Drinking linked to problems in the ballpark stands

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.”

AP Sports Writers Ron Blum in New York, Pat Graham in Denver,

Colin Fly in Milwaukee, Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Rick Gano in

Chicago, R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis, Jon Krawczynski in

Minneapolis, Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia and Janie McCauley in San

Francisco contributed to this report.