Recent fan violence not as bad as it seems

It was a classic “Yale fight.” Thursday night. One drunk dude gets in the face of another guy (who may or may not be an athlete), who then pushes him back. Then, everybody’s friends emerge as the two “brawlers” demand to be held back. And that’s about it. There could be some smack talking and the groups of friends might revel in the retelling for a couple of days, but everyone knows nothing actually happened. Not a big deal.

Of course, the reason I’m discussing this incident is that it didn’t occur at BAR or SAE. It happened at Fenway Park. Gary Sheffield was trying to retrieve Jason Varitek’s triple in right field when a fan named Chris House took a swipe in his direction. Before returning the ball to the infield, Sheffield pushed House and got some beer spilled on him. Sheffield appeared to consider throwing a punch or entering the stands, but he held off as Fenway security and his Yankee teammates arrived on the scene. There was a brief delay, but the game resumed. House was escorted out, and Sheffield doubled in the ninth. Boston won, 8-5.

I’m pretty sure I watched the game, although it’s possible other people’s tap night shenanigans may have distracted me. I thought I had seen the replays of the incident from every possible angle. Clearly, I was mistaken, because I didn’t realize I had witnessed such a cataclysmic moment in our nation’s history until it was explained to me the next day.

Maybe it’s my fault. Obviously, I have too much time on my hands. Why else would I spend a Friday afternoon watching ESPN’s “First and 10,” followed by “Around the Horn”? If you haven’t seen either program, you should consider yourself lucky.

I’d try to explain the format of each show, but unfortunately, I can’t really distinguish between the two. All I know for sure is that each represents a failed attempt to replicate the success of “Pardon the Interruption” and that both are blessed with Woody Paige’s absurd commentary. One difference might be that on “Around the Horn” Paige is rewarded with points every time he makes a ridiculous statement, while on “First and Ten” his inanity is greeted by screams from some guy named Skip.

Anyway, it was through this medium that I was first instructed about the gravity of the incident. Apparently, this just highlights a well-known trend that is growing worse. Fans possess an undue sense of entitlement, which has robbed them of any respect they might have for players. Meanwhile, athletes are so grossly overpaid that they cannot appreciate common decency. Naturally, disaster must ensue.

In combination with last year’s rumble in the Rangers’ bullpen, fans running on the field at Comiskey Park, and the exploits of Milton Bradley, “the push” demonstrates that our national pastime has been corrupted. Nobody can watch “Field of Dreams” or have a father and son catch anymore. If we look back on the Pacers’ fracas at the Palace in Auburn Hills, it’s apparent that our society is morally bankrupt. We should all move to the 1950s. (Disclaimer: OK, most of the content of this paragraph was not communicated on any ESPN program. But, it was almost implied. Sort of).

Was it really so bad? I thought all I saw was one wasted guy taking a playful swipe at a crazy man who happens to play right field for the New York Yankees. It could have been worse, mostly because Gary Sheffield is an angry, angry dude. Still, the rest of the Fenway crowd behaved well, even pointing out the guilty party to security.

Paige definitely didn’t share my perspective. His Friday tirade incorporated the familiar motif of disrespectful fans and overpaid players, before he added an example from the past. Recalling Roger Maris’s home run record chase in 1961, he commented that fans would never be so aggressive as to reach over the similarly low right field porch in the old Yankee Stadium.

Yeah, I don’t think so. Hey, I saw “61*.” What Roger Maris got from his own fans was far worse than the slap that may have nicked Sheffield. Remember, a Yankee Stadium patron once targeted Maris with a chair launched from the upper deck. That’s a tad more dangerous than a slap.

But, what about the players themselves? Certainly, legends of the 1950s like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer, and Billy Martin would never degrade the national pastime by getting involved in a brawl. Then again, that’s exactly what they did at the Copacabana in 1957. Don’t all the legends respect the game on the field though? Well, how about when Hall of Famer Ty Cobb entered the stands to stomp on a crippled fan in 1912? In comparison, that makes the “Malice at the Palace” look like a Peace Corps mission.

If these types of incidents occurred even in the golden era of baseball, isn’t it possible that the game, and our society in general, hasn’t degenerated as much as some claim? Similar, or even far worse occurrences can be charted across the history of American sports. What about other countries? Do we look like barbarians to the rest of the world? No. Look at what happens in soccer. Two days before the game at Fenway, an Inter Milan-AC Milan match was suspended when fans began hailing flares onto the field, even striking a player. Honestly, we’re amateurs when it comes to player-fan violence.

I think American sports will be all right. From time to time, a drunken fan or two will do something stupid, or an imbalanced athlete might go wild. It’s bad, but it happens. And it’s always happened. Contrary to rants from sports media, there is no recent trend heralding the apocalypse.

Of course, writers have to meet deadlines. Television and radio stations need to program 24 hours worth of talk. Maybe it’s easier when you can scream and argue about nothing. Isn’t that what they do on political talk shows? Maybe, but as we all know, sports should be better than politics. There’s plenty of other stuff to discuss without inventing a travesty. At least, it seems fair that the writers seeking rant-fodder to meet their deadlines have managed to return the favor for me.

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