CLEARWATER, Fla. — They’ve been called every name in the book, from the N-word on up. They’ve had their manhood attacked, their families disparaged. Once, a fan even mocked the death of a 2-day-old baby.
The Phillies have heard it all. So, yes, they understand why Russell Westbrook snapped at a fan and his wife in Utah on March 11.
“I would, too. It’s wrong,” Bryce Harper said last week. “It’s wrong for people to come in and think they can treat people like that.”
Harper is a man’s man, always willing to push back. When the Utah fans told Westbrook to “get down on his knees, like he’s used to,” they knew all Westbrook could do was reply with threats to “bleep him up.” And his wife, too. Both were banned from Vivint Smart Home Arena for life, but the incident still infuriated Harper.
“When a grown man knows that another grown man can’t really do anything about it? But when you’re walking down the street, they’re not going to say anything," Harper said. "Because Westbrook probably would have dropped him.”
Westbrook said as much, which cost him a $25,000 fine, but all athletes know any violent response will be met with harsher penalties than the fans receive. Few athletes are targeted like baseball outfielders and relievers. Some engage the hecklers, and some coaches act as a buffer, but the players generally try to ignore the jeers. When I asked a few Phillies about their worst experiences, they had some doozies.
“I can go all day. Been flipped off. Heard, ‘[Bleep] you,’ ” said Phillies outfielder Roman Quinn, who is black. ““I’ve heard the N-word before. I heard somebody, like, ‘[Bleep] you, [N-word].’ ”
Quinn said that happened against the Mets at CitiField in the last week of the 2016 season, and the Westbrook incident brought back that memory.
“I can definitely understand his frustration, especially if it came out in a racial way,” Quinn said. “And he did take it that way. I can definitely see it being racial. That’s how I heard it.”
Quinn couldn’t identify that fan, so he didn’t report it. Maybe he should have. The next season, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones heard the same thing from Red Sox fans at Fenway Park, an incident that prompted Major League Baseball to review every team’s fan code of conduct.
If what Quinn and Jones heard sounds bad, what Pat Neshek heard at Camden Yards in 2013, the season after tragedy struck his family, might have been worse.
“My son died at 2 days old. Somebody was saying something about that,” Neshek said, with emotion in his voice. “I just saw … rage. I wanted to jump up there and physically strangle the guy. It was bad. I think they ended up arresting the guy. That’s the lowest part of society.”
Neshek, 38, has pitched for seven teams in both leagues. He played for the Oakland A’s when that happened, though he knows the issues that come with the A’s visiting bullpen. So does 32-year-old Tommy Hunter, a reliever who also is playing for his seventh team and says he has had more than 100 hecklers ejected.
“In Oakland, I had the entire first and second rows removed. It’s like the NBA; they’re close to you,” Hunter said.
Apparently, the other side of the bay isn’t much better.
“San Fran’s pretty bad. I’ve seen batteries thrown at people. Quarters. Dimes,” said Neshek, who is baffled that, in such a progressive city, he routinely hears gay slurs. "You’ll get the weird, homophobic stuff. You’re like, ‘How can they say that here?’ ”
Andrew McCutchen, a 10-year veteran, knows you might hear anything, anywhere, in any sport — especially when, like McCutchen, you’re the face of a franchise, as he was when he patrolled center field for the Pirates.
“I’ve never had anything racial said to me,” said McCutchen, who is black. “But I’ve had pretty much anything else you can think of. It can get under your skin sometimes. At the end of the day, they just want a reaction. I do my best to not to give them that. What do they have to lose? A seat, for the night? We have more to lose.”
And, if No. 42 could take it, McCutchen can.
“Jackie Robinson was in this game. I can only imagine what he had to go through. I mean, who am I compared to him?” McCutchen said. "It’s never going to be perfect. A lot of people went through things so we wouldn’t have to, but it still exists. If he went through it, then I can handle some hecklers."
McCutchen said Westbrook “has a target on his back,” and he empathizes with Westbrook, but “I never fight fire with fire.”
Hunter, a bodacious sort, often does.
He and Neshek admitted that they have baited hecklers into using foul language to prompt an ejection. They appreciate bullpen coaches who were willing to take bullets for them, such as late Twins legend Rick Stelmaszek, or Craig Bjornson, who was with Neshek in Houston and now works for the Red Sox.
Neshek said once, when Stelmaszek was bickering with an Indians heckler in 2006, Neshek crept over and doused the fan with a cup of water. Liquid annoyances are a two-way street, of course; pitchers know to watch for falling beers in Toronto.
The visitors bullpen at Citizens Bank Park can be as bad as any, they said. When the Bank opened in 2004, the home team occupied the upper 'pen — for about one series. Phillies relievers complained that they were being heckled, so the team switched the 'pens. The team has been vigilant about the bullpen ever since, and they’ve always been protective of visiting players, such as Barry Bonds, J.D. Drew, and, yes, Bryce Harper.
“We’ve addressed security concerns not only with additional guards but also with law enforcement and closed-circuit TV coverage,” said Sal DeAngelis, a Phillies employee since 1994 and the team’s security director since 2012. “We’ve had some visiting players come to the ballpark who aren’t as popular as some others. We send resources to the areas where they play, and we’re very cognizant when they’re on deck.”
After the Adam Jones incident, MLB reviewed every team’s fan code of conduct. The Phillies didn’t need to alter theirs. DeAngelis said Phillies fans are quick to use the 10-year-old text-alert system to report belligerent behavior, and, unlike the Red Sox, they’ve never had to ban anyone for life — not even Sidney Smith, who threw a beer bottle at Phillies slugger Ryan Howard in 2016.
DeAngelis and the players agree that the Adam Jones incident seems to have calmed behavior at ballparks to some degree, though Harper — a bat-flipping, hair-tossing superstar — still gets earfuls. Right?
“People can make the assumption that I do,” Harper agreed. “It’s kind of sad. You’ve got to see the greatness of the players in any sport. If that’s Westbrook, or LeBron, or Tom Brady, or Kobe — you want to see greatness.”
So, what’s the worst he’s heard?
“I don’t really want to tell you. There’s some stuff that gets really bad.”
Sounds like it affects him.
“Yeah. Certain things do. We’re just like anybody else. We have emotions,” he admitted. “It’s not funny. There’s little kids around, as well. When you’ve got a dad saying certain things in front of their son, it goes to show what kind of people they are. It’s kind of a bummer to not just go out there and play. Ninety-eight percent of the people are great, and about 2 percent are bitter.”
Once, on a hot day in Chicago a few years ago, McCutchen dealt with a particularly offensive fan in a most unusual way.
A foulmouthed Cubs fan rode McCutchen in center field for several long innings. Finally, McCutchen turned around and said, “You know what? I’m going to say a quick prayer for you.”