Baseballhead: The Sheffield Rule

Michael Cox

Welcome again to Baseballhead, where we swear to God we heard a fan at last Friday’s White Sox/Mariners game shouting “Stella! Stellaaa!!

Imagine that last week Gary Sheffield had said this:

“Well, I came in hard against the outfield wall as I fielded that ball, and I felt something moving. I think a stitch in the guy’s glove might have caught me as he was pulling it out of the way. Whatever. The point is, that pissed me off. So I tried to smash the guy.”

There is no way in Hades that Sheffield would have ever uttered those words, even if it happened exactly like that (which, if you want to know my opinion, it likely did). To say that would incur suspension, fines, and a beating in the press. Remember, this is a game in which guys curse out umpires for making correct calls that didn’t go their way.

So, instead we got the “he said/you saw” treatment:

“I don’t know if it punched me or not, but it felt like it. I thought my lip was busted. I continued with the play, then I thought about it and didn’t react. It could have been worse if I didn’t hold my composure. I almost snapped. I thought about the consequences.”

And whose word did sportswriters take? Not the ESPN announce crew at the game, who watched several replays before stating their belief that any contact was accidental. Not the fan’s immediate neighbors, who agreed the fan had his glove down for the ball and merely pulled it up — as he should — when a player came into the wall, and that Sheffield at the time only shouted about the fan trying to punch him. Not the actual video, which demonstrates vividly who did the punching and who didn’t. (Apparently, taking only one poke counts as holding one’s composure.)

No, they took Sheffield’s word. At least sort of — the general agreement among commentators is that Sheffield was justified in initially taking a swing at the fan. The reason? Repeated ad nauseam over the weekend: “you don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

Okay, fair enough. In fact, let’s make that a rule. Rules make it easier to make judgments in tough situations, much like the rule that the Red Sox applied to revoke the fan’s season tickets, even though it had never been applied to any other fan who reached over the barrier. (Vegas is taking 5 to 1 odds that the team quietly offers him a seat somewhere else in the park.)

Now let’s apply the Sheffield Rule in a few historical situations:

1991 World Series, Game 2 — after a base hit, the Braves’ Ron Gant is on first base but gets physically forced off the bag by Twins 1B Kent Hrbek.

What happened: Gant was called out by the umpire, then protested to the umpire, eventually returning to the dugout.

What would be allowed under the Sheffield Rule: Gant hits Hrbek hard in the solar plexus, taking advantage of the first baseman’s temporary incapacitation to advance to second. Hey, Gant didn’t know what was gonna happen!

2004 ALCS, Game 6 — Alex Rodriguez hits a dribbler up the first-base line. Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo fields the ball and makes a move to tag A-Rod out as he passes. Alex then slaps Arroyo’s glove like a little girl, causing the ball to pop out.

What happened: Rodriguez is first called safe, then out. He argues briefly, then retires to the Yankee bench.

What would be allowed under the Sheffield Rule: Arroyo gouges A-Rod’s eyes, then knees him in the groin. As the Yankee shortstop lies blinded and doubled up in pain, Arroyo retrieves the ball and tags him out. A-Rod is subsequently unable to pull small children from the path of oncoming vehicles. Hey, Arroyo didn’t know what was gonna happen!

1970 All-Star Game — Pete Rose, attempting to score on a Jim Hickman single in the ninth inning, slams into Indians catcher Ray Fosse.

What happened: Fosse, his shoulder separated, drops the ball. Rose scores, winning the game for the National League. Fosse plays out the season but never fully recovers from the injury.

What would be allowed under the Sheffield rule: Fosse finds a nearby bat and, with his good arm, pummels Rose vigorously and repeatedly until he resembles a pink paste. Hey, Fosse didn’t know what was gonna happen!

The applications of the Sheffield Rule are myriad. Sure, it would result in a few more players on the DL, but it would prevent all that stuff that coulda happened, and it would keep sportswriters in columns for eternity.

Next time you hear guys complain about the supposedly out-of-control fans (hint: by any objective measure, American baseball fans are actually far better-mannered than they were in the days before the “family dollar” became so important), thank your lucky stars you’re not in Italy, where they frequently show displeasure by throwing lit flares at opposing players, and police are too afraid to stop them.

What would Sheffield have done if a lit flare bounced off his neck? Well, that would depend on whether he’s an NRA member.

about the author

A lady stepped on Michael Cox‘s foot yesterday. Lawyers willing to use the Sheffield defense should e-mail him from our Contact Us page.

Published April 19, 2005

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