It was a chilly August evening in the Arcata ballpark, but things were about to warm up fast when Sergio Sanchez stepped to the plate for the Humboldt Crabs. This was the sixth inning of a win-or-go-home game in the Far West Baseball League championship tournament, and the crowd greeted Sanchez with "Ser-gi-o ... Ser-gi-o ... Ser-gi-o."
During the two-month summer collegiate season he had become the most popular player on the team and the darling of Arcata fans, who chanted whenever he came to bat.
With the Crabs leading 6-4, the California Warriors of Mill Valley had just sent in a fresh pitcher.
The first pitch sailed high over Sanchez' head to the backstop. I thought maybe the pitcher was wild, since he'd just entered the game.
The second pitch buzzed Sanchez, and he started toward the mound. The catcher and home plate umpire quickly stopped him.
The third pitch came directly at Sanchez and he made no move to avoid it as the ball plunked him on the left shoulder and bounced away.
Almost instantly Sanchez threw his bat at the mound. It sailed over the pitcher's head and bounced almost to second base.
Sanchez paused for a moment, then charged the mound. Players from both benches ran onto the field, and their brawl caused a 20-minute delay.
As a former athlete, coach and sports reporter, I was appalled. But what happened in the stands was even more appalling. The crowd started chanting "Ser-gi-o... Ser-gi-o... Ser-gi-o," as if he were a hero for throwing a bat.
In baseball, every player has to throw the ball, but no player is ever supposed to throw a bat. Players can be ejected merely for throwing their helmets. But a bat? Go after someone with a bat on the street, and a prosecutor might call that assault with a deadly weapon.
In one of the ugliest episodes in baseball, San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal beat Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro over the head with a bat in 1965. It ruined the season for the Giants, paved the way for the Dodgers to win the World Series, and followed Marichal for life — even delaying his entry into the Hall of Fame. The attack had such an impact on the game that a complete review was broadcast as recently as October 2009, in "MLB Network Remembers: Incident at Candlestick, with Bob Costas" (see vimeo.com/6972310).
The Arcata episode of Aug. 3 has been posted on YouTube, in a video that has received more than 750,000 hits in less than a week (See a Journal blog post and the video at bit.ly14IbqhG). The video only begins with the third pitch, but the crowd can clearly be heard chanting "Sergio," while someone else can be heard booing and calling out the name "Marichal." That was me.
I was so upset at Sanchez' behavior that I also booed him again on Sunday, which caused some unpleasantness because a few people nearby thought I was being racist.
Can Sanchez escape punishment for this and remain a hero?
Apparently, yes. And this is the wrong message to send to fans and to their children, the athletes of the future.
Sanchez and the pitcher were both ejected and automatically suspended for the following game, in accord with Far West League policy. So Sanchez did not play the next game Sunday morning — but he was allowed to play in the following two championship games.
League Commissioner Erik Wagle added an additional five-game suspension for both players — but only in 2014.
But neither player is required to play in the league next year, so Sanchez received a very light punishment for throwing that bat.
I wasn't able to catch up with Sanchez for comment, but Crabs Coach Matt Nutter said, "Sergio had been hit the most on our team, and he was tired of being pitched at. He's missed games because of being hit. So how dare the pitcher throw at his head three times in a row!
"If I could turn back the clock a lot of things would be done differently," Nutter added. "Everyone learned a lot of lessons from it. Sergio regrets it, and it's a tough position for all of us to be in. I'm just thankful there weren't any serious injuries."
And what about the fans who cheered Sanchez while jeering his opponents?
"He became a fan favorite early on. ...The fans were just saying we're behind you," Nutter said.
The head coach of Top Speed Baseball from Petaluma, the team that lost the last two championship games to the Crabs, had a different opinion.
"That is an unsafe place to play. I was threatened by one of the fans that he was gonna jump me at the end of the game," Stan Switala wrote in an email.
"My parents and fans don't even want to go back as the environment is beyond hostile," he wrote.
"We play in other venues in the West Coast League and California Collegiate League and they draw way more fans than Humboldt does — 1,000 to 3,000 a game — and there is never an issue as the fans are respectful and are there to watch baseball and not make fun of college players' weight and the way they look."
The coaches of the other two teams in the tournament also told me that the Crabs fans were abusive and obnoxious.
Vince Lombardi and Richard Nixon are both well-known for saying "winning isn't everything — it's the only thing."
This philosophy worked well for Lombardi in an era when players complied with a mandatory dress and behavior code.
Nixon used it as a campaign strategy, and it landed more than 20 of his henchmen in prison and forced him to resign.
When athletes retire from sports, they leave their personal statistics and won-loss records behind them. What they take with them are their lessons in life, social behavior and character development.
With the right coaching and parenting, athletes learn that losing builds character, and character builds winners. So, winning isn't everything. Character is!
This is the greatest lesson we can learn from sports, and all of us, athletes and fans, should keep that in mind — instead of cheering mindlessly.