Commentary

Contact sport: Outfielders and fans

For better or worse, it's hard for players to ignore the paying customers out there.

Originally Published: August 15, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Kansas City Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur may not warrant a place on your fantasy league team based on that .245 batting average and .669 OPS. But if the heartfelt testimonials he's received from the fans in Section 149 of the Coliseum in Oakland are any indication, he'd make a terrific next-door neighbor.

He might even spring for the refreshments at the block party.

Francoeur made some offbeat news in April when he treated A's fans to pizza, but that was just one step in his spread-the-love-across-America tour at parks throughout the majors. At Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, where Royals rooters can purchase a $21 ticket and receive a "Frenchy Quarter'' T-shirt, a drink coupon and a set of Mardi Gras beads, Francoeur tossed a $100 bill into the stands in May with the instructions, "Have a beer on me." And last week at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Francoeur contributed to the fun by reaching into a fan's popcorn box and grabbing a handful of in-game sustenance, Don Mattingly-style.

[+] EnlargeJeff Francoeur
Paige Calamari/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesNo wonder Jeff Francoeur is a fan favorite. He makes visits to the MLB Fan Cave when he's in New York.

If he wants to relate to the public beyond simply Tweeting or providing a link to his favorite charity, Francoeur picked the right position to play.

Go to any Major League Baseball game on a given night, and you'll notice a different dynamic between players and paying customers depending upon where you are in the park. Every half-inning, infielders sprint to their positions, put on their game faces and methodically whip the ball around while the pitcher completes his warm-up tosses. The mood in the infield is typically all business, all the time.

The vibe is looser out in the pasture, where the beer, beach ball and suntan lotion quotients are exponentially higher. More than any other players on the roster -- with the exception of those oddball outcasts in the bullpen -- outfielders are poised to relate to Joe Fan and hear what he's thinking. It's like the corner tavern, the radio talk show hotline and the loading dock all rolled into one.

"I think baseball fans these days feel there's a line drawn between the players and fans," Francoeur says. "I try to sign autographs as much as possible, but I think interacting with the fans is even more important. Whether it's batting practice or during the games, it's fun to mess around with the fans. It gets them excited. It gets them in the game, and it keeps them coming back."

Braun The one thing you can count on with the fans is creativity. It breaks up the monotony of our lives and our jobs. It can get boring out there.

-- Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun

Atlanta's Chipper Jones, a future Hall of Famer, is in a better position to speak to that dynamic than most. He's played most of his 2,462 career games at third base; but earlier in his career, he spent some 365 games in the Braves' outfield -- enough to know that good-natured banter and verbal abuse are both part of the landscape out there beyond the basepaths.

"You have to think about the ticket," Jones says. "The higher the price of the ticket, the higher-class fan. It's pretty simple. Go out to the outfield, and you have people who are less inclined to be nice."

Of course, those Yankee Stadium hard-cores who chant "Box seats suck!" at the end of their pregame roll call might beg to differ with that characterization. One man's version of "not nice" is another man's creativity.

Give and take

When those passionate Yankees fans recite their starting-lineup chorus in the first inning, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and the other infielders generally respond with a rudimentary wave of the glove. But right fielder Nick Swisher snaps to attention and salutes, and center fielder Curtis Granderson responds with the old Fred Sanford "Elizabeth, I'm coming to join you" faux heart attack.

The Yankee Stadium roll call is choreographed love, but the outfielder-fan dynamic takes many less predictable forms across the game. In May 1991, Cleveland's Albert Belle fired a ball into the seats when a fan called him "Joey" (the name he went by in the minor leagues) and invited him to a keg party after the game. Belle, who had a history of drinking problems, was suspended a week for drilling the loudmouth in the chest. Only a few days later, Jose Canseco went into the stands after a fan who made fun of his relationship with Madonna.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
AP Photo/Ralph FresoIt isn't always pretty. Arizona's Justin Upton and a Padres fan exchanged some less-than-cordial words last August.

Montreal Expos right fielder Larry Walker suffered one of baseball's all-time brain cramps in 1994 when he graciously handed a ball he'd just caught to a 6-year-old fan in right field at Dodger Stadium. Walker had to yank it back from the kid and throw it back to the infield when he realized there were only two outs. His inner good Samaritan was no match for his inferior math skills.

"I tried to be Mr. Nice Guy, and I turned into Mr. Foolish," Walker told reporters after the game. "My kids' kids will be watching it, and they'll probably be showing it 150 years from now."

He was right. You can still see the clip on the occasional baseball blooper reel.

During the 2003 NL playoffs, Moises Alou lost his cool and vented at a certain Cubs fan who had the temerity to reach for a foul ball down the left-field line in Wrigley Field. Yeah, that Bartman guy. And sometimes, the animosity builds through nine innings of back-and-forth. In 2011, Milwaukee's Nyjer Morgan engaged in a running dialogue with San Francisco Giants fans that peaked (or ebbed, if you prefer) with Tony Plush making a provocative gesture toward the stands. Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper chided Morgan after the game for his behavior, and Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke sat him down for a chat.

Words don't have to be a part of the equation. In September 2010, a fan in Philadelphia ran onto the field dressed as Spiderman and was tripped by Atlanta outfielder Matt Diaz, who received a warm round of applause from the Citizens Bank Park crowd. The incident occurred four months after a Phillies fan had been Tasered on the field by security, so Diaz might have done the guy a favor.

Ballplayers are conditioned to tune out static, but sometimes the circumstances make it difficult. When it's 98 degrees on getaway day, your team is in the 14th inning of a tie game and the yahoo in the third row has been blistering you with insults since the national anthem, patience can fall by the wayside. For every fan who comes to the park with witty commentary and snappy rejoinders, a corresponding mouth-breather is looking to impress his wife or girlfriend with a never-ending barrage of invective.

[+] EnlargeSmith
AP Photo/Charles KnoblockThe ultimate indignity: This famous photo caught White Sox outfielder Al Smith being drenched with beer during the 1959 World Series.

Most players enjoy the give-and-take as a rule and regard it as a minor occupational hazard. Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun's biggest challenge used to be fending off marriage proposals at the park, but the atmosphere has been a little more rugged this year in the aftermath of his offseason drug-testing odyssey. Braun has generally rolled with the flow this summer and found fans to be more tolerant than the early doomsday proclamations suggested.

"The one thing you can count on with the fans is creativity," Braun says. "It breaks up the monotony of our lives and our jobs. It can get boring out there. We do the same thing all day, every single day."

The trick for outfielders, according to former big leaguer Mike Cameron, is "picking and choosing the battles you want to get into." Outfielders are like standup comics who aren't quite sure how to respond to that heckler in the crowd. The biggest difference: They stand with their back to the audience for three hours at a time. "At 100 percent of the stadiums we go to, somebody is constantly burying you or just on you the whole time," says Boston outfielder Cody Ross. "Sometimes I just ignore it. Sometimes I'll have fun with them and say something back. But as soon as you acknowledge that they're there, they pile it on times 10.

"Sometimes I'll make some smartass remark and the fans around the guy will chuckle, because it's funny. I'll pick out a characteristic like his lack of hair or oversized weight issue, and I'll say something about that. A lot of times people get on me for being short. They'll say, 'Stand up,' or something like that. Some people are creative, and some are just your normal, brutal, 'Hey, you stink!' I like it when fans get creative."

Fans looking to get under a player's skin have a world of ammunition at their disposal. The Braves' Jones learned that the hard way in the late 1990s when reports surfaced that his marriage was breaking up after he had an affair with a waitress who worked at a popular restaurant chain.

Dobbs In New York, people just yell at you. In Philly they wear you out. Even the little kids can be rough in Philly. It's way out of bounds.

-- Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur

"You better not have any skeletons in your closet when you play the outfield," Jones says. "If I heard the word 'Hooters' once, I heard it a million times."

Nowadays, with the advent of smartphones, fans have the luxury of accessing a player's Little League batting average, his wife's and kids' names and his dog's breed from the comfort of their seats. Current Giants and former Astros outfielder Hunter Pence, who has dated a succession of actresses and bikini models, learned that his social life was a popular topic of conversation among Wrigley Field fans during an Astros-Cubs series a few years ago. Pence recounts being caught off guard when the crowd suddenly began serenading him with the chant, "Terrie gets around!"

His hyperactive demeanor is also the focus of regular jibes from the bleachers.

"I'm kind of fidgety and I'm always out there fixing my pants," Pence says. "People always get on me about that. They're like, 'Fix your belt 200 times -- oh my gosh!'"

Bests and Worsts

ESPN.com talked to eight current and former big leaguers who shared their thoughts on outfielder-fan relations. Several said they appreciate wry humor or witty remarks from fans and might respond with a subtle thumbs-up or a nod. Vulgarity, in contrast, will not be tolerated. Dodgers outfielder Shane Victorino says he'll occasionally alert security when he hears a well-lubricated bleacher creature cursing in the presence of children.

"That's the one thing that takes me over the top," Victorino says.

Outfielders generally like to flip baseballs to fans in the stands, but they've been more wary of the practice since a fan plunged to his death when he reached over the railing to catch a ball from a well-meaning Josh Hamilton at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in 2011.

[+] EnlargeHunter Pence
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJust because he changes teams doesn't mean Hunter Pence has to lose his relationships with fans in the outfield.

"I used to throw balls in the stands, but I don't since that happened," Ross says. "It's dangerous. If you throw a ball and somebody isn't looking, they can get hit in the head or it might hit them perfectly in the eye. Anything can happen."

The players we surveyed offer several other opinions on the bests and worsts of MLB parks and the weirdest and most memorable experiences they've had with fans.

Toughest fans: Mike Cameron cites the fans in Oakland and San Francisco for being particularly adept at making his ears burn. Francoeur votes for Philadelphia, where fans take their leather-lunged reputation as a badge of honor.

"Philly is the worst -- no doubt about it," Francoeur says. "I thought it was bad when I was with the Braves. Then it got even worse when I played for the Mets and we went there. In New York, people just yell at you. In Philly, they wear you out. Even the little kids can be rough in Philly. It's way out of bounds."

Marlon Byrd, who began his major league career in Philadelphia in 2002 and moved on three years later, concurs.

"I would go on the road and people would be talking trash and I would say, 'Dude, I play in Philly. You've got to come better than that,'" Byrd says.

Most pleasant fans: "They're really nice out there in Seattle,'' Francoeur says. "Minnesota has really nice people, too."

Most entertaining crowd: It's easy for players to feel like innocent bystanders at Wrigley Field, where the fans in different sections go at it like Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser.

"You've got Cubs fans in both sections yelling, 'Right field sucks!' and 'Left field sucks!'" Victorino says. "It's very entertaining."

Most geographically challenged insult: Victorino is continually amazed when fans in opposing parks exhort him to "Go back to Hawaii!"

[+] EnlargeGary Sheffield
AP Photo/Charles KrupaA volatile mix: the Yankees' Gary Sheffield and Red Sox fans in Fenway.

"It's like they think I'm not a U.S. citizen or something," he says. "Hey, I'm not gonna turn around and tell you to go back where you came from."

Quickest turnaround by a fan: "I had a fan crush me all game once at Wrigley," Pence says. "He ripped me for going to Texas-Arlington and said I couldn't get into [the Texas campus in] Austin. Then after the game, he tells me he loves me and asks for my autograph. He was like, 'I went to UTA, too.' I was like, 'Really?'"

Strangest personal encounter (on field): Byrd was playing for the Rangers in 2009 when fans ran onto the field several times in hopes of meeting Josh Hamilton. During one game, manager Ron Washington made a pitching change and Hamilton, Byrd and a third outfielder were conversing in center field when a fan vaulted the outfield fence and began running toward them. Somehow, the security detail failed to notice, and the fan wormed his way into the middle of their discussion.

"The guy was like, 'Hey, how you doing?'" Byrd recalls. "He was standing right next to us. When I saw the security people coming I told him, 'You better run.'"

Roughest heckler (non-English division): Andruw Jones, a Curacao native, was playing for the Rangers in 2009 when a fan began tearing into him in Dutch every time he stepped into the on-deck circle. Byrd, his Texas teammate, was batting right in front of him in the order. The jibes were so brutal and relentless that Jones begged Byrd to speed up his at-bats so he could escape the verbal assault as quickly as possible. Naturally, Byrd did just the opposite.

"The guy was swearing at Andruw, cursing at him and talking about his family," Byrd says. "I walked to plate, called timeout, fixed my shoes and took my time up there. I just wanted him to wear it."

Toughest place to run on the field and avoid security: "The security guards in Atlanta are really good athletes," Victorino says. "They wear wrist bands and everything."

Biggest reason those Atlanta security folks aren't as busy: "People up in the Northeast have a little more gall about it," Chipper Jones says. "A night in the clink to somebody up there is no big deal. When you spend a night in the clink in the Bible Belt, everybody hears about it, so we're less inclined to do it."

Pizza man

Francoeur, the poster boy for fan outreach, grew up with a great role model. He was 4 or 5 years old when his father took him to a Braves game and Dale Murphy, the quintessential nice guy, stopped to sign an autograph for him. Francoeur always remembered, and pledged to treat fans with the same respect if he ever made it to the majors.

[+] EnlargeBelle
AP Photo/Mark DuncanCleveland's Albert Belle had to read a written apology after he threw a ball at a fan in the stands.

Francoeur forged a personal relationship with Oakland fans in 2011. During the Royals' first trip to the Bay, he waved to the crowd and struck up a few conversations between innings. On his second visit, the fans told him about their annual Bacon Tuesday celebration, and he talked to them about his fantasy football team and revealed that Aaron Rodgers was his starting quarterback. The fans gave him an Aaron Rodgers University of California football jersey and signed it en masse, and Francoeur tossed a $100 bill and a note into the stands with the message "Beer and bacon dogs on me."

The friendship picked up steam this April, when Francoeur had 20 personal pizzas delivered to the stands, along with a signed bat and a note reading, "Right field bleacher crew, keep making bacon." Before the Royals left town, Francoeur held a Bacon Tuesday T-shirt aloft and delivered a message to his admirers in the rain. He already has plans to join those hearty A's fans in the parking lot next year for some chocolate-covered bacon, bacon cheesecake and other artery-clogging goodies at the third annual Bacon Tuesday.

Naturally, wherever Francoeur traveled after the Oakland episode, fans serenaded him with chants of "Where's our pizza?" He felt obligated to tell them that the Domino's routine was a one-time thing.

"They wore me out at Yankee Stadium," Francoeur says. "I was like, 'Hey, pizza in Oakland is a lot cheaper than pizza in New York. A hundred dollars might get me two pizzas in New York.'"

Fans in some parks continue to get on Francoeur for his negative WAR, but he'll always be welcome in Oakland, where his friendly demeanor helped cut through the animosity and break down barriers between players and fans. He can take heart in the realization that he blazed the trail for harmonious relations moving forward.

Or maybe not.

"There are some very clever fans around baseball," says Chipper Jones. "When Frenchy bought those pizzas, I'm pretty sure he thought those guys were being clever. If they had been questioning the ancestry of his mother, it might have been a different story."

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer