The world’s press corps huddled in a bright Oakland office suite last Wednesday to learn just what the hell Craig Bueno said to that ballplayer, anyway.
Two days earlier, Bueno had instigated a brawl at the Coliseum between Oakland A’s fans and Texas Rangers players, earning him a lifetime spot on the ESPN highlight reel. The fight ended after his wife, Jennie, caught a folding chair in the nose. It was thrown by a reliever, but the pitcher’s wind-up resembled something found at a WWE match. Now, about 25 reporters — CNN, Telemundo, Japanese radio, Channel 5’s Doug Murphy — all wanted to hear the magic heckle. So what was it, Craig?
“Nothing more than the usual stuff,” the 42-year-old fan stonewalled.
Craig’s wife, Jennie, sat at his side. Across her nose, she wore a bandage the size of a Post-It, which instantly attained its own celebrity status. To the Buenos and their attorney, that bandage symbolized what is wrong with baseball today. The game is loaded with hot-tempered millionaires who disrespect working-class fans for no good reason. Fans such as Craig and Jennie Bueno. Fans who, by their own admission, were indulging in the time-honored national pastime of razzin’ the bad guys, givin’ ’em hell, talkin’ trash.
While Craig defended his right to insult ballplayers, Jennie did her best to look dignified beneath her wounds. The moment was unbecoming even for attorney J. Gary Gwillian. Until this press conference, Gwillian’s reputation had been built defending whistle-blowers at Lawrence Livermore Lab. The Buenos were a somewhat tougher sell. Gwillian began by vouching for their character. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re just a regular Bay Area family,” he said.
The attorney noted that he hadn’t filed a lawsuit, and was here only to grant the media’s numerous interview requests. He asked that the afternoon’s main event remain a distinguished volley of questions and answers.
“We’re not here to rattle sabers,” he said.
This was normal ribbing, normal bantering back and forth,” Gwillian said in his opening remarks. “That’s all that Craig was doing. It was regular stuff. These guys make millions of dollars in their contracts. They’re professionals. When they come into a ballpark, they oughta be able to take it.”
Gwillian reached over and executed a gentle squeeze play on Jennie’s elbow. “Jennie is not feeling well today, as you can understand, and I’m not sure how long she’ll be able to talk today,” he said. “She’s getting dizzy spells, feeling nauseous.”
So Gwillian spoke to Craig Bueno first. He asked the season-ticket holder why he sits by the bullpen and verbally abuses the opposing pitchers as they warm up.
“You want to shake ’em, so the A’s have a better chance of winnin’,” Craig said. “It usually works. You get in a guy’s head, and he goes out there and throws four balls. I like being the tenth man.”
Then Gwillian invited questions.
First question: “What exactly did you say, Craig?”
“It was nothing. I just, you know, ‘Who’s going to lose it tonight?'”
Second question: “There’s been reports you were making fun of one of the pitcher’s weight. That true?”
“No, it was nothing like that.”
Reporters lobbed a few softballs, on cue, and Craig swung for average, not the fences. He was just a regular guy, doing what everybody else does. He was an A’s fan, a family man. Heck, he coached Pee-Wee football.
“You’re a coach?” a reporter asked, surprised.
“What do you coach?”
“Wrestling and football.”
“What do you tell your kids about heckling?”
Gwillian stepped back and looked at his client. If Craig muffed it, he’d surely step in for the save.
Craig put his hands out. “I don’t heckle amateurs, no,” he said. “You know. I mean, I get on guys at the ballpark because they’re pros. You don’t expect them to respond.”
Suddenly, reporters reached for the hard stuff. A reporter for MLB.com asked Craig why he didn’t back off when he saw the players getting physically angered. After all, Craig is a father, husband, firefighter, and a coach. Can’t he calm down a hot situation?
“It happened so fast,” he said. “He just attacked us. … He charged out of the mound to come over the wall, swingin’ and cussin’.”
“They don’t usually react,” he went on, sounding like a boy who’d been poking a pit bull for two weeks, only to get bit. “You can’t even get them to look your way most of the time. You can’t get them to sign a hat. When they do, they attack you?”
A Texas reporter was in the back of the room leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. His body language said: I’m having none of this. “Players on the Texas Rangers said you were getting pretty graphic,” he said. “Specifically, that you said you slept with [pitcher Doug] Brocail’s wife last night. Is that what you said?”
“Gosh, no,” Craig said. “I didn’t say anything like that. It was just more of a, ‘Hey, who’s going to lose this one tonight?’ you know? ‘Who’s going to blow it?’ It wasn’t anything like that.”
“The Rangers travel all around the country,” the reporter added. “Places like New York, Boston. They hear insults all the time. Why do you think they responded like this to yours?”
Craig crunched his shoulders in a ya-got-me movement. “I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to ask them.”
Gwillian took over the exchange and asked Craig to recall the moment. Craig said that when the Rangers charged the area, he was shielding his wife when pitcher Frank Francisco threw the chair into the air. When Craig saw it coming, “I ducked,” he said. “But then it hit Jennie.”
Attorney Gwillian again reminded reporters that Jennie was suffering from dizzy spells. And once again, he reached over and gave her a soft touch. A dozen camera shutters clicked.
“How do you feel right now?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” Jennie replied.
“Can you talk?”
A reporter asked Jennie if she enjoyed her husband’s heckling. “I don’t mind, unless he’s shouting in this direction and it’s in my ear,” she said. “Then I just turn away.”
The media laughed. It was a light moment. A few questions went by until one reporter blurted, “Aren’t you embarrassed?”
Gwillian intervened. “Embarrassed?”
Craig asked, “What?”
“Yeah, you know,” the reporter said, collecting his thoughts. “Embarrassed. Like, you know, you’re supposed to be mature …”
“Let’s be clear,” Gwillian interjected, “we’re not here to demean Craig. We feel the Texas Rangers are responsible for this.” He then delivered a talk seemingly inspired by Johnnie Cochran.
“These people went to a ball game and were attacked,” he began. He reiterated his logic that pro ballplayers “oughta be able to take it.” He said his client’s heckling was “part of the game,” and that everyone is allowed to go into a ballpark and boo the visiting team, and that no one should catch a plastic chair in the face and that someone — someone — was responsible for all of this.
“It’s like Abu Ghraib,” Gwillian said, punching a fist into his palm. “It goes all the way to the top.”
A few reporters let out shrieks at the comparison. Was he serious? Was he aware of what a great quote that made? And how would his words play in Japan?
So much for not rattling his saber.
Even though Coach Bueno wouldn’t admit it on this day and nor would his attorney, what remained at issue was his presumed right to insult pro ballplayers and suffer no consequence. Reporters attempted to goad Craig into explaining why he felt justified in verbally abusing players. Finally, Craig was asked to clarify why he thought it was okay to taunt pro athletes, but not amateurs. What’s the distinction? A jab is a jab, right?
Craig then uttered a shot soon heard ’round the world. “It’s part of the game,” he said. “It’s an American tradition.”
The coach never did say which one of his taunts provoked the Rangers to come out of the bullpen and rush his seat. But now, instead of sitting at the ballpark for the second game of the series, Craig Bueno was here inside his attorney’s office, crying “victim” in front of the world’s cameras. While his wife Jennie grimaced, and photographers snapped her picture, his lawyer invoked the name of a prison best known for the humiliation and torture of Iraqi citizens.
An American tradition, indeed.