Death threats be not proud, continued

Don Denkinger

MLB umpire Don Denkinger needed FBI protection after threats on his life over his 1985 World Series mishap. In the social media era, it wouldn’t take just radio people blasting his address and phone number around the world for further such threats.

What does it tell you, when almost the first thing on the mind of a professional athlete who loses a contest isn’t what a tough loss it was but how many death wishes or death threats are liable to show up in his or her direction on social media? It ought to tell you how brain damaged too many sports fans are.

Shelby Rogers got waxed in straight sets by Britain’s Emma Raducanu in round four of tennis’s U.S. Open Monday afternoon. The 28-year-old told a press conference after the match she expected “nine million” social media death threats afterward. That’d teach her to draw the spotlight after she flattened number one-ranked Ashleigh Barry in the third round.

“Obviously we appreciate the spotlight in those moments,” Rogers told the conference, “but then you have [losing to Raducanu] today and I’m going to have nine million death threats and whatnot. It’s very much polarizing, one extreme to the other very quickly.”

She wasn’t alone. Former Open winner Sloane Stephens lost this time, Angelique Kerber beating her in three sets after she took the first set. Stephens says her Instagram account was flooded with a few thousand abusive messages some of which went from mere swearing and racial insults (she is black) to downright threats of death and sexual abuse.

“This isn’t talked about enough,” Stephens posted, “but it really freaking sucks.”

It really freaking should be talked about more than enough. I’ve done it. I don’t want to minimise what Rogers and Stephens now deal with, but baseball and other sports people have put up with that kind of vile nonsense for decades. Just not so instantly as today.

Long before there was such a thing as social media, hapless umpire Don Denkinger found himself on the wrong end of a harassment campaign after his blown call in the ninth inning of 1985 World Series Game Six helped cost the Cardinals a win they should have been two, not three outs from consummating.

Back then, about the worst that could happen beyond snarky newspaper columns was a radio disc jockey obtaining and airing your home address and telephone number. Two St. Louis disc jockeys did just that to Denkinger. He received death threats by mail for a couple of years to follow and, at one point, needed MLB to ask the FBI for help.

The fact that the Cardinals still had three defensive outs to play to nail that Series, or still had a seventh game to play if they lost Game Six, escaped the slime contingent. Denkinger being rotated to calling balls and strikes for Game Seven didn’t mean the Cardinals should implode in that game escaped them, too.

At least Denkinger waited until after that Series for the full brunt of his mishap to happen. Phillies reliever Mitch Williams had no such fortune in the 1993 Series. Thanks to a few death threats from enough indignant Phillies fans, the hyperactive lefthander spent a sleepless night or two with a shotgun in his lap after blowing a Series save . . . in Game Four.

Williams went on to throw the pitch Joe Carter belted to win that Series in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six, of course. His stand-up post-game performance may have saved his life otherwise. But he shouldn’t have had to spend a night cradling his weapon instead of his wife.

I’ve said it until I’m blue in the keyboard. Don’t ask what would have happened if Denkinger, Williams, and members of the long, sad roll of sports “goats”—the Bill Buckners, Ralph Brancas, Gary Andersons, Roberto Baggios, Wrong-Way Marshalls, Fred Merkles, and Andres Escobars—had had their moments of horror in the social media era.

Horror, or death: Colombia’s goalkeeper Escobars inadvertently put the ball into his own net in soccer’s 1994 World Cup tournament. That night, he was out with friends when a car pulled up, an argument broke out, and he was shot to death.

Denkinger at least had FBI help until the idiocy passed. What defense or protection do you have against social media, even if you leave it? Rogers says she doesn’t like social media but she’s forced to make a presence there because of her sport’s marketing. Maybe her sport and all sports need to re-think that a little.

Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz walked himself into trouble and a Mets loss in Washington Monday. All that did was throttle the Mets’ pennant race recovery a little. It didn’t blow up the subway during rush hour.

Diaz is known as much for his mound struggles as his mound triumphs. Maybe that protects him from death threats. Or maybe we don’t know that he’s received them, or how many he’s received. The Mets’ administration seems to care more about their players replying to the boo birds than whether the boo birds might graduate to threatening their players’ lives.

Remember Indians reliever Nick Wittgren—battered for five runs in the ninth, his wife and family subject to social media death threats. Wittgren said it was said that such is now the pro sports norm—and that 90 percent of players he knows personally have received them. If you need me to tell you what’s wrong with that picture, you have problems I’m not qualified to solve.

Social media contends with the shouting-“fire”-in-the-movie-house dilemna. It thrives on free speech, but it also has to draw certain lines that, often as not, refuse to be drawn organically. The sports goat business stopped being funny a long time ago. The sports death threat business needs to be put out of business even faster, if possible.

The law says you can’t threaten the lives of the president of the United States or any public official. The law also says you can’t send threatening snail or e-mail to someone. A professional gambler faces five years in federal prison for Instagram threats he sent the lives of players in a 2019 game the Rays lost to the White Sox in extra innings.

It shouldn’t stop there. Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms should think seriously about not just banning such scum contingent from their platforms but arranging such charges against as many of them as possible regardless of whether or not they have money on the table.

Games are not life and death. The fate of what’s left of the free world doesn’t hang in their balance. Mortal men and women in an entertainment try their best and fail. It doesn’t make them cowards, chokers, or moral degenerates when someone on the other side is just that hair’s breadth better in the biggest of the big moments.

Yet people are prepared to perform massacres upon the defeated in sports while letting far more grave misbehaviour die on the proverbial vine. This is above and beyond mere fan passions. It shouldn’t be enabled.

You wish for openers that people were at least as outraged over New York’s mishandlings of the pan-damn-ic (it took a sexual harassment scandal to do what that malfeasance didn’t and rid the statehouse of Andrew Cuomo) as they might be over Shelby Rogers losing a shot at winning the U.S. Open, or the Mets losing a shot at the postseason.

Racist death wishers, go to hell

Kenley Jansen, his wife Gianni, and their children, at Dodger Stadium.

There went those ideas. Ideas such as writing about how Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, started all over again with an even-up World Series, and pushed themselves to one game short of the Promised Land Sunday night.

From Mookie Betts’s game-opening triple to Corey Seager’s immediate RBI single. From Joc Pederson’s third inning-opening bomb to Max Muncy’s two-out, just-out-of-reach placing fifth-inning flog. FromĀ  Kershaw’s determined five and two thirds innings with less than the absolute best of his repertoire to the Rays’ tenacity to the Game Five finish. And, to both bullpens throwing zeros on the scoreboard.

That’s what I wanted to write about. But no. I had to learn some bunches of human scum just had to paste Kenley Jansen with the kind of thing that would be considered obscene in Sodom, Gomorrah, and the worst little whorehouse anywhere.

In the wake of Game Four’s extraterrestrial climax in the Rays’ Series-tying favour, Jansen’s Instagram account was flooded with racist insults, which are grotesque enough, and death threats against him, which are low enough. But the flood also included threats against his wife and children, for which there’s no redemption for those so dehumanised as to level them in the first place.

I’d like to say that that kind of degeneracy is a brand new phenomenon, but I know better. Didn’t I remember the anniversary of Joe Carter’s 1993 Series-winning three-run homer off Mitch Williams a few days ago by recalling, among other things, Williams receiving death threats after he’d blown a save in Game Four of that set? And I’m not naive enough to think it began with Williams, either.

I’m old enough to remember when Hall of Famer Henry Aaron required security and the FBI’s close surveillance when he lived and played under the spectre of racial insults, hate mail, and death threats. Not because he’d tried and failed on baseball’s biggest stage but because he had the audacity to challenge and succeed in passing Babe Ruth on the lifetime home run list.

You almost don’t want to imagine what Aaron would require from the cyberspacious descendants of such creatures if he were chasing the Babe under today’s social media scrutiny. At least the racist hate and death-threat mail didn’t arrive his way within about three seconds after it was posted.

Jansen has not performed without his postseason struggles over his career. Few enough Dodgers who’ve seen their regular-season dominance for eight years running collapse in those postseasons have. Being a black man by itself is enough to provoke too many who lack the brains God conferred upon a paramecium.

But what the hell could Jansen have done to provoke racist death threats?

Was it merely throwing the fastball that cruised off the middle of the plate, right into Rays pinch hitter Brett Phillips’s bat, and off the gloves of both center fielder Chris Taylor and catcher Will Smith as the tying and winning Rays runs crossed the plate Saturday night?

Was it Jansen’s inexplicable lapse in not backing the plate after Muncy’s relay throw to Smith down the first base line bumped off his mitt and behind the plate, before Smith swept around to tag a Randy Arozarena who hadn’t yet arrived to within forty feet of the plate after an unlikely trip and tumble before he scored the winner?

Was it Jansen’s apparent postgame indifference about the lapse when talking to postgame reporters?

About throwing the pitch Phillips swatted to start that Three Stooges-like climax, reality check. It’s far too easy to hammer a pitcher leaving a meatball out over the plate but far too difficult to remember that he didn’t exactly say to himself, “This see-saw needs to go bumper cars.”

Show me the pitcher who delivers intending for what he throws to be hit into right center field, left center field, the bleachers, or out of town, and I’ll show you a pitcher who knows better than to take the mound in a professional baseball game in the first place.

Jansen’s not the first and won’t be the last experienced pitcher to get caught in the middle of a jaw-to-the-floor ninth-inning shock and find himself on the wrong side of the plate area when he should have been behind it backing whatever play might come. His being there might not have stopped the winning run, or it might have forced the game to extra innings.

We didn’t know in the moment. We’ll never know. On strict baseball terms, it’s fair game to criticise Jansen for not being where he belonged. It’s fair game to question whether the moment’s shock knocked his concentration out just long enough. Playing race cards and suggesting he and his family deserve execution over it is so far beyond those bounds you shouldn’t even be able to imagine it, never mind have to see it.

Jansen also isn’t the first and won’t be the last veteran unable to say, simply, that he’d made a bad mistake not backing the play. He isn’t the first and won’t be the last to find no words for Phillips floating his unintended meatball into right center other than what equals, “It is what it was.”

Wasn’t it possible that what Jansen tried to say though his tongue betrayed him was, hey, this was only Game Four, we’ve just got to shake it off and come out to play tomorrow? If it was, did he deserve a social media scum bath?

Teasing over his prior postseason puncturings is one thing. Go ahead, tell the world that the minute you see him warming up in the pen you want to get blind drunk, call your analyst, or stick your head in the oven. Those may not be in good taste but at least they don’t cross the line into human degeneracy.

As an orator, Jansen isn’t exactly James Earl Jones. (For the record, he’s not African American, either, as if that’s a distinction with a difference to the racist—he’s native to Curacao and, with his wife and children, lives there with his parents in the off-seasons.) He won’t sell out auditoriums speaking of the magical waters into which baseball’s dreamers dip as they come to the Field of Dreams and reunite with the heroes of their increasingly distant youths.

Yet there still remain creatures among us who think even that’s a capital crime.

We watch and love baseball because it speaks as no other sport does to our aspirations, our need to wander and explore, our need to come home from our wanderings and explorations. No other major sport defines its scoring that way. You score touchdowns and field goals in football. You sink baskets on the hard court. In golf, it don’t mean a thing if it got too many swings before you sink one into a hole. In racing, you cross a certain line or (if you’re a horse) hit the wire.

But A. Bartlett Giamatti was so right about what happens when the umpire says “Play ball!”—long as you travel and as far as you roam, your job is to come home. You don’t always control the journey. You know nothing at the outset of the pitfalls, pratfalls, and powder kegs awaiting you, nor do you know when they’ll meet you and just what triumph or disaster awaits.

You might reconsider those before you continue watching sports as though success and triumph equal godlike transcendence, failure and loss equal irredeemable character absence, and the defeated deserve to lose their lives. Freedom of speech allows anyone to make an ass of him or herself. To those crossing that line into the sewers of racism and death threats, three words: Go to hell.

Jansen lingered in the Dodger bullpen during Sunday night’s Game Five knowing he wasn’t in the game’s pitching plans and leaning now and then against the bullpen fence. Looking somewhere between thoughtful and troubled. If he tortured himself trying to conjugate how the hell to err is human but to forgive is not fan policy, you can’t blame him.

Even an obscurity such as me can spend over almost fourteen hundred words trying. And I still have no more idea whether I succeeded than I have that anyone gives a single damn what I think.