Foul Territory
Incidents at the ballpark make some Phillies fans question their safety
by Danielle Burrows

On the evening of July 25 of last year, the Philadelphia Phillies trounced the St. Louis Cardinals 14 to 6 at Citizens Bank Park in front of a sell-out crowd of more than 40,000. Outside the park later that night, a fan was killed over an incident that began with a spilled beer. While other fans were celebrating, Montgomery County resident Dave Sale was brutally kicked and beaten to death by fellow Phillies supporters.

The previous year, on July 10, the Phils had also beaten the Cardinals, this time 4 to 1. Outside the game, two Missouri women were run down by a drunken Phillies fan who drove through a red light. One died; the other came out of a coma to endure extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

And this season so far, we encountered Matthew Clemmens (who was sentenced last month to up to three months in jail and 50 hours of community service), the Cherry Hill 21-year-old now infamous for assault-by-vomit on an off-duty police captain’s 11-year-old daughter. We saw an overeager teenage fan sprint across the field and get tased for his zeal. And we looked in horror at a video that appeared to show a toddler swigging beer at a recent game.

Perhaps this trend is no coincidence. After all, it came just as the Phillies themselves underwent a major transformation. Just after solidifying their title as the losingest team in baseball, celebrating their 10,000th loss in July 2007, the Phillies did the unthinkable: They started to win.

Back-to-back World Series appearances can do a lot of positive things for a baseball team and its organization. Tickets sell out. T-shirts fly off the shelves. More hot dogs are grilled and more beers poured. More families begin to consider a stadium the perfect summer escape. But for some local Philadelphia Phillies fans, the larger, more boisterous crowds have meant increased concerns about safety. Reports of disorder in the stands and drunkenness in the parking lots are causing some ticketholders to second-guess the safety and family-friendliness of the ballpark.

“The crowds at Phillies games have gotten a lot more rambunctious,” concedes longtime partial season ticket holder Ernie Santone of Bensalem. “I haven’t been to Dollar Dog Night, but I hear it’s insane. Ironically, Phillies fans seem to be getting younger and wilder while Eagles fans are aging and calming down.”

Indeed, the tales of Phillies games of late sound more like those traditionally associated with the impetuousness of Eagles and Flyers fans.

The hefty job of maintaining ballpark fun while also cracking down on trouble falls, in part, on the shoulders of Mike Stiles, the Phillies’ senior vice president of administration and operations.

“We’re lucky and successful enough to be selling out every home game right now,” Stiles says. “And with 45,000 fans, there are, unfortunately, always going to be a few knuckleheads among the crowd.”

Stiles, who brings his own grandchildren to games, admits that the move to Citizens Bank Park from Veterans Stadium in 2004, coupled with the World Series victory in 2008, brought changes to Philadelphia’s ballgame atmosphere.

“The crowd demographics changed when we moved to Citizens Bank Park,” he says. “It’s a younger, more boisterous, sometimes more intoxicated crowd. We learned, among many other lessons, that it’s not good [business] practice to host college night the same evening we have Hatfield Phillies Franks Dollar Dog Night.”

Some speculate that the change in ballgame demographics happened by design.  

“I think when Citizens Bank Park was built, the team was going after a younger crowd,” Santone says. “Back in the days of Veterans Stadium, the fans were subdued and a little older. Now the majority of them seem to be in their early- to mid-20s.”  

Hundreds of minor altercations may go unreported throughout the season, but far more damaging to Philly’s already tattered fan reputation are the stories that make headlines. Word of Clemmens’ vile act was reported from New York City to Kansas City, while a brutal-looking video of police tasing 17-year-old fan Steve Consalvi circulated YouTube and newscasts alike. (Even less forgivable, when a second fan took to the field at the next game, the chant “Tase him!” went up from the crowd.)

In a sports city famous for booing Sarah Palin, hurling snowballs at Santa Claus, keeping a full docket at an in-stadium criminal court and pelting one of its first great African American players with batteries, could it be that things have finally gone too far?

Stiles says that’s not the case. He’s adamant that the majority of Phillies fans still have incident-free experiences at home games.

“We are aware of our responsibility to make everyone feel comfortable and to provide an enjoyable experience at Citizens Bank Park, and I think an overwhelming percentage of patrons do,” Stiles says. “We’re not immune to some of the same problems that exist in society, but Phillies games are as safe and wholesome a sporting event as you can have.”

If menacing behavior is brewing, Stiles reminds fans to inform their sections’ hosts and hostesses, or a security guard or police officer. And if retaliation is a concern, fans can utilize a new program: “Need Help?” The service, which the franchise rolled out just this season, allows fans to connect with game-day staff via text message if they need emergency assistance within the park.

“We’ve always had a phone number fans can call from within the park for help to be sent, but ‘Need Help?’ allows you to send a text message from your cell phone instead, giving you greater anonymity for making your complaint,” Stiles says. “We’ve had good success with it so far; fans are responding really well.”

Ken Liples of Doylestown praises the level of security at Citizens Bank Park, noting a major improvement from what he saw at the Vet.

“At Veterans Stadium, there was so much more ruckus,” Liples says. “It was never sold out, and it was cavernous, so people could wander around and do what they wanted. And I don’t remember seeing nearly as much security as I do at Citizens Bank Park.”

If conditions inside the park are friendlier than they were at the Vet, the same isn’t necessarily true of the parking lots.  

“You never saw tailgating at Phillies games 20 years ago,” Santone says.  “Now you can’t go down to Citizens Bank on a weeknight, two hours before a game, without dealing with crowds in the parking lots, drinking out of open containers.”

In response to frequent complaints about tailgaters, Stiles reminds fans that there are several parking lots in which tailgating is prohibited.

“By city ordinance, no tailgating is permitted in lots Q through X, which are the lots north of Pattison Avenue and east of the ballpark to Darien Street.”

West Chester’s David Rivell says he plans to take his two toddlers to their first Phillies game in the near future but says he isn’t sure he’ll make use of the texting program.

“There’s a fine line between fans directing their energy toward the game and turning it toward the people seated around them,” he says. “It’s nice to know there’s a system in place that lets you handle trouble without causing a scene, but I’d still be more inclined to take care of itself before texting for help.”

 “Being from Philly, it’s a given that you’re going to have trouble now and then.  And if the ruckus comes from a place of passion for the game, it’s tolerable.”   

Danielle Burrows is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.