Does a baseball fan have the right to carry a sign that insults the Yankees without fear of retribution from the Yankees themselves?
That's the question Orioles fan Charles Robbins has brought into Baltimore's federal court, where he is suing two pitchers from the World Series champions for throwing a baseball at the sign his 16-year-old daughter, Cheryl, was carrying and tearing it up.
Robbins said the incident happened Sept. 28 at Camden Yards, where he and his daughter had gone to see the Orioles take on the Yankees. He contends that Yankees relief pitcher Allen Watson became enraged at the sign during pregame warm-ups and intentionally threw an overhand fastball into the left-field stands.
The lawsuit alleges that the ball knocked the sign, which read "Yankees Suck," from Cheryl's hands and onto the field, where Yankees pitcher Jeff Nelson "grabbed her sign, ripped it in half, and threw it at her, hitting her."
Robbins, who lives in Virginia, said the team offered him $10,000 to settle the case, but that he refused. He has also accused Watson of criminal assault, and a hearing is scheduled for April 27 in Baltimore District Court. Yankees star pitcher Roger Clemens is being called as a witness, along with a several fans from the stands.
Court papers filed by the Yankees in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this week contend that the incident didn't happen the way Robbins suggests. But the team took preliminary steps to distance itself from liability on the part of the players, saying in court motions that "such conduct was beyond the scope of their employment."
"Because the employees' alleged misconduct was so extreme in nature, and so far beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior, it could not possibly be deemed to have been within the scope of employment," said a court motion filed this week on behalf of the Yankees.
Yankees lawyer Frank C. Razzano refused to comment yesterday.
Robbins, a coach at a Virginia private school, said his daughter is afraid to go back to the ballpark. The two had gone to Camden Yards that night to celebrate his 36th birthday.
"These guys make a million dollars a year, and they couldn't stand to let some fans have a sign that says something bad about them," Robbins said.
In a letter he filed with the court, he wrote, "The New York Yankees and their two players not only ruined my 36th birthday, but ended what was many good times and good years at the ballpark.
'No one above the law'
"I know we are small potatoes to the Yankees and this will be a David vs. Goliath case, but I strongly feel they were very wrong, morally and legally, and should be held responsible for their actions. No one should be above the law -- no matter how big."
Robbins originally filed his lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court, alleging assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. But it moved to federal court this week at the request of lawyers for the Yankees, who said the $300,000 claim ought to be considered a federal case because the parties are from different states.
The sign at the center of the dispute is one that Robbins said he and his daughter had been bringing year after year to Yankee-Oriole games. He said Watson spotted the sign from the bullpen and yelled, "What does that mean?" before throwing the ball.
Robbins said the other side of the sign read, "Orioles #1."
"You'd think they'd have had a thicker skin about the whole thing," Robbins said. "They're the champs. The Orioles were the ones that stunk last year."