A Ballpark is Not Where a Life Should End

About 25 or 30 times, I’ve left the waterfront palace that is AT&T Park and walked past Stillman Alley, tucked beneath the overpass of the freeway that feeds into the Bay Bridge. It’s typically a happy trek, leaving behind the cool vibe of the American ballpark that best seizes the mood and texture of its city. There often is fog as I walk up 3rd Street toward my fave hotel. My coffee house is near there. My late-night beer stop is near there. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is near there. The Moscone Center, where Apple trots out its new iPhones at media gatherings, is near there.

That was my walk after Barry Bonds established all his dubious home-run records. That was my walk as the Giants took control of the World Series last year. That is the walk many out-of-towners take when they want to experience a ballgame in San Francisco.

And that is the walk 24-year-old Jonathan Denver took with his family before he was fatally stabbed late Wednesday night in the alley, all because he was wearing the gear of his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.

In our country, we don’t think of S.F. and L.A. as blood rivals as much as geographical, meteorological and cultural antitheses, part of a big, hairy, freaky mess known as California. If any cities would grow violent over a rivalry, you’d think of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Chicago — places where sports is interwoven with life in flammable, over-the-top ways. But 2 1/2 years ago, on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, a Giants fan named Bryan Stow was beaten in a parking lot by two men wearing Dodgers gear and hospitalized for two years with traumatic brain injuries. And now we have a Dodgers fan dead in what could be pure coincidence, some sort of subconscious retaliation or your basic brutal, tit-for-tat payback.

Denver, a plumber who lived 170 miles north of San Francisco in Fort Bragg, went to the game with his father, his father’s girlfriend, his brother and a friend. His father, Robert Preece, lives in southern California and happens to work as a Dodger Stadium security guard on game days. They left the park in the eighth inning and traveled up 3rd toward the South of Market district, where they engaged in trash talk with a group of Giants fans outside a bar — keeping in mind the Dodgers are in the postseason this year and the Giants are not, though they’ve won two of the last three World Series. “There was a back-and-forth about the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, which deteriorated into a physical fight,” San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr said at a news conference.

It should have ended there, with no serious injuries. But then the confrontation escalated and spilled into the alley, where Denver was stabbed to death. Two people were in custody Thursday night, Suhr said, and one — from Lodi, Calif. — will be charged with homicide.

We do not attend sports events to risk our lives. But unlike other forms of high-priced entertainment, the combination of emotion, pride and alcohol can turn dangerous and deadly. As it is, fans are being chased away from stadiums and arenas by insane prices and intense security measures and prefer to stay amid the comforts of home, where games are televised beautifully in hi-def. Add to that the threat of being assaulted or stabbed, and, before long, games will be contested in empty buildings reduced to quiet studios.

“Obviously, this is one of the most stories rivalries in baseball. That said … there is no place at these games for violence,” Suhr said. “Nobody’s life should be at stake, whether they’re at the game, leaving the game, whether it’s six blocks away and an hour and a half after the game. The fact that anybody got into any sort of beef over the Giants and the Dodgers and somebody lost their life, it is just senseless.”

Yeah, but that’s what police in Los Angeles said after Stow was ravaged, that there’s no place for violence. That’s what the Giants and Dodgers told us, too, in a memorable gathering at AT&T Park in which players spoke to fans after the Stow attack. And yet, as the former paramedic remains under supervised care at his Northern California home after his hospitalization insurance ran out, we have a murder … which came three days after violence erupted down the road at Candlestick Park during the 49ers-Indianapolis game, when a teenager was attacked … which came two weeks after a 32-year-man fell to his death from a Candlestick pedestrian overpass … which came two years after two shootings and beatings at a 49ers game.
Sing it, Tony Bennett.

“I left my life … in San Francisco.”

Said the Dodgers in a statement about their employee’s son: “There is no rational explanation for this senseless act which resulted in Jonathan’s death. The pain that this has caused his family and friends is unimaginable. Words are not enough to describe our sadness. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this extremely difficult time.”

In Atlanta alone this year, three fans have fallen from a stadium, including 30-year-old Braves fan Ronald Lee Homer, who tumbled over a fourth-level railing at Turner Field and died after a 60-foot-plus plunge into a parking lot. These may seem like isolated incidents, but since 2003, more than two dozen fans have taken such falls at U.S. stadiums, according to the Institute for the Study of Sports Incidents, via the Associated Press.
Alcohol is the central issue in many of the incidents, of course. And yet, how are the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars attempting to fill empty seats and avoid a local TV blackout Sunday? By offering two free beers with the purchase of a Jags-Colts ticket.

That just adds fuel to the ire.

Ire that leads, far too often, to violence and sorrow and another tragic statistic for the sports industry to ponder.