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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Guilty, Your Honor--Can I Go Play Now?

August 18, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Gotta hand it to Vince Coleman.

He was being heaped with abuse: Stupid. Dumb. Irresponsible. Foolish. Childlike.

But he took it like a grown-up. Just stood there in his cool-as-a-cucumber beige gabardine suit, splashy tie and black crocodile loafers listening to his lawyer berate him.

Yes, those nasty words were being spit from the mouth of the man employed to defend him.

It was either a brilliantly simple legal strategy-- own up, pay up --or a smarmy attempt to win back the good will of the baseball-loving public. Maybe both.

See? We're punishing this guy, here. He didn't know throwing firecrackers at people could result in injury and he promises never to do it again. Bad Vince! Bad Vince! Now, get out there and steal some bases!

The only hint that this was not an entirely pleasant experience for Coleman were the beads of sweat glistening on his forehead. Other than that, he stood impassively, staring down the barrels of loaded cameras and questions.

"Why isn't Vince talking?" yelled a reporter. "What have you got to hide?"

The Mets' outfielder had just been charged with one felony count of possession of an explosive. The proceeding consisted mainly of Coleman's attorneys asking the court to postpone his arraignment until the end of baseball season.

Was Mr. Coleman certain he wanted to waive his right to a speedy hearing?

Just let me get out there and steal some bases, judge!

(That won't happen any time soon; Coleman is on a paid administrative leave until baseball's Executive Council concludes an investigation.)

The charge stemmed from the July 24 incident in which Coleman chucked a firecracker toward a group of fans standing near the player's parking lot at Dodger Stadium.

I don't know how you felt when you saw the photograph of 2-year-old Amanda Santos, her cheek cut up, her eye reddened from the blast, but I felt like grabbing a bat and launching a hunt for Coleman myself.

That won't be necessary now. Coleman--who could be sentenced to three years in prison--has taken full responsibility. What he did was stupid, dumb, irresponsible, foolish and childlike, he realizes, and he will pay through the nose for his boorish behavior. Also, Coleman is very eager to star in public service announcements warning of the dangers of fireworks.

Perhaps--dare we hold our breath on this one?--his brush with the law will even set an example for his professional athletic brethren. No more bleach in water pistols, please. No more dumping water over the heads of sports reporters, please. And no more of that behavior, boys, that gets you accused--and possibly even convicted--of rape.

*

We have gotten so used to bad behavior being laid off on domestic problems or prescription drug addictions or low self-esteem that it is refreshing--no matter how calculated--for a guy like Coleman to simply bow his head and take the blame.

On the other hand, would he bow his head and take the blame if he knew the penalty would be automatic banishment from baseball? Doubtful. This is a man in serious trouble, a man who is trying to save his professional, $3-million-a-year neck. It will probably work too.

Of course, I don't know that it really matters to some of his fans that he injured a toddler. After all, the spectators I observed in Municipal Court's Division 30 hadn't come to see a great athlete prostrate himself before the court. They had not come to shake their heads in sorrow as another role model bit the dust. Nor had they come as a gesture of support to Amanda Santos. They were there because that Vince Coleman can really steal bases!

(I guess the fans who were disgusted stayed home.)

"If Vince Coleman was not a world-class baseball player but someone who lived in Pico Rivera, you would not all be here today," said his attorney.

Pretty astute guy.

*

So what does the Vince Coleman case teach us?

We shouldn't expect athletes to be role models off the field any more. There have been too many disappointments: Pete Rose's gambling addiction. Steve Garvey's family planning problems. Magic Johnson's promiscuity. Mike Tyson's sexual assault. The list is long and dirty.

It seems pointless to burden incredibly rich, ridiculously pampered players with expectations of decent behavior. They live, as we so often see, by a different set of rules.

As Coleman peeled away from the banks of cameras and shouting reporters, he walked up a short flight of outdoor steps to Temple Street. Fans, lined up along the rail, reached over to shake his hand.

"We're with you, man," they said. "We're with you."

Coleman smiled, and stepped into a black Isuzu Trooper.

"Are the victims treating you unfairly?" shouted a reporter.

"We have a very good relationship with those victims," said his attorney.

The best relationship that money--and contrition--can buy.

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