Differing opinions.

Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing some slightly different takes on the Sheffield/fan altercation during Thursday’s game at Fenway Park from the Globe and the Times. Saturday’s Globe featured an interesting editorial recommending that the offending fan be disciplined; Williams Rhoden’s Op/Ed in the Times praised Sheffield for showing restraint. Though the articles are essentially in agreement — the fan was wrong, we’re relieved Sheffield didn’t beat the shit out of him — I have to say I was a bit surprised when I read the latter (no longer accessible on the NYT site, but you can LexisNexis that right up if you’re at MIT), as it somehow seemed a bit excessive to me in its praise of Sheffield’s “restraint.”

I’m willing to admit that I’m no big fan of Gary Sheffield, and I have my team biases, but I’ve seen the replay, and though I can definitely agree that the fan was way out of line, I’m not sure I’d categorize Sheffield’s actions as “a victory in one man’s quest for self-mastery and self-control” as Rhoden does. Is taking a swipe at a spectator self-control, even if you don’t make fist-to-face contact? Is charging at the stands looking like you’re going to beat someone to a pulp self-control? It’s heartening to know that Sheffield knew when to stop, but I don’t think his actions warrant the sort of melodramatic praise Rhoden lavishes on him:

As Major League Baseball reviews tapes of the confrontation involving the Yankees’ Gary Sheffield and a Boston Red Sox fan, let me offer the league some advice: Don’t suspend Sheffield; praise him.

In a tight game against a bitter rival Thursday, Sheffield refused to be the match that ignited the flame. In the heat of the moment, he walked away.

Despite being told by the Yankees not to comment, Sheffield spoke to reporters for half an hour at Camden Yards yesterday before the Orioles’ shellacked the Yankees, 8-1. He recreated the episode in Thursday’s game when a fan appeared to cross the line that separates spectator from participant. In the excitement of a big play, a fan, who was either going for the ball or for Sheffield, got in the way. Sheffield seemed to lunge almost instinctively at the fan before wheeling and throwing to the cutoff man.

That’s when Sheffield saved the peace. He started to go back to the section of fans — one fan in particular — but turned around. He didn’t fight off his teammates to get to the stands. Sheffield, known especially in his early days for a volatile temper, stopped.

He stopped.

Alright, so he stopped. And then some kind of ninja security guard leapt from out of nowhere and landed miraculously atop the right field wall between Sheffield and the fans. Who’s to say what might have happened had that guard not been ready to pounce all catlike into the fray? I don’t intend to offer any excuses for the fans involved in the altercation — that’s the dark side of baseball right there, the part that leads to rubber bullets and Kenmore Square riots — and I think it’s good that Sheffield decided to back off, but this sort of portraiture just seems indulgent to me:

There was a time when Sheffield, would have gone into the stands. Ten years ago, a few seasons ago, he would have grabbed the heckler.

”I would have done 10 times worse than Ron Artest, because my temper don’t stop,” he said. ”Once I go there, I ain’t stopping. It was going to start there and end somewhere else. And if they would have suspended me for a year, the commissioner would have gotten it.”

But on Thursday, Sheffield was able to turn the other cheek.

”That’s when I knew I was in a different place in my life,” he said. ”When I walked away and walked in the room, I knew I was in a different place. I just thanked God for giving me the wisdom and the knowledge to grow.”

While it’s nice to hear about Sheffield’s personal journey to deal with his anger, the whole article smacks of easy praise. Though Rhoden is careful to say that he doesn’t think Sheffield should be a hero, it seems like a throwaway line when everything else in the article seems to suggest that Sheffield should be held up as an example.

For my money, the Globe seems to come down on it more reasonably:

Sheffield told reporters that he was about to retaliate but held back after he remembered that basketball player Ron Artest had been suspended for the season for going into the stands after a fan. That was a smart decision by Sheffield, but he shouldn’t be faced with that choice in the heat of the game.

A “smart decision” — or perhaps simply a good or a wise one — yes. A “personal triumph” — maybe. But should the example Major League Baseball sends to the youth of America (as Rhoden seems to want to put it) be of a formerly violent-tempered man deciding not to knock someone’s lights out? Call me crazy, but it just seems weird to me. If not punishing Sheffield is the best Major League Baseball can do to “reconfigure the landscape of fan-player control,” the problem is much worse than I thought.

Let’s lavish praise on that ninja security guard. He’s the one who really saved the day.

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