When Fans Attack Ten years after Monica Seles was stabbed, security is tighter throughout professional sports, but are athletes really any safer from increasingly belligerent spectators?

April 28, 2003
April 28, 2003

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April 28, 2003

Motor Sports

When Fans Attack Ten years after Monica Seles was stabbed, security is tighter throughout professional sports, but are athletes really any safer from increasingly belligerent spectators?

He was a perfect victim. As the father and son ran up behind him,
Tom Gamboa was leaning forward, knees slightly bent, watching
intently as Kansas City Royals centerfielder Michael Tucker
popped a bunt into the air. It was the ninth inning of a
meaningless game at Chicago's Comiskey Park last September, but
Gamboa, then the Royals' first base coach, takes pride in his
concentration. He didn't hear them coming. When the two shirtless
men hurled themselves at Gamboa's back, his body offered no
resistance. The 54-year-old coach buckled and pitched forward,
breaking the fall with his head. His neck crumpled. He went into

This is an article from the April 28, 2003 issue Original Layout

When he rolled to his back, Gamboa saw two faces twisted with
rage, mouths moving, veins straining as if they were about to
burst through the skin. But Gamboa couldn't hear a sound. He
wondered, Who are they? Why are they swinging at me? Then the man
on the left--the father--punched Gamboa in the face, and he knew
all he needed to know. I'm in trouble here.

Gamboa kicked once at the father before Kansas City players
swarmed them. When Gamboa emerged from the pile, he heard his
first words: "Hey, there's a knife! Pick it up." Gamboa saw that
his hands were covered with blood. He was sure he had been cut.
As he patted his side and back, he had what he called an "instant
flashback" to April 30, 1993, when, as he sat watching a telecast
of a tennis match between Monica Seles and Magdalena Maleeva in
Hamburg, Germany, a man reached over a fence during a changeover
and drove a boning knife into Seles's back.

"It was like watching something out of a movie--I couldn't
believe I was seeing what I was seeing," Gamboa says. Now he was
in the movie. Again there was a knife (though it was not actually
used in the attack) and blood and disbelief on the playing field.
Again there would be moves to increase security, and the usual
fall back into complacency. When the Royals returned to Chicago
on April 15 for the first time in seven months, Gamboa, still
suffering hearing loss in one ear, said he felt no fear because
"lightning doesn't strike twice."

Then it did. Three times during the seventh inning of that
afternoon's game with the White Sox, fans halted play by running
on the field. After the eighth inning, just yards from where
Gamboa had fallen in September, a man grabbed first base umpire
Laz Diaz around the legs before being shoved away by the
40-year-old Diaz, then stomped and punched by Royals players.
Gamboa's horrified look as he watched from the bullpen told the
story best: Ten years after Monica Seles--even with more guards
and a heightened awareness of athletes' vulnerability--no one
coaching, playing or refereeing these days should feel safe.

On Jan. 6, 1994, Seles was home in Florida, watching television.
It had been eight months since Gunter Parche had attacked her in
a successful attempt to make Steffi Graf No. 1 again. Seles had
gone into seclusion, beset by depression and nightmares: Parche's
face looming above her, the sound of her own voice screaming. Now
the TV was reporting that Nancy Kerrigan had been assaulted at
the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, clubbed above the knee
after a practice session at Detroit's Cobo Arena. "Oh, my God,"
Seles said. "It has happened again."

Seles's stabbing began the tensest phase yet in the long, strange
relationship between player and public. When Hank Aaron rounded
the bases after hitting his 715th home run in 1974, he wasn't
sure whether the fans running alongside had come to congratulate
him or kill him. But before Seles, no high-profile sports figure
had been so savagely assaulted on a playing field. Since then,
while no athlete has been stabbed at a game or match in the U.S.,
erratic and threatening behavior by fans has become more and more
prevalent. "It's just gotten crazy," Sacramento Kings coach Rick
Adelman said earlier this month. "[The fans are] so close. Maybe
it's time we looked at the situation."

It has been looked at. In response to the Gamboa attack, Major
League Baseball security director Kevin Hallinan placed
additional guards in the stands along the baselines for the rest
of last season. In December he required officials at all 30
stadiums to draw up security plans and charge someone with
protecting the field during games. To little avail: After the
April 15 debacle, the Royals refused to take the field again at
the White Sox' park until given assurances that the players would
be safe. Fourteen guards were added, and White Sox and major
league officials asked prosecutors to seek more stringent
penalties on belligerent fans (INSIDE BASEBALL, page 71).

Who can blame them? Clearly what happened to Gamboa's attackers
served as no deterrent. Last winter the 15-year-old son of
William Ligue promised not to misbehave again and--with Gamboa's
blessing--got five years' probation. The boy grinned as he was
driven from the courthouse. His 34-year-old father, who faces
battery and several related charges, showed up for his
court-ordered drug-and-alcohol assessment in January appearing to
be "under the influence of alcohol," according to the evaluation.
His hearing was set for April 25.

"If this guy were to get off with a slap on the wrist, what's to
keep people in all stadiums and all sports from jumping on
somebody's back?" Gamboa says. "A coach has the least impact of
anyone on a game's outcome. What about a visiting player who hits
a game-winning home run or pitches a shutout? What about the risk
he's at?"

There's no need to wonder. Last Saturday, in the fifth inning of
a game between the Oakland A's and the Texas Rangers at Network
Associates Coliseum, a man in the stands threw a cellphone at
Rangers outfielder Carl Everett and hit him in the back of the
head. And in September 1999 a 23-year-old man in Milwaukee jumped
into rightfield and attacked the Houston Astros' Bill Spiers,
bloodying his nose and giving him whiplash.

Baseball may be the most bruised by such episodes, but no sport
has avoided instances of fans' getting too close to the athletes
for comfort. One night last month at Madison Square Garden the
designer Calvin Klein got up from his courtside seat, ambled over
to Knicks swingman Latrell Sprewell--who was about to inbound the
ball--and muttered to him before security arrived. "Behind the
bench in some places, fans could just jump right out," says Kings
forward Chris Webber. "They'd get stopped, but only after they
inflicted some pain."

The NFL has never had an on-field intrusion like November's at a
Canadian Football League game in Winnipeg, when a 22-year-old
construction worker leaped on the back of British Columbia Lions
cornerback Eric Carter in the waning seconds of the match. Still,
even the best-oiled security machine breaks down. On Jan. 11,
just before halftime of the Eagles-Falcons playoff game at
Philadelphia's Veterans' Stadium, a New Jersey exterminator named
Daniel Flagg asked a security guard how to get down on the field.
"Yo, when I turn my head, I don't see anything," the guard said.
Flagg ended up in front of the Eagles' bench. He sat down next to
running back Duce Staley, then next to quarterback Donovan
McNabb. "I could've punched [McNabb] in his face," says Flagg. "I
just wanted to meet him. The next guy could be crazy."

Since 1993, of course, no sport has wrestled more with that
possibility than tennis. The NASDAQ-100 tournament in Key
Biscayne, Fla., received death threats against chairman Butch
Buchholz and player Boris Becker in the mid-'90s, and a man
stalking Martina Hingis was arrested there in 2000. In the last
decade four No. 1 players have faced nightmare scenarios: Parche
had harassed Graf before Seles; Hingis's stalker, Dubravko
Rajcevic, was sentenced to two years in jail; and last summer
police in both London and New York City arrested Albrecht
Stromeyer, who had trailed Serena Williams for months. In New
York, Stromeyer pleaded guilty to fourth-degree stalking and was

Players say protection is especially weak at smaller tournaments,
but they also point to security breakdowns at the majors, such as
last year's Wimbledon, where interlopers twice made it onto
Centre Court. "We walk out [alone] toward the practice court, and
everybody knows where we practice," Lindsay Davenport said in
March at the Indian Wells (Calif.) tournament. "Every tournament
is like that. At the Australian Open we were walking out to the
court for doubles matches by ourselves. Nobody escorted us."

Seles hesitates to speak about the issue. She doesn't want to
sound shrill or to give ideas to some half-wit. "For me it's a
no-win situation," she said last month at the NASDAQ-100. "But
they have to do something. We have venues that are horrible."

The most vulnerable athletes, according to security experts, are
golfers. The size of the courses, the porousness of their
perimeters and the proximity of fans present challenges that no
other sport faces. "Golf allows spectators around the greens, the
fairways, and there are no barriers," says Richard Bower, who
provides security for Indian Wells and for golf tournaments in
Palm Springs, Calif. "It's wide open."

It's not an issue the PGA Tour cares to discuss. Understandable:
The Tour is charged with protecting Tiger Woods, who has spent
most of his career shadowed by guards. In 1997 someone made a
much-publicized death threat against him before the Masters, and
rumors of similar threats have been common ever since.

On fairways Woods is fairly easy to protect. He doesn't chat with
fans, he walks away from the ropes, he rarely stops moving. On
the first day of this year's Masters, however, Woods had to stop.
Rain canceled play on Thursday, and Friday's combined first and
second rounds caused backups on every tee. Woods, who had
received yet another threat, was pinned down and close to the
crowd. Two beefy men had been assigned to protect him. "It's the
same thing every year," said an official with the Augusta
sheriff's department. "Some idiot phones in a threat, and we've
got to walk with him."

Add to that the usual Masters detail of Pinkerton guards and a
contingent of plainclothes agents mixed into the crowd. Yet when
Woods walked to the 4th tee, which was flanked on two sides by
hundreds of fans, no guard walked the five-foot stretch between
Woods and the spectators. At the 6th tee Woods sat on a split-log
bench, his back just two feet from the only barrier: a
pencil-thin green-and-white rope. The crowd pressing behind him
was an arm's length away. From there it was easy to study the
stitching in Woods's black cap. It was easy, for long minutes, to
study his back as it rose and fell with his breathing.

I win the first set, 6-whatever. Then I'm down 3-love, and I'm
thinking, God, why did I play this tournament? I'm not ready. But
I get back to 3-all, then up 4-3. I think, Keep moving, finish
the match.

I'm toweling off. And I'm doing this [Seles leans forward] to
concentrate, and then I just feel something very sharp in me....
Thousands of thoughts racing in a second: What was that? I look
back and I see this man and his face is like ... like [Seles
contorts her face into a snarl] ... and he's holding his knife
here [she holds her hand above her head as if preparing to
strike]. I see another guy choking him. I think, What happened?

Since 1993 leagues, teams and arenas have devoted ever-growing
amounts of cash and energy to ensuring that an attack like the
one on Seles never happens again. The security directors of all
four major sports leagues--the NFL's Milt Ahlerich, the NBA's
Bernard Tolbert, the NHL's Dennis Cunningham and baseball's
Hallinan--have law-enforcement backgrounds. U.S. Olympic
Committee security chief Larry Buendorf spent 21 years with the
Secret Service, most famously as the man in charge of protecting
President Gerald Ford at the time of the two assassination
attempts against him. "I took the gun away from Squeaky Fromme,"
Buendorf says.

All the directors oversee budgets that had grown significantly
even before Sept. 11 jacked security spending into the
stratosphere. Hallinan, a 25-year veteran of the New York Police
Department, expanded his staff from one to 10 in the last 17
years--and that doesn't take into account the increased security
presence employed by teams at each ballpark. For an idea of what
it takes to protect some 100 people daily for 81 baseball home
dates, consider the NASDAQ-100 tennis tournament. Security costs
for the 14-day event last month, not including the staffing by
local and international police, are estimated at nearly $400,000,
more than four times what they were before Seles was stabbed.

But the heightened protection has a limit. Accessibility is a key
to selling tickets, and anyone charged with safeguarding players
is constrained by the need to keep fans close to the action. More
dramatic steps to boost security would change the nature of
sports in America, eroding the intimacy of spring training, the
reach-out-and-touch-them closeness of an NBA game, the ability to
watch Serena Williams work on her backhand on a practice court.
U.S. leagues are unlikely to install moats and fences between the
crowds and players, as has been done at many soccer pitches
worldwide. Who wants to banish the Lambeau Leap?

"We don't have snipers on roofs, we don't have armed guards, and
we shouldn't," says the NBA's Tolbert. "Because, sure, then
nothing would ever happen--but no one would come to the game,

Problem is, since Parche attacked Seles, there has been a
fundamental shift out on fandom's fringe. The people who intruded
on fields before 1993 were usually naked or drunk or were
self-promoting characters like Morganna, the athlete-kisser.
Barry (the Great Imposter) Bremen, whose last major stunt was
shagging flies in a Mets uniform during batting practice at the
'86 All-Star Game, just wanted to be part of the show. But
today's intruders want to be the show. A few innings before he
and his son assaulted Gamboa, William Ligue called his sister to
tell her to watch.

"People want to be noticed, and they'll spend a night in jail
just to get their name in the paper," says Boston University
professor Leonard Zaichkowsky, who has studied fans' behavior for
15 years. Arena security measures are most effective at stopping
what experts in the field call "the low-hanging fruit"--the
random nut who easily reveals himself or is so discouraged by the
security presence that he walks away. But a determined person
with no care about his fate is a different story. "You can have
what you think is the most airtight security and you can't stop
every possibility," says Tandy O'Donoghue, who oversees security
for the women's tennis tour.

Or as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, puts it:
"Look at President Reagan. He had all the security you can have,
and the guy shot him. If a person wants you bad enough, he's
going to get you."

Seles is weary of the issue. She lived under death threats before
and after Hamburg. In February she was practicing in Dubai when a
man scampered on court and took pictures of her. She complained,
but she's not expecting any change. German courts freed Parche
after six months in custody on the grounds that he was an
unlikely repeat offender and then rejected both her appeal and
her civil suit against the German tennis federation.

Now 29, Seles still loves the game, but she has never been the
player she was before the attack. Parche carved a hole in her
career: 27 months lost; weight problems and distraction ever
since. But what's usually forgotten is that just before Hamburg,
her life had hit its stride: She was 19 years old and No. 1 and
loving it, striking a perfect balance among tennis, family and
friends. "I was really happy for the first time," she says.

Seles's bitterness has lost some of its bite. She insists she'll
never play in Germany again, but her hitting partner is a young
man from Hamburg, and she might visit the country again, as a
tourist. "It's one thing I'll never forget," she says of the
stabbing, "but I've moved on. I have my days when it's not so
great, but what's past is past. It's gone."

But never for long. Last July the U.S Federation Cup team of
Seles, Davenport, Lisa Raymond and Meghann Shaughnessy played
Israel in Springfield, Mo. Terrorism fears and the presence of
Israeli athletes made the unheralded event seem as attractive a
target as the Super Bowl. Each morning search teams with dogs
would scour the players' rooms. Police escorts flanked the
players at meals. Snipers manned rooftops. The night before play
began, two security men met with the U.S. team as a group.

The men spoke of what to do in case of attack: Run for the
tunnel; run for the van; worry about yourself. Three of the women
gasped and said, "Omigod." No one spoke to Seles; no one dared.
They all watched her out of the corners of their eyes, but she
didn't speak. Until the men stopped talking, she kept her head
bowed, staring at the floor.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL COLE/CORBISTWO COLOR PHOTOS: TED S. WARREN/AP FANATICS Security officers hauled off violent fans at White Sox home games last year (above) and last week (left) and escorted stalking victim Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2002.COLOR PHOTO: TOM HEVEZI-PA/AP [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: THORSTEN BAERING CUT DOWN Parche's attack on Seles kept her out of action for 27 months.COLOR PHOTO: CLAUS BERGMANN/CONTI PRESS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE NIKITIN/AP CRANK CALL Everett was struck on the field by a thoroughly modern weapon, the cellphone.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER SITTING DUCK Spectators at the Masters got as close to Woods as Parche was to Seles.