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Last night at Fenway Park, a fan made contact with Gary Sheffield as Sheffield was fielding a ball hit down the right-field line. Sheffield shoved him, threw the ball into the infield, then nearly went after the fan in the stands before restraining himself.

I heard about the incident before I actually saw it, and my first reaction was, “Great, another idiot fan with better seats than judgment.”

Once I saw it, though, I had a completely different response. I’ve gone all Zapruder film with this clip on TiVo, watching it over and over, and I just can’t see the action of the fan as aggressive. He appeared to be perhaps reaching for the ball half-heartedly, or worse, attempting to interfere with Sheff. I thought maybe it was an an excited fist pump, but it looks less like that on each viewing. I do not, looking at the film, think he was swinging at Sheffield. If you look at the motion, it looks like it begins before Sheffield gets to him, and didn’t look like a punch. He looked genuinely surprised by Sheffield’s reaction to him as well.

In an environment still thick with the memory of Frank Francisco and the Pistons/Pacers/peons brawl in Detroit, there’s a natural tendency to raise something like this up to the level of crisis, to get all “woe is us” about the state of sports and society. I do think there’s something to the idea that there’s less civility in the world, and certainly less at our sporting arenas. People smarter than myself have drawn a connection between the rising gap in pay between athletes and attendees and increased hostility of the latter towards the former. Then again, this gap is reflected across society, yet we haven’t seen a spate of attacks by junior accountants against CEOs in company parking lots.

What happened last night wasn’t in the same vein as last September’s ugliness in Oakland, or the Milton Bradley/idiot bottle thrower incident in Los Angeles. Those were the products of malice, and included fans who had gone far, far over the line in their behavior. I don’t see that here. I see a fan who perhaps did something he shouldn’t have done, timed in an unfortunate way. I just don’t think he meant to pop Sheffield in the mouth, or do anything like that.

On ESPNews, Joe Torre said “These people shouldn’t be allowed to walk the street, much less come to a ballgame.” That’s just emotion talking. This fan shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as so many others have, and I think you can make a case that he shouldn’t even have been ejected, although his interference with the play, however minor, probably warrants it.

That Sheffield didn’t go into the stands is being presented as a credit to him. I guess that’s true, although I’d like to think we expect that behavior, even in the wake of recent incidents. I can’t call him to task too much for his initial reaction; it’s a highly-charged environment in which he’d been taking abuse for three nights, and with the Sox rallying in the eighth, emotions in the park were at a peak. When someone who may have been cursing you out for three hours hits you in the mouth, it’s hard to not automatically defend yourself.

The hero in this, if there’s any, is the Fenway Park security guy who came flying out of nowhere to put himself between Sheffield and the fan. That kind of reaction helped to defuse a situation, separating the parties at the point where things may have escalated. This is a clip that will be shown in training videos for ballpark staff for years to come. Get there, get between the people, and hold on until the cavalry arrives.

I don’t think what happened last night fits in the line of events that stretches back to Bill Spiers being jumped by a fan or Randy Myers being challenged to an on-field fight. This was a much less severe case, more an accident of timing than an assault on a ballplayer. Not everyone agrees with me on this–an informal poll of BP staffers showed a range of opinions, which I think shows this to be a grey issue, not a black and white one.

If we’re allowed to have those anymore.

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