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Innocence Left the Game When Violence Took the Field

A quarter-century ago, a World Series incident changed sports forever.

October 04, 2002|GERALD ESKENAZI | Gerald Eskenazi covered sports for the New York Times for 41 years and is the author of 13 books, most recently "Gang Green" (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

As the Angels perform in their first post-season since the Reagan years, they face the Yankees today on a green playing field that evokes idyllic memories of trolley cars and day baseball, when men in straw boaters filled the seats.

But post-season baseball also brings us back to the moment when sports changed forever.

Of course, everyone has his own epiphany in this momentous matter. For me, it was 25 years ago--Oct. 18, 1977--when many of us witnessed the loss of innocence of the last innocent sport.

It was at a besieged Yankee Stadium as Reggie Jackson hit three home runs to trigger the Yankees' World Series victory over the Dodgers--and an apocalyptic scene not repeated in baseball since. It mirrored who we were--at least on our playing fields--and set the tone for the sports years that followed.

Sure, the 1960s had seen college kids and war protesters rioting. But for the most part, the ferment of the young had not gripped major league sports, had not affected police in stadiums, had not turned to rioting and looting on grassy, green ball fields.

At a dinner before a National Hockey League all-star game, the redoubtable Gordie Howe, then in his 40s, noted how the 1960s had changed the look and demeanor of the young, saying prayerfully, "Thank God we don't have any of those long-haired guys in hockey."

A championship victory did not automatically call for drunken louts overturning cars downtown, or herald attacks on women, or bring out arsonists setting fires in the stands.

That, of course, is now the norm when a team captures a baseball, basketball, football or hockey championship.

Life in American sports changed that night in a meeting of East and West Coast teams.

True, some could argue that the American pastime had exhibited uncharacteristic cynicism when the Dodgers and Giants left Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, for the Golden West about 20 years earlier. Perhaps.

But Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham didn't whack anyone over the head when they did it. Just in the heart.

Then Jackson hit his three homers, the Yankees won their first World Series since 1962, and the police sent five mounted patrol officers onto the field.

In that eerie twilight that is baseball under the lights, fans started to rip out seats. Hundreds of fans dashed onto the field, clawing up chunks of grass. Graig Nettles, the Yankees' third baseman, had to punch a fan out of the way as he left the field. Jackson wore his batting helmet onto the field to protect him on his run to the dugout.

But the horses, big dark bays, trampling the baseball field; a perimeter of police along the foul lines; the stentorian-voiced public address announcer Bob Sheppard calling for calm--such a cinematic moment, Francis Ford Coppola would have loved it.

Somewhere in that heart of darkness, Marlon Brando--or at least Casey Stengel--must have been lurking.

Skip ahead, past the Bronx and the 1970s, to police blotters and behavior that is raucous, often felonious. Behavior that ranges from the gambling of Pete Rose, who perhaps loved baseball more than anyone else, to the sinister--more than 100 documented cases of athlete rape every year.

Did you choke your coach? No problem if you say you were "dissed." Another team will pick you up.

Beat your wife? Take an anger-management course. Shoot your limo driver in your house? Tell your friends to say the guy did it to himself. Want to get on television? Phone your sister from the stands, take your teenage son along, jump onto the field and beat up a coach.

And still we wonder why we read so many stories now about athletes abusing others. Or of that father-son fan combination. Or even of a George Steinbrenner hiring a punk to spy on his star, Dave Winfield. Not much of a jump from there to see owners colluding against the players.

This sea change began in, of all places, a baseball field a quarter of a century ago.

A few months after the incident, I picked up the paper one morning, and read a story about a high-ranking police officer who was arrested for taking shakedown money. He was one of those who had complained to me about "kids today."

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