It was “College Night” at the Brewers game and season ticket holder Aaron Gross knew what that meant.
Cheap tickets for sale. Cheap beer at the tailgate parties. Plenty of booze-fueled trash talk inside the stadium. And, eventually, some alcohol-induced insults leading to suds-soaked fisticuffs.
“I have no problem with heckling people, that’s part of the game. But they were crossing lines,” said Gross, who found himself – along with his wife – caught near a brawl on a night when college students got in for half price. “It got unpleasant to the point where we left the game. The whole section was completely drunk and obnoxious. We left in the fourth inning, just said, ‘That’s enough.'”
At eight stadiums across the country – Miller Park in Milwaukee, Coors Field in Denver, Busch Stadium in St. Louis among them – fans told The Associated Press similar stories in recent weeks, reinforcing a fact of life at American stadiums: Alcohol is as big a part of going to a baseball game as peanuts and Cracker Jacks.
And while much of the boorish, and even criminal, behavior at the ballpark involves alcohol, expect the suds to keep on flowing. The business partnership between beer and baseball is as intertwined as the bond between pitcher and catcher.
From the 1970s-era debacles of 10-cent Beer Night in Cleveland and Disco Demolition Night in Chicago to this season’s most disturbing moment – the coma-inducing attack on a Giants fan at Dodgers Stadium – there’s an alcohol-related slant to many incidents involving unruly fans at baseball parks.
Last weekend, authorities arrested 31-year-old Giovanni Ramirez, the man they say was the main aggressor in the beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow in the parking lot at Dodgers Stadium following the season opener. In the days after the beating, Los Angeles canceled six half-price beer nights scheduled for 2011. Witnesses said the people who attacked Stow were apparently drunk.
“When at least a certain portion of folks go to venues, they’re there to have a good time and part of the good time is they’re going to have a few cocktails before they go and a few more when they’re in the stadium,” said Robert Pandina, the director of the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University.
“What’s alarming is the increased risk, because you have so many people in the stadium who are becoming intoxicated. A lot of them are young men. It becomes kind of a tinderbox for aggression.”
At the University of Minnesota, researchers became interested in the topic of drunkenness at games after seeing a steady stream of small news items involving assaults, car accidents and rowdy behavior by drunken fans. Among the findings from the school’s studies since 2005:
– Alcohol laws and guidelines at stadiums are poorly enforced: Researchers said 74 percent of people pretending to be drunk were served and they were three times more likely to buy it from a vendor working the stands than a concession booth.
– Thousands of fans leaving games and getting into their cars are drunk: Researchers took breathalyzer tests of 362 fans at 13 baseball and three NFL games and found 8 percent of them – 1 in 12 – were legally drunk, while 40 percent of them had at least something to drink. That 8 percent, when multiplied by the thosands of people attending games nationwide, leads to a staggering number.
“I hear from people who’d been going to games their entire life, they say, ‘I don’t go to games anymore,'” said Darin Erickson, who worked on the University of Minnesota studies. “They tell stories about people swearing blatantly, throwing things and fights. It’s not always actual assaults, but some of the people I talk to just aren’t comfortable with the environment. And it seems that they’re often saying it’s attributable to general drunkenness.”
Coors Field usher Travis Wilson saw a lot of that sort of behavior play out last season from his perch above centerfield, looking up into the rowdy Rockpile, where the tickets cost only $4 and there’s plenty of extra cash for fans to spend on the ballpark’s namesake beer.
“Pretty common,” said Wilson, who works the Colorado Rockies games in Denver, when asked how often fights broke out in the cheap seats. “Sometimes, it depends on the rivalry in town, if it’s a team we have a history with. It doesn’t always have to do with alcohol, but a lot of times, it’s a contributing factor.”
Wilson said he never kept count of how many people got dragged off by police, some of them to the holding cells at the stadium. But, he said, it was hardly a rare event.
AP reporters asked eight teams, including Colorado, for arrest statistics at their ballparks and none of the teams provided answers. All, however, said they were working aggressively to curb alcohol-related problems in the stands.
At Busch Stadium, the Cardinals led all Major League teams in fan participation in the Budweiser Good Sport designated-driver program, with about 600 fans per game volunteering to be a designated driver, according to a team spokesman.
Like ushers at most ballparks, Wilson had a clear set of rules and protocols for how to handle rowdy behavior. Among the tools at his disposal: A notecard-sized cheat sheet called “House Rules for Guests” that is provided to fans who look like they’re reaching their limits.
Almost all stadiums have a number fans can text if they see problems. In most cases, fans reported that security was good about responding to the texts within minutes.
“The biggest thing is training the staff to be proactive,” Rockies senior director of guest services Steve Burke said. “To do something about (an incident) before it’s an issue. We react to any complaint or concern.”
Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of labor relations, said baseball won’t release the arrest numbers from the stadiums but it monitors the situation on “an ongoing basis.”
“We do give advice in that area,” Manfred said. “It is a club-by-club” decision on how to handle alcohol policies.
All 30 teams are listed as coalition members of a group called Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management, a nonprofit that provides guidelines for serving alcohol at sporting venues.
Despite participation in that program, along with MLB’s constant monitoring, plenty of people slip through the cracks.
Another study by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that 80 percent of the 49 local law-enforcement agencies that participated in a survey received either occasional or frequent complaints about fights either inside or outside stadiums and arenas they policed (for hockey, football, basketball and baseball). The study found that, in general, “alcohol enforcement practices (at stadiums and arenas) are somewhat limited and alcohol-related complaints are fairly common.”
Yet despite the message that drinking leads to problems, there’s no push to stop serving fans. Turning off the tap could hurt key sponsors.
Coors paid $15 million for naming rights to the Denver stadium. Miller’s deal in Milwaukee averages about $2.1 million a year. One of the earliest examples of naming stadiums after companies came in the 1960s in St. Louis when Anheuser-Busch purchased the Cardinals. Meanwhile, alcohol companies spend millions more on American sports in dozens of different ways. Anheuser-Busch is the official beer sponsor of Major League Baseball. Captain Morgan is an official sponsor of MLB.com. There’s a huge ad in centerfield at Coors Field for Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. The list goes on.
“Bottom line, there’s far too much sponsorship of teams by alcohol companies,” said Bruce Livingston of the Marin Institute, a nonprofit group that keeps watch on the industry. “Alcohol doesn’t mesh at these places. But they get sponsorships and money from the alcohol companies and once you take the money, you have to be very friendly toward serving the product. The cause is money. It’s not about a need for people to be inebriated.”
While Livingston acknowledges that U.S. sports, with their deep connections to the alcohol industry, haven’t been plagued with the hooliganism that has been a problem in soccer abroad, he still finds the pervasiveness of alcohol at games disturbing.
“In America, we far too easily think that going to the sports game means you have to get drunk,” he said.
Coors Field and Miller Park are among the parks that offer a way to steer clear of the alcohol, with “family friendly,” non-drinking sections. Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field are among those that don’t.
“We bring our kids to a lot of games,” said Cardinals fan Corey Dickerson. “I’ve had to complain a few times for people using foul language and being obnoxious and rude and spilling beer and just being generally boorish.”
But a fan in a different section of the same stadium, Mike Quinton, had a different take.
“You get the loud obnoxious guy every once in a while, but nobody really threatening or anything like that,” he said.
One trend among the fans interviewed for this story: Football games are even worse than baseball games.
“I would not take my children to a Bengals game but I bring them here about 15 times a year,” Reds fan Tony Meyer said.
In places like Milwaukee, however, tailgating is part of going to the game, regardless of the sport. All you have to do is look at the name of the team – the Brewers.
“You see the parking lot filled with tailgaters, cans and cans of Natural light,” said Gross, the Brewers season-ticket holder. “They’re lit up before the even get into the stadium. Wisconsin has a pretty big drinking culture. We do like to drink. I don’t think anyone here would accept a dry stadium.”
Copyright Associated Press