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Francona: Fan meant no harm to Sheffield

Red Sox manager Terry Francona yesterday offered his take on Thursday night's run-in between Yankees right fielder Gary Sheffield and a fan after reviewing the episode approximately 20 times on tape.

"A couple of things come to mind," Francona said. "I don't think the guy was being malicious. I also thought he was wrong. I tried to put myself in everyone's shoes. Sheff's shoes. In the fan's shoes. Sheff's going for the ball and if somebody makes contact with you, it's wrong. It didn't look to me that he slugged him. His first reaction is what it was and then he restrained himself, fortunately, or this thing ends up being a much worse story."

Francona lauded the work of Fenway Park security, particularly 23-year-old Steven Chin, the visiting bullpen attendant who jumped into the stands to separate the fan, Christopher House of Dorcester, and Sheffield, who later said House made contact with him while he was attempting to field a ball in the eighth inning.

"He got there in a hurry, man, and that's good," Francona said of Chin. "That's why they're there. I don't think anything was malicious but I just thought the fan was wrong. I'm not sure what he was doing."

Francona added, "It looked like [House] kind of swiped it. And then you get a different version. I mean, I don't know what he was thinking. We're fortunate that security did a great job and Sheff didn't lose it because it looked like he was close, and then it ends up being something really bad."

Sox sources indicated House admitted to having "collided" with Sheffield while attempting to swipe for the ball that was rolling around the 3-foot-high right-field wall.

House was questioned after the game by the team and Boston police, while Major League Baseball is also conducting an investigation. After retrieving the ball, which was hit by Jason Varitek and scored the final two runs in the Sox' 8-5 win, Sheffield went back at House, but restrained himself.

House, who was ejected from the game but not arrested, could still face charges.

Sheffield said he was told not to comment further on the incident, while Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said, "It's in the hands of the commissioner."

The matter has been referred to Bob Watson, MLB's chief disciplinarian, who is reviewing tapes, according to MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney.

The team would neither confirm nor deny that House, a former Curry College assistant football coach, was a season ticket-holder, but fans who sit in that area in right field have identified him as one. House was not seen at last night's opener of a three-game series against the Devil Rays, and efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

"We are continuing a thorough investigation of [Thursday] night's incident in the right-field corner at Fenway involving fans and Gary Sheffield," Red Sox chief operating officer Mike Dee said in a statement. "We are proud of the response by Red Sox security and Boston police; their actions were quick and decisive. We respect the restraint and composure shown by Gary Sheffield. Together, they helped ensure the incident did not escalate."

Dee, along with members of the Red Sox front office, took part in a meeting yesterday morning to discuss the issue, and whether a fan's season tickets should be revoked for such an incident.

The Sox were reemphasizing last night that fans should "never interfere with a ball in play. As was the case [Thursday] night, fans who interfere will be ejected and possibly subject to other penalties."

The Sox, according to team sources, are also trying to gather information on a spectator wearing a GAP sweat shirt who was sitting near House and was seen throwing a cup of beer in Sheffield's direction.

While beer sales are halted after the seventh inning, fans in that area still had full cups, and some were placed on the top of the wall, which is against park rules.

Sox right fielder Trot Nixon, who said he's had beer spilled on him numerous times, wonders whether the team should stop beer sales sooner, particularly for games against the Yankees.

"Maybe we play them too much. Maybe they shouldn't sell beer," said Nixon. "I don't know what the answer is, but I certainly understand Gary Sheffield's frustration."

Francona said there's not a lot the team can do to prevent such an incident, given the configuration of the ballpark, but a number of players suggested plexiglass as a possible improvement.

"There's so much good that comes out of people close down on the field," he said. "Fans get into it. It's intimate, you see the passion. What this guy did wasn't malicious, but it can lead to problems. We need them not to do that.

"Everything gets inflamed because of the Yankees. That's just the way it is. There's just more interest when we play the Yankees. With that being said, I think they should suspend Sheff for 20 games because he's good and he's with the Yankees."

Turning serious, Francona said, "I completely understand the issue and importance of safety because we've seen what's happened. I've seen what happened between the Pacers and the Pistons, but I also don't think we need to make this into World War III. You go into any corner in any ballpark in baseball and people are going to curse at you or throw something at you. That's just the way it is. New York-Boston, it gets a lot of play. You can't have a line of security there all the time. For the most part, our fans do a pretty good job. It happened. It shouldn't have happened, but I don't think we should tear the ballpark down and reconstruct it."

Asked whether Major League Baseball had contacted Francona about what he saw, the manager, who still hasn't heard about a possible fine for his ejection for arguing balls and strikes Thursday, as well as his harsh words about the umpiring after the game, said, "I don't think they were interested in my opinion today."

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