NEW YORK — Last Thursday evening in Boston’s Fenway Park, the New York Yankees’ Gary Sheffield was retrieving a fair ball along the right field line when he was punched by a spectator in the stands — or brushed, or poked, it is not really clear. Sheffield picked up the ball, took a swipe at the offending fan, threw the ball back into play, and then seemed ready to rush into the stands a la Ron Artest, when a Red Sox security guard came hurtling onto the scene. Maybe the guard caused Sheffield to pull up short, or maybe, as Sheffield later claimed, it was the cautionary example of Artest, the NBA player who brawled with spectators in Detroit last November and was suspended for the season.
The fan was ejected from Fenway, and on Monday evening the Red Sox revoked his 2005 season tickets. Another fan was ejected from the game for spilling — or tossing — beer on Sheffield as the incident unfolded, and the Red Sox banned him from buying tickets for the 2005 season.
Compared to the Artest incident, or Texas Rangers pitcher Frank Francisco throwing a chair that hit a woman in the stands and broke her nose last September, or the two barbarians in Chicago who ran out of the stands and assaulted a Kansas City Royals first base coach a few years back, the Sheffield incident is mild. And spectator rowdiness did not start in our postmodern age; famous crowd incidents dot the landscape of baseball history. In the seventh game of the 1934 World Series, for example, St. Louis Cardinal Ducky Medwick was the object of a hailstorm of tomatoes from Detroit fans and had to leave the game for his own safety. Baseball in the early 20th century featured more than its share of brawling and mob behavior.
But there is clearly a sense that the boundaries between athlete and spectator are breaking down, and there are plenty of theories why. The Yankees’ Derek Jeter repeated the word “entitlement” several times in suggesting that fans have come to think intrusion into games is now their right. An ESPN web poll after the incident asked respondents what they thought the fan’s intent was. The choices were:
He was reaching for the ball. [26.5%]
He was trying to distract Sheffield but didn’t mean to touch him. [40.7%]
He was trying to swipe at Sheffield. [32.8%]
I’d love to see a follow-up poll on how many fans think the first two choices constitute acceptable behavior. It hardly matters whether it’s the home team batting or the visitor; if a ball comes down the line, fans will reach over into the playing field and interfere with the play. Anything for a souvenir. Anything to get on TV.
TV, especially Reality TV, has been blamed for a lot of things over its few years of existence, and it seems logical to attribute some impact to it. When one hit show after another offers fame to ordinary people, often for being ordinary (if not base), the message that anyone can become a celebrity is hard to resist. Why should Gary Sheffield have exclusive rights to run down that ball? The fan paid his money to get into the game, and as the lottery slogans used to say: You gotta be in it to win it.
Speaking of money, some say that the enormous salary gap between players and the so-called average fan is what drives the new hostility: class resentment, all over again. Resentment does seem to be a factor, but it’s probably more accurate to describe it as celebrity envy at this point, considering how few fans qualify anymore for the proletariat. Just check the prices of a hot dog and a beer.
Speaking of beer, one wonders how many of these incidents would occur if not for the element of alcohol. After the Sheffield incident, Yankee Manager Joe Torre uttered the customary words about how a few bad apples were ruining the game for everyone else.
I hate to be cynical, but having attended my share of ballgames, I wonder how few is few. From the upper deck, I’ve heard language directed at players that would peel paint off the seats, from fans who looked like they should have stopped imbibing before game time, let alone whatever cut-off point each ballpark imposes. If there were somehow more seats that gave fans access to the field of play, would the few become many? It seems likely.
BUT EVEN IF ALCOHOL is banned from games, it won’t solve the problem completely, which originates not with the spectators but with the athletes, specifically in the way they comport themselves. Only in the last 35 years or so, largely under the influence of Muhammad Ali, did athletes abandon their traditional stoic demeanor on the playing field. Up until then they saw themselves, by and large, as participants in an athletic contest, and traditional notions of sportsmanship were still widely practiced. Included in the sportsman’s creed were ideas about showing respect for one’s opponent and not drawing undue attention to oneself.
After Ali, athletes had a hard time practicing such quaint courtesies. They slowly began to see themselves as not just athletes but performers, and at times the games themselves become secondary to the parade of self-celebration. By now, we are all so familiar with pointing, gesturing, showboating, prancing, staring, gyrating, mocking, and demeaning behavior from athletes that it is hard to remember a time when they behaved differently. Baseball is the sport probably least susceptible to such behavior because of its peculiar rhythms, but the post-Ali influence is there in strutting home run hitters, admiring their handiwork before they can be bothered to run around the bases. Bad sports on the field have bred bad sports in the stands.
Since the athletes decided long ago that they were not going to confine themselves to merely playing the game, should we be surprised that spectators no longer wish to settle for just watching it?