Bush-League Play by a Foolish Fan

Sunday night, Angel reliever Joe Grahe became the first American League pitcher this season to be hit by a pitch.

You won't find it in the box score, because the official scorer committed an error of omission, but it happened in the eighth inning, in front of ESPN cameras and whatever remained of a national television audience.

The correct statistical line should read:

HBP--by Anderson (Vaughn); by Dim-Witted Fan (Grahe).

It was quite a pitch, launched from the upper deck above the press box. It was a baseball, too--a rubberized, Little League version, but definitely a baseball. Autographed even.

The ball caught Grahe in the back of the neck, on the fly, a split-second after he had struck out Boston pinch-hitter Rich Rowland. Grahe had just spun on his heel, turning his back to home plate, waiting for catcher Chris Turner to begin the customary around-the-horn relay and--WHACK!--his neck was suddenly stinging.

Hundreds of fans glanced up from their scorecards, saw the white blur strike Grahe, saw Grahe go down on one knee and gasped.

Would you look at that--decked by his own catcher.

But if that's the case, why is Angel third baseman Spike Owen whipping the ball to second baseman Rex Hudler?

There, resting on the grass next to Grahe, was the real weapon. The second baseball. Turner had thrown one to third, someone with a severely deficient IQ had thrown another from the stands.

It was the second time in as many Angel homestands that some lunkhead had fired a foreign object at a player on the field. Last time it was an apple, aimed at Cleveland's Kenny Lofton.

Neither player was hurt--after a few moments with the Angels trainer, Grahe returned to the mound and finished the game--but Angel Manager Buck Rodgers knows a disturbing trend when he sees one.

"What's next?" Rodgers asked.

"First an apple. Then a baseball. What next? A hand grenade? A knife?"

A knife wouldn't be unprecedented for the Angels. In 1986, Wally Joyner was grazed on the arm by the handle of a flying hunting knife, but that happened at Yankee Stadium, where the bleachers are generally less safe than a Bronx subway station at midnight. At Yankee Stadium, metal detectors ought to be installed at the turnstiles.

But Anaheim Stadium, home of the third-inning beach ball party and the ballpark concession melon plate?

"I've been a resident of Orange County almost 30 years," Rodgers said, shaking his head, "and to see things like that start to happen here disappoints me. Especially if a Little League kid threw it.

"I guess Joe's OK, but it's still disappointing. These are some of the best-behaved, most knowledgeable fans in the country. That kind of thing just shouldn't happen here."

In front of his locker stall, with an ice pack wrapped around his right arm, not his neck, Grahe tried to make light of the incident.

"We've got some talented fans here. They can hit you," Grahe quipped. "If they can hit you from that far away, my hat's off to 'em."

Grahe smiled.

"When our team starts doing it to me, then I got a problem."

Harold Reynolds retrieved the ball and showed it to Grahe when he returned to the dugout. Together, they examine the evidence.

"It's a Little League ball, that much I know," Grahe reported.

How so?

"It says 'Oceanside Little League' on it.

"And, there are about 35 Little League autographs on it."

Grahe joked that he's "going to call up the Pink Panther and have him research it. Find out whose parents make the most money and sue them. I'm going to call one of those late-night TV lawyers and have him help me out."

It was fun and games only because Grahe was able to walk away from the hit.

But what if it had hit him in the head? Or in the eye?

Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi blanched at the thought. His team had just been blitzed, 10-1, swept at home by the Red Sox, and all he had on his mind afterward was Grahe's near-miss.

"I didn't get into the game at all," Bavasi said. "I'm really, really angry at what happened in the upper deck.

"A rubber baseball. Can you believe that? I thought it was a wad of paper at first, but you can't throw a wad of paper that far.

"I hadn't seen anything like that until tonight. Not in Southern California. But I don't care where it is. I'd just as soon go the rest of my career without seeing it again."

Isolated incident?

Or sign of the diss-me, diss-you, in-your-face times?

Rodgers frowned, contemplating the worst.

"You hate to say the ballpark mirrors society," Rodgers said. "At least I do. Maybe it's because I want to think that the ballpark is a step better than society. Or should be. Maybe it's not. Maybe I have delusions of grandeur.

"I always think the best of baseball and the people who go to the ballpark, because I'm friendly with a lot of them."

From now on, the Angels may have to frisk them at the door.

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