa Bay is back to cost-cutting mode, which means limited free-agent action. It also adds to speculation the Devil Rays will hold out for a solid prospect in return for allowing the Mets to hire manager Lou Piniella. But, in reality, they'll be happy to get Piniella's $3 million-plus salary off the books. Texas has nine potential free agents, and the only ones the Rangers have shown interest in retaining are Eric Young and Dave Dellucci, both backups. Owner Tom Hicks does have to make that $7 million annual payment to Alex Rodriguez so he can play for the Yankees. Toronto already re-signed outfielder Frank Catalanotto but doesn't have another free agent it figures to make a strong run at keeping. INFOBOX 4 National League Arizona faces a major challenge in attempting to re-sign potential free agent Richie Sexson, who was limited to 23 games because of season-ending shoulder surgery. The first baseman said he doesn't want to be in a rebuilding situation, which will add to the Diamondbacks' challenge. But if Sexson doesn't return, left-handed pitcher Randy Johnson could force a trade for himself. Atlanta wants to keep outfielder J.D. Drew but realizes agent Scott Boras isn't into giving home-state discounts. The Braves also will need to focus financial efforts on right-hander Russ Ortiz, who is going to seek the best offer. Chicago faces a major decision with shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, whose history of injuries makes him a risk to sign if he wants anything close to the four-year, $60 million deal he turned down from Boston. He wants to go to Southern California, but with Khalil Greene in San Diego and Cesar Izturis in Los Angeles, Anaheim becomes Garciaparra's only option. Ramon Martinez and Tom Goodwin are favorites of manager Dusty Baker who have played well enough to probably return. Cincinnati declined to pursue right-hander Paul Wilson during the season, which will cost the Reds. He finally showed signs he could be a dependable big-league pitcher but says that, once he is on the open market, the best bid will get his interest. Colorado seems likely to retain third baseman Vinny Castilla, but the Rockies are iffy about outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, who declined a $3 million mutual option. Burnitz's agent countered with a two-year, $13 million deal that would have eliminated the cost savings the Rockies realized after trading Larry Walker, which supposedly was done so the Rockies could keep not only Burnitz but Castilla, Jason Jennings, Shawn Chacon and Joe Kennedy. Florida faces more than $20 million in losses for the second year in a row, even though the Marlins won the World Series last year and are battling this season to return to the playoffs. The Marlins' finances make it less likely they will try to keep any of their free agents, except right-hander Carl Pavano, who picked the perfect time to have a breakout season. Houston owner Drayton McLane has been excited about the efforts of right-hander Roger Clemens, whom McLane helped talk out of retirement. And the key to getting McLane to write checks is getting him to believe he has a personal stake in the issue. Los Angeles has made keeping third baseman Adrian Beltre a "top priority." It won't be easy. He's only 25 and as a starting point, Boras, his agent, will use the deals signed by Oakland's Eric Chavez (six years, $66 million) and St. Louis' Scott Rolen (eight years, $90 million). Milwaukee wants to keep shortstop Craig Counsell, but the Brewers will pay the $250,000 buyout on his $4.25 million option, then try to work out a better price. Montreal won't know what it can do until it knows where it's going to play and who is going to be the owner. But even with an open checkbook, there's no reason to go overboard for shortstop Alex Gonzalez, third baseman Tony Batista and catcher Einar Diaz. New York made in-season deals for right-hander Kris Benson and outfielder Richard Hidalgo, and given the Mets' struggle in the standings, it doesn't make sense to bid those players adieu after less than a year. Philadelphia has invested enough money already - with no results - that it doesn't believe it can afford to back off. The Phillies will make a strong push to retain left- hander Eric Milton in hopes they can reduce his $9 million salary. Pittsburgh is planning to hold its payroll to about $35 million next season, which doesn't leave room for keeping closer Jose Mesa. St. Louis needs to find a way to re-sign shortstop Edgar Renteria, but it's not going to be easy. The Cardinals' payroll is pretty well maxed out, although the farther the Cardinals go in the postseason, the more likely ownership will get caught up in the emotions and open the checkbook. San Diego got a bargain with left-hander David Wells ($1.25 million) during the off-season. But the newness of pitching near home doesn't exist any more, and Wells is sure to want a salary increase after the season he has had. San Francisco figures to keep first baseman J.T. Snow, who has a $2 million option, and will try to re-sign right-hander Dustin Hermanson, whose star quality and ability to close underscore his value.

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Rangers reliever Frank Francisco hurls a chair into the Network Associates Coliseum stands Monday in response to persistent heckling. The ballpark - home to the Athletics and the NFL's Raiders - has a long history of hostile confrontations between spectators and athletes. D. ROSS CAMERON / ASSOCIATED PRESS CAPTION: Joe Crede

COPYRIGHT 2004 Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the Dialog Corporation by Gale Group.