Right or wrong, fans' voice protected

Right or wrong, fans' voice protected

HOUSTON -- The debate continued even as the San Francisco-Houston series closed on Wednesday night.

What about the Astros fans giving a standing ovation to Russ Springer for hitting Barry Bonds with a pitch? Right or wrong? A spontaneous show of disdain for an increasingly unpopular figure in the game? Or a sign that American society is in an irreversible process of decay?

Giants manager Felipe Alou didn't like it all and he said so with typical eloquence and passion Wednesday. The ovation, Alou suggested, was inappropriate conduct with children present in Minute Maid Park, not to mention many children watching on TV, particularly on the West Coast.

Further, Alou opined, regardless of how anybody felt about Bonds, the ovation showed no respect for the event itself.

"I don't believe that's 'playing ball,'" Alou said.

This isn't about the pitch and it isn't about whether Springer was intentionally throwing at Bonds. This is about the crowd reaction. What can you safely say about this episode, apart from the fact that it was highly unusual? Maybe this crowd conduct was boorish. Maybe it was inappropriate. Maybe it was nasty. Maybe it was tasteless. But it was completely protected by whatever remains of the Constitution of the United States of America.

There are things, of course, that you can't do or say when you are in attendance at the old ballpark.

You can't interfere with a ball in play, although almost every night, somebody tries to do exactly that.

You can't throw objects onto the playing field.

You can't endanger the physical well-being of the players or your fellow customers.

You can't use language that exceeds the bounds of common decency. This concept is actually enforced at some parks and not only in the stands. Even now, Astros manager Phil Garner has a jar on his desk in which he is collecting fines from anyone who uses certain curse words in his office. Garner claims the biggest offenders are reporters, which is dismaying although not particularly shocking.

You can't publicly call for the violent overthrow of the American government. Doesn't matter if you're at the ballpark, this is still sedition. You may have to be particularly careful with this one now, if the government has all of your phone records.

Yes, there is a lot of precluded speech even in the friendly confines of the national pastime. But a traditional interpretation of the First Amendment would lead reasonable people to conclude that if you wanted to give a standing ovation to Russ Springer for hitting Barry Bonds, you could.

This is what the vast majority of the 35,286 people at Minute Maid Park did Tuesday night. They were not arrested. They were not taken downtown. They were already downtown, but it's bigger than that. They were exercising at least two basic American rights by gathering here in peaceful assemblage and by speaking or applauding freely.

What happened with the standing ovation was not a Patrick Henry moment in the history of free speech, but it also fell short of two basic standards for outrage: Nobody died and it did not cause HBO to cancel future episodes of "Deadwood."

Some people are arguing that the standing ovation represented something truly negative. Some people are arguing that the audience here would have been even happier if Bonds had been seriously injured, that there was a kind of blood lust in the air. There is, of course, absolutely no way of knowing that. And it is generally unwise to impugn the motivations of 35,286 people with whom you are not personally acquainted.

Some people are arguing that this happened because Springer is a Caucasian and Bonds is not. See the previous paragraph for the response to that.

And some people are arguing that this episode reflects badly upon Houston. Come on. These three games in Houston were not the Nuremberg rallies. I have observed conduct more objectionable than this at other parks. And one of those other parks was in San Francisco.

In the end, the way you feel about this incident might reflect the way you feel about Barry Bonds. If you are a zealous fan of his, you might see this as yet another part of the relentless persecution that he has had to endure on his path to baseball immortality.

And if you are vehemently anti-Bonds, for any reason from his personality to his alleged use of performance-enhancing substances, you might see this episode as a legitimate outpouring of feeling by a public that has more than enough of Barry Bonds.

All was quiet on the Bonds front Wednesday night, because he didn't play. With him or without him, the Giants pummeled the Astros on three consecutive nights, by a cumulative score of 34-5. The Giants are 20-5 in this building, against some very good Houston teams. How?

"I don't know," Alou said with a smile. "Maybe we like Minute Maid orange juice."

You had to like that. It's progress. And it couldn't have been done with Enron Field.

The teams move on to Interleague Play with the Giants in Oakland and the Astros at home against the Rangers. And Barry Bonds will move on, too, still one home run away from Babe Ruth. In the three games here, he generated no history, but his presence was central to generating another debate.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.