SBJ/July 29 - August 4, 2002/Opinion

Finally, a crowd-pleaser from MLB

My mother used to tell me that if I couldn't say something good about someone, I shouldn't say anything at all. No doubt, that was sound advice, but it's been hard to follow in my line of work. If I had, I would have been forced to ignore baseball almost entirely these last few years.

Nonetheless, I'm always on the lookout for good works to applaud, and Major League Baseball has come up with one. It's called the Crowd Management Initiative (CMI), and its aim is to make visiting a ballpark more pleasant for young families and civilized adults unaccompanied by children.

In formulating the plan, baseball has borrowed ideas from the Disney organization, and much of the press attention that's been devoted to it (including a piece in this publication) has stressed that connection. This has conjured up images of fans wearing Mickey Mouse ears and mindless smiles, bringing a wince from Richard Andersen, president of CB Richard Ellis Sports, the Pittsburgh-based consulting firm that helped develop it.

"We're not asking ourselves how we can make going to a game seem like a trip to Disneyland," he says. "We understand there's a difference between the two experiences."

What baseball is trying to do, and has been for the past two seasons, is reduce the incidence of fan rowdyism that at times has made hard hats and ear plugs more sensible game accoutrements than the abovementioned Disney props. It has enlisted all 30 of its teams in the effort, which centers on controlling alcohol consumption and curtailing objectionable fan language and behavior.

That the two focuses are intertwined should be no news to anyone who's noticed that baseball is played in edifices with names like Coors Field, Miller Field and Busch Stadium. Indeed, Kevin Hallinan, baseball's senior vice president for security and facility management, says without hint of irony that "a beer or two at the ballpark is as American as mom's apple pie."

Albeit belatedly, CMI recognizes that three or four beers — or more — can lead to situations that are anything but apple-pie wholesome, and the initiative spells out steps to deter overindulgence. Many teams have tightened age-carding, limited the number of beers a fan can buy at one time from a concession stand or vendor and stopped beer sales altogether after the seventh inning. In the name of postgame traffic safety, a dozen or so clubs have begun giving free soft drinks to customers who register as designated drivers for the day.

The plan goes further than previous ones in disseminating a fans' code of conduct and coordinating enforcement efforts among the various types of stadium employees. It's made clear that people who start fights or throw things onto the field will get the bum's rush.

Ushers and security officers are coached on how to approach fans who are verbally obnoxious so that confrontations can be avoided. "Instead of saying 'one more word and you're out,' we ask them to say something like 'yeah, that ump made a bad call, but your language was pretty bad, too, so give us a break,'" Andersen says.

So-called mystery shoppers have been dispatched to check on how well ballparks are implementing CMI provisions and have reported their findings to management. This has resulted in rules and procedures being altered and gaps patched. "Teams are acting like they really want to hear the bad news, so they can improve," Hallinan says. "It's been very impressive."

There are problems, of course. Concerns stemming from the 9/11 attacks have siphoned attention from the program. Differences over the import of words, some of them generational, have arisen (is "suck" an obscenity?). Compliance isn't perfect and probably never will be.

Still, in doing something everyone agrees it ought to, baseball deserves accolades. Would that were true of other things I could mention.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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Baseball, MLB, Opinion, Walt Disney Co.

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