Nobody is quite sure why Los Angeles Dodgers fans started throwing souvenir baseballs onto the field in the seventh inning on Aug. 10, 1995, but in the absence of an instigating event, the simplest explanation is: Because baseballs want to be thrown.
The Dodgers gave away 15,000 grippable, throwable spheroids, celebrating the club's previous Rookie of the Year winners. The first few balls -- perhaps as many as a couple hundred -- caused a six-minute delay in the seventh. The rainfall subsided until just before the bottom of the ninth, when one suddenly landed near St. Louis Cardinals right fielder John Mabry. He pretended he was going to throw it back at the fans, according to an interview with MLB.com, but "deked them and threw it into the bullpen. They got mad and threw another one in. Then they threw another at Brian Jordan. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders."
Play began. Six pitches later -- one producing an egregious call on a 3-1 count to Raul Mondesi -- the plate umpire ejected Mondesi and Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda for arguing, and the field was soon covered in baseballs. The Cardinals fled the diamond. Elderly ushers in folksy straw hats stood guard atop the dugouts as missiles poured around them. The grounds crew filled 15 or 20 buckets with the spent ammunition. After a five-minute delay, the Cardinals returned to their positions, whereupon one bleacher fan threw a single ball onto the outfield, and the umpires made the abrupt decision: The game ended in forfeit. The Cardinals' 2-1 lead was ratified but would be officially recorded as a 9-0 win, as all forfeits are. Tom Henke got the save.
It was the last forfeit to date in Major League Baseball, 25 years ago tonight. It's a strangely representative time capsule from the era.
That the game ended in a forfeit was a surprise, but the interruption by a mob's projectiles wasn't. In the 1990s, if you can believe it, that sort of thing seemed to happen all the time. Teams routinely, naively handed fans perfect throwables. And, not uncommonly, fans obliged.
A brief, incomplete history of games just like the Dodgers-Cardinals tilt, less memorable only because the umpires exercised greater patience than Bob Davidson did on Aug. 10, 1995:
A 1990 game in San Diego was delayed twice by fans hucking giveaway baseballs to celebrate home runs. "That was one of the dumbest things I've ever seen. I don't think we'll see that promotion again for a while," Tony Gwynn said, wrongly. In 1993, as the club was in the middle of a controversial fire sale, the Padres gave away baseballs at the first Saturday game of the year. About 100 ended up on the field. (About 9,000 weren't even given away because attendance was so sparse.)
A day later, fans in San Francisco discarded their giveaway fotoballs -- baseballs with pictures of players' faces on them -- in the middle of a weird game that involved ejections, brawls and multiple big innings allowed by Giants pitching. It came one day after Giants management said it was considering banning beer sales in the rowdy left-field bleachers, where fans had been throwing things at opposing left fielders and hopping down onto the field. "Giving out baseballs was a bad idea," umpire Bruce Froemming said. "Why not give them hand grenades?''
The same year, Angels fans responded the same way in another brawls-and-ejections game, covering the field with red-and-blue giveaway baseballs.
Pirates fans threw "hundreds of wooden pennant sticks handed out before the game" in 1995. It took 17 minutes to clear the field. Yankees fans threw souvenir bats at Albert Belle in 1996. Belle and his Cleveland teammates were pulled off the field.
Then came the apocalyptic moment, in 1997: True Value Hardware sponsored souvenir-ball giveaways at 19 teams' home openers. Play was stopped multiple times at a Royals game. Center fielder Kenny Lofton was targeted by throwers in Houston, and Rangers fans covered the field with balls after the game in Texas. But the debacle in Milwaukee got the most attention: Brewers fans threw balls onto the field during Opening Day -- 14 fans were cited and fined $105 each -- and the Brewers nearly forfeited their first game of the year. Their manager had to get on the public-address system to plead with fans to stop, and umpires canceled the sausage race. "The umpire feared the men inside the sausage costumes would be pelted," reports said.
Fans didn't throw souvenirs only. A search of "showered the field" finds fans targeting the field with paper cups (Farmers' Night in Cincinnati, 1991), empty beer glasses (Shea Stadium, 1995), souvenir caps (Yankee Stadium, 1995), whiskey bottles and an apple (Los Angeles, 1995), and, at Yankee Stadium in October 1995, an entire garage sale: Frisbees, toilet paper, souvenir bats, stereo headphones, tomatoes, grapefruits, golf balls, bottles, batteries, a softball and an assortment of coins. Expos fans in 1996 would sometimes cover the field with candy bars to celebrate Henry Rodriguez home runs, which led to at least one team pulling its players off the field. "It's not the candy bars that are the problem," then-Astros manager Terry Collins told the Houston Chronicle. "Saturday, there were golf balls being thrown out there. These fans started thinking this candy-bar thing is a free pass to throw stuff."
That last bit, about "a free pass to throw stuff," is crucial: Throwing things onto the field had been a tradition at ballgames going back to at least 1907, when Giants fans throwing snowballs onto the field caused a forfeit. But as the influential "threshold model" of collective behavior posits, "individuals' behavior depends on the number of other individuals engaging in that behavior." Most people won't throw things onto the field most of the time. But ask 15,000 of them to hold a baseball -- which feels so good for throwing -- and there's a good chance one or two might. And there are a fair number of people who will throw a baseball, or something else, onto the field when a bunch of other people already have.
Crucially, former commissioner Bud Selig happened to be at the Milwaukee game in 1997, and when the sausage race got canceled, he'd had enough. He and the two league presidents sent out a directive to end the giveaways. Anything that could be thrown had to be given away at the gates after the game, or through a voucher system.
The policy is still in effect today:
In order to secure the safety and well-being of on-field personnel, and keep the field clear of debris that could delay or cause the forfeit of a game, all in-stadium promotional giveaways that could be thrown on the field of play, such as baseballs, frisbees, etc., should be distributed to patrons as they exit the ballpark.
Promotions this year -- before games were canceled -- were nearly all floppy wearables (shirts, backpacks, hats), too heavy or awkwardly shaped to throw well (snow globes), or genuine collectibles (bobbleheads). Of course, no item is totally unthrowable: In 2002, Expos fans covered the field with magnet schedules, and play was halted for seven minutes. And occasionally, fans will delay a game with simple trash barrages. But for the most part, Major League Baseball quieted a long tradition of fans throwing things.
"We had giveaway nights, ball nights, many times in the past over the years," former Dodgers GM Fred Claire told MLB.com last year. (A Dodgers VP at the time estimated the team had given away a half-million souvenir baseballs over 20 years.) "So it wasn't as if this was something new or different from what had been done. What was done in 1995 was different from what's done today in terms of the protection in every area that needs to be provided. They are totally different considerations."
What Claire is really saying is that until the 1990s, we weren't in touch with how scary fans could be. That realization was treated as something of a moral crisis at the time. When the league office ordered clubs to quit giving out throwables, a Palm Beach Post columnist wrote:
There's something deeper going on here, though, something that applies across the board. Americans simply can't be trusted anymore to mind their manners. They must be approached with caution, kept away from blunt or sharp objects, supervised constantly by security personnel lest a fight break out. What turns a sports crowd into an unruly mob is the same thing that prevents drivers from making eye contact with others at traffic lights. We're afraid of each other.
But it wasn't so much that we'd become scary. It's that we were just awakening to something that we'd repressed and that we still mostly repress today: 50,000 fans are inherently a little scary! Scary like the ocean, scary like the edge of an enormous cliff, scary like a thunderclap -- a crowd is just an incredible, overwhelming gathering of potential energy. Last week during a Yankees broadcast, David Cone described one side of this scariness when he recounted the vibration of Yankee Stadium after a huge hit in the 1996 World Series: "When we looked up at the upper deck at the old stadium, it was shaking, and for the first time I got a little nervous -- that thing's coming down."
Players have to repress this awareness, because they must spend hundreds of hours each year surrounded, literally surrounded, by a potential mob that outnumbers them 1,000 to 1. For road players, the crowd is held together by animus toward them. They have to stay calm in the middle of this ocean. And on a moment like Aug. 10, 1995, with baseballs (and occasional whiskey bottles) raining down, we and they get a glimpse of all that potential energy. Terrifying, right?
Along with 20-game winners and 100-win teams, there will probably be no forfeits this year. Perhaps a team could forfeit for some other reason -- the Orioles forfeited in 1977 because umpires wouldn't remove a tarp manager Earl Weaver thought was dangerous -- but over the past century, 12 of the 13 forfeits came for one of two reasons: a team was stalling to try to get a game canceled by darkness or rain, or the fans got too disruptive. "Hordes of children" on the field in 1942, "a plague of seat cushions" on the field in 1920, the Disco Demolition in 1979, etc.
There are no fans this year, unless we're counting the cardboard representatives some teams have put up. Players are safe from all the usual threats: No debris will be thrown, nobody will run onto the field, nothing of that sort. It's safe. The paradox, though, is that crowdless baseball doesn't feel safe at all. The word of the baseball season so far has been not "safe" but "eerie." An unauthorized drone delayed a game in Minnesota, and it felt suitably creepy for our moment. A relative emailed me: "When I saw the Giants/Dodgers game last night with the view from the pitcher I burst into tears upon seeing the cardboard people. It was like a horror movie. It is a horror movie!"
The empty stands are not a comfort but a reminder of the ever-present threat. A visit to the mound by the pitching coach is an opportunity to see people standing too close to each other -- back up, why is your mask not covering your nose? A home run is followed by high-fives and we feel the irrational urge to wash our hands.
And so it is for us all right now: We got rid of the crowds, but we don't get to feel safe. The streets are empty, and scary. The supermarket lines are short, and scary. The crack of a bat in an entirely empty stadium sounds like a rifle shot. A home run landing on metal bleachers in an entirely empty stadium sounds like a car wreck. A stadium built to hold 50,000 happy people, sitting empty as a relic of a healthier time, looks like wreckage.
For decades, crowds were scary, and we learned to live happily in them. It barely needs to be said, but I can hardly wait until the day in the future -- perhaps far from now, after it's truly safe -- when we get to go back. Maybe some jerk will throw something onto the field and we'll shake our heads, and if there are enough jerks, maybe they will cause a forfeit. Relatively speaking, it will all be a comfort.