Last season, fans may recall, many baseball telecasts began with announcers reading the commercial line: "Grab an ice cold Bud." This season, the pitch reads: "Grab some Buds."
Whether the purpose of the new blurb is to cleverly link friends - "buds" - with consuming multiple beers - "Buds" - during games is something only the folks at Anheuser-Busch and its ad agency know for sure. What is certain is that baseball, along with other pro sports, has a drinking problem.
Beer has long been baseball's beverage of choice. As a kid I listened to Yankee games and sang along with the jingle: "Baseball and Ballantine...what a combination, all across the nation..." The announcer, Mel Allen, referred to home runs as "Ballantine Blasts."
With due respect to apple pie, nothing is more American than watching a baseball game with a hotdog and a beer. But lately things have gotten out hand.
The problem's epicenter this season is Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where on Opening Day two unidentified Dodger supporters attacked a fan of the visiting Giants, Bryan Stow, leaving him sprawled in the parking lot with critical injuries from which he has yet to recover. One suspect has now been charged, and while it's not clear what role alcohol may have played, the Dodgers saw a direct link and immediately revised the stadium's alcohol policies.
In recent years the Dodgers have been baseball's most cavalier franchise when it comes to pushing alcohol sales and tolerating the rowdy behavior that resulted. Patrons were allowed to purchase two 24-ounce beers at a time - the equivalent of four "normal" beers - and the Dodgers began selling hard liquor as well. Following the Stow incident, the Dodgers cancelled plans for six half-price beer days.
Rules regarding alcohol sales vary widely among the 30 Major League teams and at the hundreds of minor league venues. Some stadiums, such as AT&T Park in San Francisco, do not permit beer sales by vendors in the stands. At other locations, such as Miller Park in Milwaukee - named after a beer company - vendors do hawk beer.
Many minor league teams, such as the Fresno Grizzlies in California, have special "one dollar beer nights." At a stadium I visited in New Jersey this month they call it Thirsty Thursday - an invitation to over-indulgence.
Research published recently by the University of Minnesota indicates that roughly 40 percent of fans leaving pro baseball and football games have measurable alcohol levels in their systems, and 8 percent of fans are legally drunk. The proportion of drunken fans rises dramatically among two groups: those under age 35, and those who have tailgated before the game.
At Boston's Fenway Park, an increase in beer sales a few years back led to complaints about intoxicated fans. This season, the Sox declared that alcohol-related problems had subsided and obtained permission to sell hard liquor, but only after agreeing to keep it away from the bleachers. Many teams seem to believe that the best way to deal with alcohol abuse is to sell mixed drinks only in the "luxury" boxes and "premium" seats.
This approach is part of a larger trend to aggressively segregate fans according to economic considerations. True, box seats have always cost more than the bleachers. But at newer parks the higher-priced sections are built in such a way that fans with less expensive tickets can't so much as set foot there, meaning they can't access the elite concession stands.
Such policies may make wealthy fans feel safer, but they often lead to unrestricted rowdiness in the cheap seats, which, at Dodger Stadium were overtaken by beer-guzzling thugs.
Baseball's drinking problem extends to the players as well. Already this year six Major Leaguers from five different teams have been arrested for drunk driving. The issue of drinking by ballplayers has been of concern since the 2007 death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock, who was legally drunk when he crashed his car following a game.
Major League baseball, still attempting to recover from the scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs, is now said to be working on an alcohol policy for players. But Commissioner Bud Selig needs to create an over-arching alcohol policy for fans as well.
Tailgating should be eliminated, as should beer sales by roving stadium vendors. Sales of alcohol should be halted after six innings, and reduced-price beer banned entirely. Hard liquor policies need reevaluation.
Rather than leaving alcohol controls to individual owners, Major League baseball should acknowledge its responsibility to act before there are other serious incidents. In other words, Commissioner Selig, this Bud's for you.
- Peter Funt's columns are distributed by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. (www.CandidCamera.com