Root for the Home Team
Phil Root is sitting among the peanut shells and hot dog wrappers strewn across the aisle at Arizona State University's Packard Stadium in Tempe on a recent Sunday. He has his "Bible" at his side -- a black, three-ring binder full of opposing player biographies and some of the more colorful taunts he's downloaded from the Internet.
Inside the Bible, there are heckles for pitchers:
"I've seen better pitchers at a Tupperware party!"
"How about some Windex for that glass eye?!"
And, of course, for hitters:
"You couldn't drive home Miss Daisy!"
The latter is most apropos for this particular game situation, even though No. 10 of the University of Washington already hit a grand slam in the seventh inning, and now has a chance to beat the Sun Devils in the ninth with runners on second and third.
But today, Phil Root is speechless. Or so it would appear.
Root -- a hell-raisin', sports-lovin' Metallica fan from Billings, Montana -- is keeping quiet, feeling as helpless as a stud batter who went to the plate with a chance to win the game only to be called back to the dugout for a pinch hitter. On this scorching spring afternoon, Root is sitting 10 rows back along the third-base line, close to the bench of his beloved Sun Devils. Not a bad seat, but not where he believes he belongs, which is on the other side of the baseball stadium, leaning over the railing, heckling the Huskies, and somehow finding a way to get inside No. 10's head.
"I'd be raggin' this guy right now," says Root, a 23-year-old recent ASU graduate, and now a substitute chemistry teacher at Chandler High School, known to many Packard Stadium regulars as ASU's "Superfan."
"Proximity is the biggest thing when it comes to heckling hitters. But he can't hear a thing I'm saying all the way over here."
Root is sitting where he is because, on March 13, he was booted from ASU's Saturday afternoon game against Tulane University, after Green Wave fans complained to stadium security that his language was inappropriate, and that he had created a disturbance in the visitors' dugout, according to Root and ASU athletic director Gene Smith. Root got into a shouting match with some Tulane players during the game, who, Root says, called him and his heckling buddies "F-in' losers," as he puts it. He was then escorted off the premises by stadium security and two armed Tempe police officers, several eyewitnesses say.
Smith was waiting for Root at the top of the steps leading to the stadium exit, and greeted Root by calling him "an embarrassment," Root says.
According to Root, Smith initially considered revoking his season tickets, but instead relented, and allowed Root to return -- as if he were the star first baseman who'd been busted for violating curfew -- after serving a one-game suspension.
Most crushing to Root, and to the fans in Section C -- where Root has made his imposing presence felt for most of the past three seasons -- Smith told him that he couldn't sit there anymore unless he could "maintain his composure."
To many ASU fans, including Allen Gwinnell, a Sun Devil baseball season-ticket holder for 30 years, the punishment is extreme and hypocritical, considering ASU has marketed Root's spirited image -- which in the past included a maroon-and-gold Mohawk as well as the ASU baseball logo he has tattooed on his right shoulder blade -- to sell football tickets as recently as last semester in a television ad and two seasons ago in a print ad in which Root was prominently featured.
"There's nothing obscene about anything Phil says or does. He doesn't use any bad words. He's just loud," says Gwinnell, 69, who sits about seven rows up from the field in Section C. "Phil gets the opposing team and their fans angry. But last time I checked, that's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to have a home-field advantage."
Root's reputation with stadium security, however, is much different. In his four and a half years in college, he attended a couple hundred ASU baseball, football, basketball, soccer and softball games. While he and other fans say he never uses profanity (Root says he adheres to the so-called "7 Rules of Scientific Heckling," published in The Sporting News in 1948, which say that, foremost, you never use profanity), Root's booming, gravelly voice -- not to mention the personal, but he says innocent, jabs he takes at players -- has attracted plenty of attention from security personnel.
"If I know that a player's had an elbow injury in the past," he explains, "I'll probably bring it up when he's at bat to make him think about it. But family stuff, more personal stuff like that is off limits."
Last semester, when Root was still a student at ASU, he was banned from attending Sun Devils home basketball games after he went onto the Wells Fargo Arena court and stole an ASU "Sparky" doll the University of Arizona mascot was hanging in effigy during a November game. In fact, he was told he would have been suspended from campus had he even set foot on the arena premises.
"If we've got a fan that's being disruptive and keeping other patrons from enjoying themselves, we have to remove that person," says Mike Chismar, who oversees ASU's stadium security. Chismar refused to talk about Root specifically, citing "security issues" and Root's privacy. "We're following the same rules we always have to ensure an enjoyable experience for all of our patrons."
Chismar says stadium security's actions on March 13 were business as usual. But it's only been since football season last fall that Gene Smith has emphasized that he wants his "C.L.A.S.S." initiative enforced at all sporting events, a sort of mission statement for fans that stands for "Cheer Loudly and Stay Supportive." Smith says it's an initiative he hopes will curb unsportsmanlike conduct on the part of fans both at ASU and around the country.
Smith cites the infamous "Steve Kerr incident" of 1988 -- in which ASU fans taunted the then-UofA basketball guard whose father had been assassinated by terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon, four years earlier, by chanting "PLO! PLO!" and "Where's your dad?" -- as just one example of fan behavior he says has gotten out of control.
"We are encouraging cheering, not heckling," Smith tells New Times. "I, personally, do not feel that heckling has any place in sports."
Smith isn't alone. In response to unruly fan behavior at men's basketball games, the Maryland assistant attorney general informed the University of Maryland last month that the school can limit offensive chants, signs and clothing at games while supposedly preserving an individual's First Amendment rights.
While such guidelines likely will be challenged by free-speech advocates, Root says he won't fight Smith if similar policies are put in place at ASU.
"I'm tired of fighting," Root says, as No. 10 smacks a two-run single up the middle of the infield, giving Washington an 8-6 win and dealing ASU its second loss of the three-game series.
"I'll just have to be content saying 'Go Devils!' I guess."
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