Memo to Red Sox fans:
You are better than this. Keep your hands inside the rails. Don't reach for balls in play. Don't try to become part of the action. And don't defend those who violate these sacred tenants of the game-day experience.
Sure, it was only one nitwit who swiped at (and may or may not have made contact with) Gary Sheffield's face Thursday night. But there were dozens of others trying to corral the baseball that was struck by Jason Varitek, a ball that was scooting around the ground in fair territory where Fenway's right-field wall curls toward the bullpen.
It was only one guy and we don't know his intention, and the Sox are still investigating the matter and haven't yet said whether they'll revoke his season tickets or take further disciplinary action.
Had the unfortunate episode unfolded last night -- imagine Devil Rays right fielder Aubrey Huff jousting with a grown man in a Red Sox cap -- we probably wouldn't have had ESPN on site for follow-up coverage. But this was an incident involving the Yankees and the Sox in a toxic area where bad things happened during the 2003 American League Championship Series (now you know why the Sox and Yankees eschewed the well-intentioned/preposterous middle school suggestion that they shake hands before the Fenway opener). Anything involving Sox-Yankees naturally takes all activity to a higher level. And thus before last night's game at Fenway, there were whiffs of the Pacers in Auburn Hills, Mich., attached to something that was relatively benign. This would have gone away fairly quickly if not for the Yankee factor.
Kevin Millar and Trot Nixon, veterans who have toiled in right fields in major league ballparks across the country, said they'd never had problems like the one Sheffield encountered Thursday. Both said they thought Sheffield used proper restraint. Both said they would have reacted the same way.
"I'm not upset with our fans," offered Nixon. "But now it's something I'm gonna have to deal with when we go back to New York."
Indeed. Nixon will probably need his batting helmet and rain gear the next time he backs up to the right-field wall (a much higher one than Fenway's) in Yankee Stadium.
"It's part of home-field advantage," said Millar. "You get beer poured on you and they yell things. But if what happened to him happened to me, I'd probably do exactly what Sheff did. Your first instinct is to push the guy back."
The Red Sox issued a statement in which the club indicated that an investigation was ongoing. Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said general manager Theo Epstein spoke with his Yankees counterpart, Brian Cashman, early yesterday. The Sox expect to get final reports on the matter from the Yankees today. There was new signage last night. Sox fans who got to the park early couldn't help but notice freshly painted plates that read, "Fans who attempt to interfere with balls in play will be ejected."
It's certainly a sign of the times. It would be hard to determine the precise moment when fans felt entitled to participate in the games they pay to see, but it's easy to identify some of the culprits who've contributed to this mentality. Giant videoboards no doubt have convinced spectators that they are part of the event. ESPN highlights regularly feature fan nonsense. A generation of new fans grew up with video games and interactive programming designed to make every young person feel that it's always about them. They come to think that professional sporting events offer audience participation. We were pretty close to a Jerry Springer moment at the ballyard Thursday night.
Any discussion of the matter is incomplete without mention of the undeniable role beer plays in these incidents. Sheffield's section was awash in the nectar of the gods when all this happened and even though the Sox stop selling beer after the seventh, fans are able to stockpile in the middle innings. Ushers need to be more alert. Or the Sox need more/new ushers.
Sheffield does not deserve to be punished. He was trying to do his job and a fan interfered with him. The outfielder pushed back. Then he stayed back, resisting the urge to give the world another Artest video.
Similarly, fans need to stay back and respect the athletes. Let the ballplayers do their jobs. Would anybody in the front row at the New Garden attempt to slap the ball away from Kevin Garnett if the Timberwolves star was dribbling down the right sideline? Doubt it.
It should also be noted that fans reaching for Varitek's hit Thursday were in danger of hurting the Red Sox. Had any fan touched the baseball, David Ortiz would have had to hold at third base. Instead, he scored. Last year, the Sox got a big break in the ALCS when Tony Clark's shot down the line scooted into the stands, forcing Ruben Sierra -- who would have scored -- to hold at third. It was a huge play in the Red Sox' dramatic comeback.
Lastly, please stop baiting the ballplayers. Too many of those who reach across the rail for a ball in play are cowardly tough guys who assume that same barrier will protect them from retaliation if they taunt a ballplayer and swipe at his face. Would Christopher House take a shot at Gary Sheffield's face if he met him on Newbury Street?
This was not a good moment for Red Sox fans. One guy made you look bad in front of an entire nation.
No need for this, people. Your team won a championship. Act like champions.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.