A Giant Heave-Ho for John Ashcroft

old and new busch stadiums

One stadium wasn't big enough for the two of us...

With all the talk in the news several years ago about whether former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft condoned torture of suspected terrorists or urged President Bush to raise threat levels for political purposes, I was sure there were plenty of people who would like to have had him tossed out of office for misconduct.

I had the chance to toss Ashcroft out of my “office” one steamy Saturday night in St. Louis nearly thirty summers ago. And I did. I ejected then-Missouri Governor Ashcroft from the press box at Busch Stadium – for cheering.

It was July 8, 1989. The temperature was a sticky 93 degrees as 47,000 Cardinals fans packed the ballpark that night to watch Whitey Herzog’s Redbirds take on Roger Craig’s first-place Giants.

I was there in my role as the Giants’ PR executive and liaison to the team’s traveling beat writers and broadcasters. I sat with a half-dozen Bay Area sportswriters at the third base end of the expansive press box, some forty yards away from the St. Louis media contingent.

The Giants were leading 4-3 when left fielder Kevin Mitchell, enjoying an MVP season, led off the top of the sixth with a bomb to deep left field off reliever Frank DiPino, Mitch’s second homer of the game. One out later, Giants third baseman Ernie Riles singled up the middle. With a 1-1 count on the next hitter, Pat Sheridan, Riles attempted to steal second. Cardinals catcher Tony Pena nailed him with a perfect throw.

A shrill voice erupted directly behind us. “YEAH, TONY! ATTA BABY! GO CARDS! OH, YEAHHHH!”

We all turned in the direction of this jarring and unexpected outburst. Cheering in the press box is one of baseball’s cardinal sins – and not just in St. Louis. In fact, “No Cheering in the Press Box” was the title of a book by the late, legendary Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman. (Aside: Later that year, when the Giants were an out away from clinching the NL pennant, I left my seat in the Candlestick Park press box just so I could join the screaming fans in the upper deck.)

A half dozen people decked out in full Cards fan regalia had apparently emerged from a luxury suite adjacent to the press box and were gathered behind us. Several clutched beers, waving caps and pennants, whooping it up. Obviously, they were not sportswriters. One man who appeared to be the leader of the group continued shouting encouragement to the Cards at the top of his voice.

The late Nick Peters of the Sacramento Bee, who then was considered the dean of the Giants’ traveling writers, was seeing red. He scowled at me with his arms outstretched and his palms up, as if to say who are these people and what are you going to do about it?

I got up and approached the ringleader, whom I did not know or recognize. I glanced far down the press box to see if any Cardinals staff had noticed the disturbance, but they were all preoccupied with the game.

I felt awkward about enforcing decorum in another team’s park, but I had no choice. Peters, a veteran scribe who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009, could be demanding and impatient on deadline. He had already elevated my personal media terror alert. This called for some enhanced but tactful interrogation techniques. The conversation with the rowdy fan went like this:

Me: Excuse me, sir. This is a working press area.

Him: You could have fooled me.

Me: Well, it is, and there is no cheering allowed in the press box.

Him: But that’s wrong. When I see my team do something good, I cheer. Do you know who I am?

Me: I’m sorry, I don’t. Do you work here?

Him: Any time I am in Missouri, I’m working! I am the governor of this great state! John Ashcroft (extends hand). How do you do!

Me: Forgive me for not recognizing you, Governor. I’m Duffy Jennings, the Giants’ PR director, from San Francisco. I’m simply pointing out that these writers are working. It’s the same as if a bunch of people charged into your office while you were trying to work and started hollering.

Him: My door is always open! Everyone is welcome in the governor’s office! And if they saw something good happen, they could cheer.

Me: I understand, Governor, but with all due respect, I still need to ask you and your group to leave this area.

By then, Cardinals officials, alerted to the disruption, had converged on us. They quickly took command of the situation, apologized to Ashcroft for any misunderstanding and escorted the governor and his group back to their seats. To his credit, he returned a short time later and apologized to me for the inconvenience he had caused. The Giants, meanwhile, finished off the Cards, 8-5.

Sunday papers all over the country carried the story of the dustup between the Giants’ PR director and Missouri’s popular governor – the only Republican ever elected to two consecutive terms in Missouri history. He was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate before Bush appointed him U.S. Attorney General in 2001, a post he held four years.

It’s not for me to say whether Ashcroft was guilty of any wrongdoing in office, but I can report with satisfaction that baseball justice was served that night in St. Louis.