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COMMENTARY : Boorish Fans Are the Real Losers

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

A bunch of teen-aged girls in pigtails played a softball game on Wednesday, and they seemed to have fun. They laughed a lot, displaying enough braces on their teeth to interfere with any nearby microwave cooking, and they giggled and made faces at each other. It was nice.

Their parents and friends came to the park, too. Some of them seemed to have no fun at all. They screamed insults at opposing players and treated the umpires with all the admiration normally reserved for things you find stuck to the bottom of your shoe. It was ugly.

Do the words “English soccer fans” mean anything to you?

El Camino Real won the game, squeezing past Canoga Park, 1-0, for the City 4-A championship. But the real losers were behind the chain-link fence. Most of them were huddled beside the Canoga Park dugout.

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It began in the first inning when a middle-aged woman with short, rust-colored hair got to her feet and began screaming at El Camino’s ace pitcher, Beth Silverman, imploring her to “Throw it away, throw it away.” It was not so much the words she chose, but her tone of voice. It was a tone you would use to address the operator of a motor vehicle who had just run over your pet beagle, then backed up and run him over again for good measure.

“Throw it away, throw it away,” the woman continued barking. Yo, lady. Your larynx. Throw it away.

Things got worse.

Canoga Park’s shortstop, Stephanie Wukmir, reacted a bit slowly to a pop fly a few moments later, and the ball dropped into short left field. The same voice boomed over the field, “Hey Stephanie, why don’t you join the party?” Nasty.

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Canoga Park’s pitcher, De Dow, walked a batter in the first inning. The father of one of the Canoga Park players began bellowing at the umpire. The tirade would continue through the end of the game and the award ceremony. It was relentless. He turned sharply to a reporter and roared the answer to a question that had not been asked. “The ump tells me he called balls because the catcher’s glove was in the way and he couldn’t see. Can you believe that? Can you believe it?”

At this point, nothing was beyond belief.

The veteran home plate umpire, Tony Cuppari, said after the game that no such conversation ever took place.

“I walked to the Canoga dugout and asked for the athletic director and said I wanted that guy removed from the park,” Cuppari said. “The guy heard me. He shut up.”

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Actually, the man did not shut up. His insults just stopped reaching Cuppari’s ears.

The pinnacle of lunacy was reached, however, midway through the game, when a small group of people wedged against the Canoga Park dugout announced that they had detected the El Camino pitcher’s foot leaving the pitching rubber before she released the ball. They announced this loudly to anybody who would listen, and many who didn’t want to listen. The tone of this alarm was something akin to the alarm sounded at the Bronx Zoo when a tiger escapes.

Then it really got funny. A man who does not have a daughter on either team figured he would catch pitcher Silverman in the act of throwing illegal pitches. He would do this with a Polaroid camera. With pictures taken through the chain-link fence. Directly into the glare of a blinding sun. He leaned forward and pressed the shutter.

It was a perfect photograph. Of the chain-link fence. Oh, if you really pressed it to your face and brought a vivid imagination into play you could sort of make out a human-like form that seemed a few miles away. That was Silverman. Basically, the picture looked as if the shutter was tripped accidentally while the camera was in a car’s glove compartment.

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“Look, here it is,” the man with the Polaroid bellowed. “Look at it. Her foot’s off the rubber. It’s plain. Hey, ump. Take a look at the picture. It’s the only thing you’ll see in the whole game.”

The umpire glanced toward the man, angry eyes peering through the mask. His cold stare seemed to imply that he had a much better idea of what the man could do with the snapshot. With the entire camera, for that matter.

A few minutes later, the man took another picture. This one was much clearer. So clear, in fact, that you could plainly see that Silverman had long ago released the ball and was in the late stages of her follow-through. Her right hand was extended high over her head. There was no ball in it.

“See,” Mr. Photo yelped. “See. She’s still got the ball. And her foot’s off the rubber. You can see it. It’s right here.” A reporter made a mental note to wait at the park a long time following the game. Long enough, at least, to make sure this man had driven out of the parking lot and was off of all nearby streets.

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A call went against Canoga Park in the third inning. The short woman with the rusty hair turned and slammed her hand against an aluminum trash can near the dugout. “Are we getting the shaft, or what?” she screamed at a reporter. The reporter, standing there because it was shady, quickly retreated into the sun. Heat stroke, he figured, is usually just a temporary problem. Loss of hearing can be permanent.

Bottom of the fifth inning. Tammy Lester led off for Canoga Park. Silverman was throwing her warm-up pitches, the ball slamming into the catcher’s mitt. Silverman was throwing now at 70 m.p.h. Tammy Lester was summoned to the chain-link fence by the man who was nearly ejected by the umpire earlier.

“OK, Tammy, this is what you do,” the man snapped. “When she’s ready to pitch, back out of the batter’s box. Then do it again. Get her mad. Get Silverman mad.”

Tammy Lester’s eyes wandered. She was not looking at the man in the frenzy. She made no verbal response to his pleadings, but her expression told all. Tammy Lester was not about to anger a girl who was throwing a softball--which isn’t really soft at all--at 70 m.p.h. Winning a softball game is one thing, Tammy seemed to be thinking. Going to the prom with a softball protruding from her ear was another thing altogether.

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The only noticeable positive reaction of the entire game from this small core of Canoga Park fans came in the sixth inning, when their shortstop snared a line drive to end the inning and an El Camino Real scoring threat. They burst into wild celebration.

But the insults and generally boorish behavior returned in a hurry.

In the final inning, with Canoga Park trailing by a run, three of the fans began to pound violently on the plywood and plexiglass dugout, rattling the structure loudly and belching out huge noises in an effort to get their children motivated. The Canoga Park players seemed alarmed. They backed away from that side of the dugout. Their desire to win the game was greatly overshadowed by their desire not to be mauled by this small but angry group.

As the game ended, the 40ish man who spent the entire game screaming at the umpire leaped to his feet and began climbing the fence. Five feet, 10 feet up. He clung to the fence, face pressed to the metal wire, screeching at the home plate umpire. Finally, he dropped back to the ground. He kept up the flow of insults, walking onto the field and disrupting the award ceremony, kicking at the dirt.

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After the game he sought out the umpires and screamed some more.

“The bigger the games get, the worse the fans get,” Cuppari said.

Kirk West, the third-base umpire, was more to the point.

“There’s always a few idiots,” he said. “Always a few who just don’t get it, who just can’t figure out that these games are supposed to be fun. And you know what? It’s always the guy who never got to play, who always was the last guy to be picked for any team. They couldn’t play sports when they were kids, so they play them now, through their own kids. It’s disgusting.”

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Amen.


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