Commentators left and right are falling over themselves to applaud Gary Sheffield for his alleged “restraint” in not killing a Red Sox fan Thursday night. Not often enough, however, have many noted that Sheffield did make contact with the fan and chose to do so…while a ball was still in play. Count the New York Daily News’ Flilip Bondy amongst those unlikely to nominate Sheff for the Nobel Peace Prize, though Joe Torre might be eligible for some kind of award for hyperbole.
The gravest transgression at Fenway on Thursday had not been the inadvertent collision between a Boston fan’s arm and Gary Sheffield’s face in right field. The real misdemeanor was gross exaggeration, arguably downright fabrication, by Torre himself. The Yankee manager was guiltier than anyone in this matter of distorting the facts, creating a furor and possibly inciting worse incidents in the future.
By now, we have become sadly accustomed to the notion that a baseball manager will say practically anything to defend his player, even if it impugns his own integrity with the public. Torre will say that Roger Clemens throws at heads when he is a Blue Jay, or that Clemens simply protects the inside of the plate when he is a Yankee.
Tony La Russa will insist that Jose Canseco never did steroids, then attest that Canseco is a liar and that Mark McGwire never did steroids. We are never supposed to notice the contradictions, just the spin.
Torre generally plays this game harmlessly, within the rules. He fibs, with a wink. He has endeared himself to generations of players in this fashion, and it is what creates trust in the clubhouse and opens the channels of communication.
He’s got their back.
But on Thursday, the Yankee manager went way overboard, inflamed a delicate situation with bald-faced propaganda.
“Somebody came out of the stands and whacked him (Sheffield),” Torre said. “These people shouldn’t be out on the street, let alone at a ballgame.”
A man bumping into Sheffield is not a shirtless father and son combo beating on Tom Gamboa, the first base coach. It is not the Pistons against the Pacers. It is not Inter Milan vs. A.C. Milan, a soccer match abandoned this week in Italy after a lit flare struck a goalkeeper.
Major League Baseball was still looking into the matter. Officials ought to suspend themselves, if anything, for scheduling 19 regular-season games between these two teams and hyping the rivalry, staging April games at night, letting ESPN define this as World War III for the sake of money and ratings.
Torre played into that mythology with his quotes, and now everything is ratcheted up another notch for the next series.
Great for ratings. Bad for baseball, and bad for a little thing called the truth.