Heckling a Yankees fan landed editor in a Baltimore prison hell

[This article from WorldTribune.com ‘Greatest Hits’ is being republished to correct formatting errors from the previous publishing system.]

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Joe Schaeffer,

Friday, September 17, 2004

What could be more American than heckling at a major league baseball game?

Not any longer. Opening your mouth at the ballgame can now be dangerous to your health.

hecklerTexas Rangers pitcher Frank Francisco made national headlines this week after being arrested on a felony charge for throwing a chair into a crowd of fans during a game at Oakland. Fan heckling was an integral part of the story.

What average fans may not realize is that their own experience at a ballgame has been forever changed because of such highly-publicized incidents. I know because last year at Camden Yards in Baltimore, some good-natured banter almost destroyed my life.

All of America seemed amused when Randall Simon, then of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was arrested in Milwaukee after playfully tapping a giant sausage mascot on the head during a Pirates-Brewers game on July 9, 2003. The absurdity of the act, combined with the seemingly hilarious overreaction of law enforcement and MLB officials, all made for a pleasant offbeat summer story.

Only it wasnt very funny to me. You see, only eight days earlier, on July 1, 2003 at Camden Yards, I, like Simon, was led out of an MLB stadium in handcuffs. And what happened over the next 27 hours wasn’t the least bit hilarious. In fact, it was the worst experience of my life.

I should have known it wasn’t going to be my day when I was stuck in traffic on Pratt St. right in front of Oriole Park around 5 p.m. I had left work early to try and beat the traffic into Baltimore and park at my friend’s house in the Canton section of the city, not far from the ballpark, but I got there later than I’d hoped. In the shadows of the stadium, with traffic at a standstill and my windows open in the summer heat, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see a female police officer, asking, “Sir, is there a reason you’re not wearing your seat belt?” BAM! Twenty-five dollar ticket, welcome to Baltimore. The fact that I got a ticket for not wearing a seat belt is minor enough, but to be tapped on the shoulder while sitting in an unmoving car was a bit unnerving and should have been a harbinger of my future interactions with the Baltimore Police Department.

I eventually got rid of my car and made my way to the the park and was seated in Section 86 of the left-centerfield bleacher seats along with my friends Mark and Nick. We immediately noticed that we were within shouting distance of the visiting Yankees’ bullpen, but for whatever reason none of us were much in the mood to heckle the New Yorkers. We’d all been to work already, we’re all over age 30 and, well, to tell the truth, we didn’t have the energy to do it. Pathetic, I know, but that really was our mindset the whole time: to just chill out, kick back and watch a ball game.

And that’s how we spent the next six innings, drinking a couple of beers each, joking around and just relaxing. Though fairly quiet ourselves, it struck me as an amazing thing that here I was at my first-ever New York Yankees game after hating them all my life, as any decent red-blooded American not born in the New York area should, and yet nobody was heckling the Yankee bullpen at all. Closer Mariano “What’s it like to lose a World Series on an infield popup?” Rivera was just standing there within easy shouting distance for most of the game and not one taunt from the O’s fans sitting in the bleachers with us. I remember thinking how calm and actually quite boring the atmosphere was for a game with the mighty, marquee Yankees in town.

But the home team was cruising, and by the time they were up 7-1 in the seventh inning the game was all but won. And we were all in a good mood because, hey, it’s always good when the Yankees lose. And about this time a Yankee fan some 10 rows below us started standing up and yelling, “Yankees! Yankees!! We’re still in first place! We’re still in first place,” etc. etc. And he wasn’t really bothering anybody, he was just cheering for his team in the face of defeat, no big deal. My friend Mark stood up and shouted back at him, something mild and not particularly offensive, and the guy didn’t seem to even notice.

Then, in the top of the eighth, the Yankee fan appeared to be heading for the exits, along with most New York fans around us. And he was still shouting out the first-place thing, and he was coming up the steps towards us, and this is when I spoke up for literally the first time all night. “Hey, Yankee fan, what’s the score? What’s the score, man, what’s the score?”

I didn’t stand up or gesture at him, flip him off or use a single swear word.

It was then as the fan exited behind me that I saw this usher leaning over the railing and staring right at me. He proceeded to point vigorously at me, and, literally red-faced, began screaming at me: “That’s it! You’re out of here! You’re gone buddy. GONE! You’re provoking, you’re causing trouble, and you are out of here! Officers! Officers! GET HIM OUT OF HERE!”

All of a sudden, just like that and to my total, total shock, I was being escorted out of the section by two armed police officers with “Camden Yards Detail” patches on their Baltimore Police Department uniforms. And this usher led us out as well, still yapping at me, his face red and contorted, acting as if he’d just discovered Osama bin Laden hiding in Section 86. And if the police officers said anything to me on the way out I honestly didn’t hear it, I was just staring in amazement at this usher having a fit because I said “Hey man what’s the score?” to a Yankee fan. At an Orioles HOME game.

So the two cops led me to the section exit, and with an “Out you go” told me to leave. I turned around on the way out, spied the usher and said, (exact quote), “Old man, you’d make a good Bolshevik.” The usher had graying hair and looked to be in his early 60s, and I was ticked at his utter and complete stupidity, so that’s where the remark came from. Still, I wasn’t livid or hostile, didn’t say it in a menacing way at all, and was still more shocked than anything. As I walked away I simply shook my head with a smile on my face, thinking “In 20 years of going to sporting events I’ve never seen someone thrown out of his seat for saying something like that.”

But the overwhelming thought in my mind was that this was no big deal, this was nothing. And I was also thinking, “this is my first Yankee game, they’re getting killed, and dammit, I wanna see the last out. I wanna see the official end: Yankees lose! Yankees lose!” Again, there was no great scheme here, no malice-aforethought, the idea just kinda popped into my head. And so I thought I’d walk a couple of sections up and duck back in and see the end of the game, still not believing that I had been thrown out of my seat in the bleachers.

I walked about two minutes, took a couple of steps to go back in and was immediately slammed against a wall and handcuffed very harshly by one of the two officers who escorted me out of Section 86. The officer spun me around to face him, and with a look of indescribable glee on his face that I will never forget, said, “So, you got any more smart comments to make about that old man?” And that’s when I knew I was in trouble.

I could not believe these officers were taking this so personally, but I cooperated completely, didn’t even try to complain even though I knew I hadn’t done anything the least bit serious, and was led away in handcuffs while 38,000 people were exiting the stadium all around me. The looks on people’s faces were hilarious, as if I had just punched a cop or something. I asked the officer as he was leading me away into the bowels of the stadium, “How did you guys get there so fast. You were right on top of me. Were you following me or something?” And his blunt and honest reply was “Yeah, you looked like the kind of guy who’d try to go back in.” And I’m thinking, “If you knew that I was gonna do that and you knew you were gonna arrest me for doing that, couldn’t you have just called out to me, ÔSir, don’t go back in or you will be arrested?’ ” But no, these two officers just chose to walk 10 feet or so behind me for two full minutes and then jump me as I tried to go back in. Unbelievable.

But I didn’t say anything because, again, this still didn’t seem like that big a deal and I didn’t want to make it worse. I figured a ticket would be issued to me and I’d be on my way after not too long a delay, with plans to phone the Orioles with my complaints first thing in the morning. But that is not what the arresting officer had planned for me. No, that is not what he had in mind at all.

I was placed in a cell beneath the stadium, and after a half-hour or so was told a paddywagon would pick me up to take me to Baltimore Central Lockup. Total shock took hold of me once again, and I asked the officer, “Is this a big deal? How long am I gonna be there?” And he looked at me with that same gleeful smile he had when he cuffed me and said, “Oh, it’s only a misdeameanor charge, you should be out in an hour or two.” I was angry as hell at this point, but still not particularly worried. It still didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me.

I was then taken to Central Lockup, a depressing venue that somehow managed to look both dark and dirty and bright and antiseptic at the same time, where I had my mugshot and fingerprints taken. I can still see the CO in charge there asking me my height and weight, and when I replied “6’0″, 160,” I saw her write down “6’1″ 185”. That’s the first time I got really, really scared. I asked again how long I would be there and without even looking up she muttered, “No more than an hour or two. It’s only a misdemeanor.”

Soon after I was led to a holding cell along with 8 or 9 other guys, and we were then immediately moved to another cell where I was to end up spending the next 17 hours. The cell, which looked like it could comfortably hold three people, eventually contained 11-15 of us at one time or another; it’s hard to remember the exact number because it kept changing over the hours, though it was more a case of people being shuttled from one holding cell to another. Nobody seemed to actually be getting out.

The cell was cool and dirty. Somebody said it is intentionally kept cold to discourage inmates from fighting. I was told by cellmates that by law we all had to be processed within 24 hours. When I told them that I was told I’d only be there an hour or two, they just laughed and said “They say that to everybody just so you don’t freak out at first. Sit back, man, ’cause you’re gonna be here a while.” And then they all laughed and it started to dawn on me just how screwed I was.

Hearing why some of the others were in there with me did nothing to make me feel better. Did you know the city of Baltimore locks people up for over 24 hours for not paying parking tickets or for having an open container of alcohol in public? Neither did I. This whole time I was thinking this cop who arrested me had it in for me because he thought I was a wiseass or something and it turns out they just treat everybody this way. Nothing personal. And no effort to get you out and on your way with any speed. For the entire 17 hours I was in that holding cell no CO would explain when we might be processed or how long we had to wait. The cynical indifference wasn’t surprising considering how tough a job they surely have but it’s still upsetting to be stuck in a cell for that long a time with no answer to your question as to how long you might be in there.

After a couple of hours most of my cellmates just sprawled out wherever they could and went to sleep, and I was glad to see that I wasn’t in any immediate danger, at least not for the night. As for me, there was no way I was going to get any sleep. I remember having to just stand there, motionless, as one inmate with his pants around his knees started masturbating in his sleep some 10 feet away from me. Disgusted, tired and angry, I tried to remain unfazed by the situation but that wasn’t really possible. Nobody else in the cell seemed the least bit taken aback by the sight.

Eventually morning came and still nothing, no word on when I would get out or anything. And after sleeping and eating and even more waiting and waiting, the cellblock started to get more agitated and lively. And that’s when the threats came. It didn’t exactly come as a shock that skinny white guys like me are going to get threatened in jail, but it did shock me that as much as 20 minutes could go by without a guard so much as walking past my cell. And so what do you do when, after having overheard hours of casual conversation about stabbings and beating people over the head with baseball bats, etc., etc., you’re told by a group of men, all of whom are bigger and stronger than you, that they are going to rape you in one hour? Maybe they were just trying to frighten me, who knows, but you know what, who cares? It’s still gonna scare the living hell out of you and it was just such a bizarre, surreal experience to be standing there powerless, knowing that I could easily Ñ easily Ñ have my life literally destroyed at any time. It just didn’t seem real to me, which looking back I have to say was a good thing. In between Our Fathers and Hail Marys all I could really think was “What’s the score man?” “What’s the score?” as these guys kept telling me crudely and pointedly that they were going to assault me in one hour.

After letting me sweat that out for a while, the ringleader of the group (i.e., the guy with the biggest mouth) decided to ask me what I was in for. And when I told him, he started to laugh, apparently finding the whole thing terribly amusing. After attempting to terrify me some more by telling me stuff like “People die here all the time. Who knows, you could die here today?”, he seemed to calm down, talked a little about himself to everyone for a few minutes and then looked back at me with great deliberance and said “Don’t ever come back here again.” And that’s when I knew I wasn’t going to be raped in that holding cell.

Finally, around 8 p.m., or about 21-and-a-half hours after I was first arrested, we were all moved to a larger holding cell to wait to see a commissioner, who would decide if we were going to be sent upstairs without posting bail, would be allowed to post bail or would be released on our own recognizance. About 40 of us were placed in this cell, where the sexual taunts and physical threats intensified, but my fear lessened because there were COs constantly entering the cell to escort somebody to see one of the commissioners. And so after hearing “See you upstairs, bitch” for the hundredth time, I wasn’t worried too much because, again, I was confident that there was no way I was going upstairs, surely I would be released on my own recognizance for such a minor, ridiculous charge.

Finally, I was led to see a commissioner at about 10 p.m. It had been almost 24 hours since my arrest and my nightmare seemed to be nearing an end.

I was ushered into a small phone-boothlike room and told to sit down. Without even being given an opportunity to talk, I was told that I was being charged with a crime and that I would have to post bail. I would not be allowed to post bail until the following morning, so they were going to keep me here another night. Upstairs.

And that’s the exact moment when, to quote Cool Hand Luke, “they broke me.” Twenty four hours of mind-numbing, fear-laced tedium waiting to see this guy and he’s got all the paperwork filled out before he even sees me, and he tells me I’ll be staying another night. Tears welled up in my eyes, I wouldn’t say I was sobbing, but I was whimpering for sure and I basically started begging this guy to let me go, telling him over and over how I could lose my job if I missed another day of work without my boss even knowing where I was.

The commissioner, seeing how distraught I was, then asked me if this was the first time I had been arrested, and I nodded yes. He then asked me where I worked and I said The Washington Times newspaper. Then he finally asked me what I did. All he saw was “Misdemeanor Trespass” for a charge. When I told him he began to laugh and asked me why I was thown out of the game. I told him and he said “Is that all you did? That’s nothing.” Then begrudgingly but with an air of mercifulness, he tore up the bail papers, changed them to release on own recognizance and kept telling me not to worry, that this was no big deal at all. And I was very grateful to finally hear it from someone in a position of authority, but I couldn’t help thinking, “You were going to put me upstairs where the long-term inmates are for another whole night when I’ve already been here for 24 hours and now you tell me it’s nothing?” But again I remained silent, thinking it was the best policy.

And this commissioner kept talking about The Washington Times, how Rush Limbaugh was always saying good things about it, and asking me what I did there. So I guess I have Rush Limbaugh to thank for keeping me from being locked upstairs for the night with a bunch of guys who had been threatening me for over two hours in a cell right next to these commissioners and whose idea of “roommates” was undoubtedly far different from mine.

Relieved beyond belief, I was led to another holding cell to wait to receive my wallet and keys. This would amazingly take another three hours. While there I talked with a guy who was also being released on his own recog who had been there about 19 hours after being arrested because he didn’t pay a citation for drinking alcohol in public. He showed me his incident report and told me that they don’t just put a warrant out for your arrest in Baltimore for not paying a citation, they go and get you. He told me he was arrested at his home at 2:30 in the morning by a squad of cops banging on his door. For an open container of alcohol. What the hell kind of city are they running up there?

When I told him how happy I was to finally reach this point, the last stop on the way out of this hellhole, he then gave me the last big scare of the whole disgusting experience. “Oh, before they let you out, they scan your name for outstanding warrants. If you have a ticket you didn’t pay or something, they take you all the way back to the beginning and you go through the whole process all over again.”

Feverishly I scanned my brain wondering if I’d gotten any parking tickets in the state of Maryland that I’d forgotten about, but apparently all was well and around 1:30 on the morning of July 3, some 27 hours after I was first arrested at the stadium, I was finally released. I caught a cab to my friend’s house and proceeded to take the longest five showers I have ever taken in my entire life.

Telling this story to friends and acquaintances over the following weeks I heard plenty of very believable horror stories about this happening to other people in Baltimore. Apparently it’s quite routine. The worst story by far involved a young woman who was… well, she was mugged. Some thug came along, shoved her to the ground and ran off with her purse. Shaken and understandably upset, she reported it to a police officer. The officer took down her report and then ran her name through the system. Turned out she had an unpaid ticket. This officer then took this woman, who had just been the victim of a crime, handcuffed her and took her to the same Baltimore Central Lockup rathole I was placed in, where she remained for 30 hours. For a traffic ticket. I can’t even imagine what kind of human being can do such a thing to a person in distress, but I damn sure know it’s not the kind of human being who should be walking around with a gun and a badge.

So you can see, then, why I wasn’t amused by Randall Simon’s arrest in Milwaukee. If you recall, Brewers’ executive VP of business operations Rick Schlesinger called Simon’s playful-if-ill-advised tap of the sausage mascot “one of the most outrageous things I’ve ever seen inside a ballpark or outside a ballpark”, adding that “It sickened me to see it.”

Braindead MLB Commissioner Bud Selig later chimed in with an “official statement” saying “Major League Baseball deeply regrets the incident that took place at Miller Park last night and extends its regards to the victims. We are reviewing the situation pending the disposition of the criminal charges against Randall Simon of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“Obviously, the type of behavior exhibited by Mr. Simon is anathema to the family entertainment that we are trying to provide in our ball parks and is wholly unacceptable.”

It all sounds so ridiculously funny until you experience for yourself just how dangerous an inner-city lockup can be, and you realize that most of Cadillac Bud’s corporate playhouses are located in urban areas. In short, this kind of idiocy is downright dangerous to American sports fans, as I learned to my dismay. Take it from me, Simon’s crime against humanity isn’t humorous at all when you’ve been run through a wringer yourself for doing absolutely nothing the least bit malevolent at a ballgame.

But in retrospect didn’t this have to happen? Isn’t this the perfect example of the overreaction to a serious problem that happens when incompetent people run a high-profile business? Because some shirtless, tattooed freaks assaulted a first-base coach on the field at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in an infamous incident in 2002, we have to deal with Stalinist ushers treating all fans as potential lethal weapons. And that’s why I don’t apologize for calling that usher a Bolshevik. It was the perfect description of the bland tyranny I was faced with in the bleachers. This was a guy who, if he were walking down the street, you wouldn’t look at him the first time, but put him in an orange hat and he’s a rabid pit bull.

And yet his actions are almost understandable. Whipped into a frenzy by baseball officials’ determination to crackdown on “unruly fans”, this guy was looking for someone to take down. You could see it on his face. Sadly for me, I just happened to be in the wrong section with the wrong idiot at the wrong time. But it wasn’t just him. The ultra-aggressive security posture during that Yankee series was simply stunning.

By what now seems a remarkable coincidence, my boss happened to attend the Monday June 30 Yankee-O’s game as part of a Washington Times’ group outing. Not being a big sports fan, he doesn’t attend many baseball games but after hearing my story he told me how surprised he was himself at the aggressiveness of the ushers behind each section of the stadium that he could see. He told me how he watched for minutes on end as one female usher stared down a woman who looked like she might have had a bit too much to drink and was being a bit loud, gazing sternly with the appearance of being poised to spring into action at any moment. He also noticed these Orwellian signs on the Jumbotron, tailored in pleasant corporate-speak to mask the authoritarian message: “We hope you are enjoying your stay at Oriole Park. Please report any unpleasant experiences to the nearest usher immediately.” Neighbor reporting neighbor in the stands at the good old American ballpark. Isn’t this how Stalinism flourished for all those years?

And really now, doesn’t Bud Selig just strike you as the type of guy who, if he wasn’t so horribly miscast as commissioner of baseball, would be principal of some nondescript public school outside Milwaukee extolling his zero tolerance program to fight crime. You know, the type who expels the kid on the honor roll because he brought a plastic butter knife from the cafeteria back to his locker?

Fortunately, the rest of the legal process in Baltimore was remarkably decent, with the prosecutor agreeing to “sentence” me to five hours of community service in return for having the whole thing expunged, i.e., leaving me with no criminal record. I wanted to fight it on principle but a lawyer friend of a friend in Baltimore advised me it wouldn’t be worth the trouble and I wasn’t likely to get a better deal anyway.

So on a very pleasant Tuesday in September, 2003 I reported to a community services center in the Pigtowne section of Baltimore to complete my rehabilitation. Three other community service peons joined me, and we were assigned the task of mowing, raking and cleaning up three small vacant lots near the center. It was really all too perfect. The location turned out to be just a couple of blocks from Camden Yards, and I could see the light stantions from Oriole Park as I did the work.

And so as I was bagging grass cuttings in a urine-stenched lot while staring at the twinkling spires of one of Bud Selig’s golden palaces of greed, I could only think how this was such a fitting farewell to Major League Baseball and the incompetent fools who have driven yet another fan away forever. What’s the score, Bud? What’s the score?

Joe Schaeffer, a freelance journalist, is the former News Editor of The Washington Times National Weekly Edition.

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