From the viewpoint of a sociologist, a historian and baseball fans themselves, the reaction -- or lack of reaction -- in stadiums around the country to those players who have testified in the cocaine-trafficking trial in Pittsburgh should come as no surprise.
With one notable exception, a warm standing ovation at Shea Stadium for New York Met Keith Hernandez, and an occasional boo or derisive comment directed at other players in other parks, those who have testified in the case of caterer Curtis Strong have elicited little response from fans on their return to the playing field. Strong was convicted yesterday on 11 counts of selling cocaine to baseball players between 1980 and 1984; seven players testified in his trial, all with immunity from prosecution.
Fans are "fans of the game" who are interested in "performances on the field," says Yale professor of law and sociology Stanton Wheeler.
"Baseball is a release from more serious matters, and fans would rather not think about such things. They often complain about too much written in the sports pages about lawyers" and other matters not related to games.
Historically, fans have not "ostracized" baseball players because of off-the-field activities no matter how controversial, according to baseball historian Cliff Kachline.
Once many fans enter a stadium, "all they see are stars out there," said Kachline, who heads the Society for American Baseball Research. "General fan reaction (to off-field activities) has never been very strong."
Kachline cited a number of instances of off-field behavior over the years, and one on-field incident, that evoked little negative fan response, among them: a controversial ruling by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1935 that Alabama Pitts, who had been in Sing Sing prison, could play professsional baseball; the suspension of former Detroit Tiger and Washington Senator Denny McLain for carrying a gun; Pete Rose being named in a paternity suit; San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal hitting Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro over the head with a bat, and, recently, pitcher Steve Howe, who has been fighting drug problems.
"Sure, some fans might have yelled at them," said Kachline, "but there was no bad resentment, no boycott. They seem to put personality aside when the game begins."
In some cases, fans might not react negatively to players' problems because they themselves face them or realize they might. Dr. Stanley Cheren, a Boston psychiatrist who treats athletes among others, says he has found little difference among patients with drug problems whether or not they were athletes.
Cheren expressed no surprise over the Pittsburgh testimony because, in society, "there is just an enormous amount of drug use going on. It's staggering."
As for the players who testified, and their teammates, it's baseball as usual at their respective parks.
In Cincinnati, Dave Parker, who testified to helping arrange drug acquisitions among players, has said little about the trial, but occasionally does respond to questions about it. Speaking of the ovation given Hernandez in New York, Parker said, "Yeah, but New York is a lot more liberal town than this is. I can't worry about ovations. My business is just to go out and play baseball. That doesn't make any difference to me."
Riverfront Stadium reaction to Parker's revelations appears in part to have been muted by Rose's run for Ty Cobb's all-time hit record. When Parker testified, Rose needed only one hit to pass Cobb. Much of what Parker said seemed to be lost in the Rose hoopla.
"That covered up a lot," Parker said. "But I don't really care. I'll probably have something to say when all this is all over."
Reds players, who have thought of Parker all season as a team leader, seem unchanged in their opinion of him. In addition, they have sensed little negative fan reaction. Said teammate Dave Van Gorder, "The only thing I saw was one sign that said 'Cocaine Parker.' And it wasn't up very long."
In Atlanta, Jeff Leonard recently marked his return to the San Francisco Giants after testifying in Pittsburgh by driving in winning runs in two games against the Braves. Giants pitcher Dave LaPoint said his teammates had noticed little reaction from fans since Leonard returned.
"You're always going to hear catcalls," said LaPoint, "but on our team there haven't been very many. Of course, we haven't been playing before very big crowds."
LaPoint said most of the San Francisco players believe that Leonard should be left alone. "He's overcome the disease he had. If they've done their best to get over it, why keep bringing it up?"
The Dodgers' Enos Cabell, who also testified, said, "Players know all of that happened a long time ago. Some of the fans scream, but most of them realize it's over. You've done wrong, and you're paying for something you've done before . . .
"Most of the guys they had up there are good players who have been in the league 10 years or more. Fans know if they were still on the stuff, they wouldn't still be playing. The ones who are still on it don't play anymore."
Said the Dodgers' Bill Madlock, an ex-Pirate whose name came up during the trial in connection with amphetamines but not cocaine, said, "What kind of trial is it? A cocaine trial, right? What does that have to do with me?
"If I was a fan, I'd try not to react. But I can't put myself in that position because I'm not in that position. I mean, the next guy they're going to bring in is Ty Cobb. The next thing they're going to investigate is guys cheating on their wives.
"If fans who follow basball and have been following this case don't realize what's happening, you can't worry about it . . .
"But I got out of Pittsburgh just in time."
Several fans surveyed at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium said their opinion of Parker and the other players involved or mentioned in the trial has not changed.
"I don't care what they do off the field," said Jason Graffo of Blue Ash, Ohio. "If I can tell something is affecting the way a guy plays, that's one thing. Otherwise, I don't even want to know."