WHEN IS IT OK to touch a fan in the stands?


This has nothing to do with whether the fan in Tampa the other night provoked J.C. Romero or deserved it. This has everything to do with J.C. Romero being a professional athlete - really, just a professional.

It has nothing to do with whose story is accurate: the one given to police by Tampa Bay fan Robert "No relation to Adam" Eaton after the Phillies lost to the Rays Thursday night; or the one issued by Romero, the Phillies reliever, before he mummed up the following day.

Eaton, a 25-year-old resident of New Port Richey, Fla., filed a police report alleging that Romero assaulted him after the game. He also told the St. Petersburg Times that Romero grabbed him by the neck and pushed him after Eaton taunted him about steroids. (Messages left for Eaton by the Daily News have not been returned.)

A day later, Romero told Comcast SportsNet's Leslie Gudel that he stopped to sign autographs after the Phillies' ugly, 10-4 loss that night and that Eaton "was saying a lot of things" to him.

One of those things had to do with Romero's 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

Romero said he told Eaton to "think before he speaks."

Eaton's version was that Romero told him to "shut the bleep up."

Romero said that Eaton then said, "What are you gonna do about it," and it reached a point where the fan got face to face with the player.

That is when Romero said he pushed Eaton back. Romero said the fan was drunk and that eyewitnesses would confirm his account. However, one fan who posted after the CSN story claimed to be sitting two rows behind Eaton and said that Romero's account was a lie and that Eaton was not drinking alcohol.

Another who posted after David Murphy's Daily News blog about the incident said the Rays fan taunted Romero (which Eaton admitted) and said, "I bet you won't hit me and JC smacked him and walked away." The fan added the incident wasn't "anything big really." Ah, but it is - when anyone in the public eye is involved. It's sad that people like Eaton feel compelled to get their 15 minutes of infamy this way, and that we stand around and let them. Reading some of the reactions to the stories on the various Web sites, it's also sad how many Phillies fans - some of whom undoubtedly have booed and abused both the home and away team over the years - see Romero's behavior as justified.

Truth is, baiting players is an age-old tradition, especially in baseball. Any book about Jackie Robinson, about Ted Williams, will reveal that. They also will underline that nothing good ever comes from responding to it, especially physically. The choice to make Robinson the first modern-day African-American major leaguer was based largely on his tolerance of extreme and cruel verbal abuse.

Eaton baited Romero for only a few minutes, in a way fans in this town have incessantly baited J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen over the years. The reason you haven't read about either one of them throughout their many trips here is that both have resisted any urge to cross the line that Romero crossed rather quickly.

Remember: Romero's own account includes him pushing the fan. Whether that included grabbing Eaton's neck is irrelevant. Romero needed only to walk away and no one needed to, in his words, "make a story.'' Romero made the story. Once the police got involved, once an investigation was under way, this got legs, put both the Rays' and Phillies' public relations staffs in full damage-control mode.

We beat the drum often about athletes giving more of themselves to those who pay their bloated salaries. But these are the incidents many players will point to when they rationalize why they do not, why they walk past you when you've spent good, hard-earned money to take your kid to a game, to get him or her closer to the guys they dream about being when they go to sleep.

Romero wants us to believe he was a victim in his 50-game suspension, duped by a poorly marked supplement. You'd like to think that he would see a guy like Eaton coming from a mile away, that his experience this spring would make him a better candidate to just walk away Thursday, not a lesser one.

Instead, he made himself an off-the-field story. Again.

Romero didn't deserve the abuse he got from Eaton the other night. But the moment he crossed that line and put his hands on him, he became a perpetrator, not a victim. *

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com