A Fan's Gear: Octopiand Tennis Balls


During a telecast of the last baseball game of the season between the Detroit Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays (when Detroit had to win three straight to win the AL East flag) the camera focused on a security officer carrying an object off the field.

An octopus.

Tim McCarver, calling the game for ABC, used his phenomenal recall of sports trivia--which he usually reserves for such subjects as Shakespeare and root canals--to reveal that the throwing of an octopus is a Detroit tradition. Detroit Red Wings' fans at the Cobo Arena frequently celebrated goals in big games by tossing an octopus on the ice.

McCarver was probably the only person in Tiger Stadium that day who knew this strange fact.

But the whole incident made me think of other times.

Other games.

When New York Giants fans showered their 1986-87 NFC champions with the ticker-tape parade Ed Koch would never hold.

When Reggie Jackson had money thrown to him after clouting three moonshots in one game against the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the 1978 World Series.

When Spiridon Louis had coins, jewels, and rings thrown in his path when he entered Olympic Stadium in Athens as the winner of the 1896 Olympic Marathon.

When, in a much less dramatic moment on opening day of the 1986 season, a "Fenway Bleacher Beachball" came floating into the bullpen, Bob Stanley promptly raked the soul out of the ball and got rocked when he came in to pitch the next inning.

And ice hockey games.

When reckless college students tied chickens to goalposts.

When noisemakers hooted endlessly at RPI games, creating such a defeaning roar that players could not hear the official's whistle. (The NCAA Competition Committee's "RPI Rule" now makes use of such rattles illegal).

When fish, not octopi, get tossed from the rafters simply because they're easier to smuggle into the arena.

And when tennis balls get tossed from the seats, as I found out during one incredulous weekend.

It was a best-of-three hockey playoff series between Harvard and some other team (they all blend in after my three seasons of spectating). The first night, Harvard won the game, but not after opposing fans threw things onto the ice on two separate occasions.

After an early goal by the visitors, a cascade of tennis balls flew out of the opposing fans' section like a ball-serving machine gone wacko.

Then one of our guys got a pair of goals. So in anticipation of a third, a box of painter's caps made their way to Section 13.

When the hat trick was completed, hats floated onto the ice as gracefully as autumn leaves.

But the ref was at the booth, charging Harvard's fans with a delay of game penalty.

Though the hats came from two sections over, I took it as a slight on the entire student section. We won the first game, but I was highly angered by the apparent double standard: penalize the home team, not the visitor.

On Saturday we were in the lead when one of my roommates from freshman year was passing tennis balls around to the fans in my section to throw on the ice at the earliest possible opportunity.

I balked. We did not have a big lead and could not afford another delay of game penalty. We risked losing a man to the penalty box and losing momentum to the opposing team.

But then we got a goal late in the third period. In a moment of temoprary insanity (or was it inanity?) I took the tennis ball out of my pocket and threw it hard.

The ball ricoched off the goalie's head as he was sitting in the crease.

It was a perfect shot.

But the guy looked up and scouted the stands for an offender.

He was staring straight at me.

He pushed the goal off the magnets and used it to climb the plexiglass.

He made his way through the fans to my seat and started hitting me.

He had the advantage.

He was wearing armor suited to stopping vulcanized rubber traveling 100 miles per hour.

My usually-mighty fist would not do much better than a puck.

Bells rang.

The Harvard police jumped in and I can only see one face looking in on the melee.

It was President Bok's.

I was yelling so loud I could barely think. "Epps can censor the band, but you can't censor me! I'm an American!" I said as I waved my stars-and-stripes bandanna.

Then I suddenly realized what I was.

A hooligan.

I had gotten out of control at a hockey game and had broken a cardinal rule.

And all for a tennis ball.

My parents would not find the news funny, but then again, if Harvard was going to throw me out for throwing a tennis ball, I could always transfer to Cornell and make a million selling live chickens.

I was dragged away in handcuffs and my last thought was, "Well, at least I won't have to write a thesis."

Then I woke up. My ball, like the others from Section 11, wound up not hurting anyone. No penalty was called, and we won the second game.

I still don't have to write a thesis.