Sports, the cliché goes, is a metaphor for life. But a couple of Texas Rangers baseball fans discovered last week that there was nothing metaphorical about the way their lives were steamrolled by a moment in the ballpark.
The couple became victims of a uniquely Internet beanball, a problem that has no easy solution I can find. And it's a problem that's was recognized by religious traditions thousands of years ago, when online meant something involving a string.
If you missed the action last week, here's what happened, based on the after-the-fact news reports:
Wednesday night, 8th inning, New York Yankees at the Rangers. Score is 7-3, Rangers. Sean Leonard and his fiancé, Shannon Moore, are three days from getting married and are attending their first game together. A foul ball is fielded by Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland. He tosses it into the stands, where it bounces off a few hands and ends up directly at Leonard's feet.
The couple, both resplendent in Rangers attire, is thrilled at getting a unique souvenir of the game and their wedding week. They take photos of each other with their smartphones and smooch. All caught by a Yankees network TV camera.
Nice tale, eh? But wait!
Just stage left is a family with a three-year-old boy. He spots the ball heading nearby. When Leonard comes up with the ball, the toddler gets an instant case of the "me wants" and bursts out into furious tears. Leonard and Moore take no notice. Someone from the Rangers dugout somehow realizes the boy is sobbing and tosses up another ball. Seconds later, Leonard and the boy are happily comparing their trophies.
All told, maybe a minute or two from a four-hour game. So what?
Remember those TV cameras that caught the entire episode? Yankees announcer Michael Kay, with nothing good to say about his team's performance by that point, decides to rip into the Rangers fans for not giving the boy the ball. Spends the rest of the inning coming back to it.
"Oh my God, they can't give it to the kid? That's awful," he said, as his network replayed the episode. "Wow they're actually rubbing it in the kid's face. That's cold."
And a few minutes later: "Look at the greedy people next to him, just oblivious. Oh, let's make out while he has the ball."
Not too many years ago, that would have been the end. The only way anybody in Texas (or elsewhere) would have known would have been if they had a friend living in New York who caught the local feed of the broadcast and called them.
Enter the Internet, where the clip of those few moments, along with Kay's rip job, went viral. Pushed, in part, by putatively respectable websites that slammed the couple in nasty headlines.
MLB.com, the official site of Major League Baseball, went yard: "Rangers Fan Steals Ball From Kid, Gets Called Out on TV" (Later changed to: "Called out on TV: Fan snags foul ball, kid cries," but the old headline lives forever on Google.)
NBC Sports tosses the spitball: "Rangers fans continue tradition of taking baseballs from little kids."
ABC News swings a corked bat: "Are These Texas Rangers Fans the Worst Sports Fans Ever?"
Worse than the headlines were the comments. Some questioned the character, marital status and even fashion sense of the then-unidentified couple who "stole" the ball. But others attacked the parenting skills of family with the "whiny" kid.
By the weekend, all of the people who actually knew what happened had been on national TV wondering why there had been such a fuss. The parents said that their son had even been tossed a ball at a prior game. Leonard and Moore said they'd had no idea the boy was crying about the ball and suggested that Kay owed them an apology.
But Kay doubled down on a radio talk show, as the New York Daily News reported:
"Some goon hanging out with some broad that he's probably going to break up with in two weeks jumps in front of a three-year-old and steals the ball away from the kid?"
So while Leonard and Moore may have been guilty of obliviousness, Kay is unambiguously an ass. Which, given the team he touts, is something of a redundancy. (Full disclosure: I smile broadly when the Rangers whup the Yankees.) But that's not really my point.
Spool this back and try to find the villains.
Moreland was doing what baseball players have done with foul balls since forever. Leonard did what fans have done, and had a special reason for treasuring the souvenir. The kid did what three-year-olds do. His parents did what parents of a briefly crying toddler will do. (Whoever it was in the Rangers dugout that somehow noticed the boy's tears amidst the packed stands and tossed up the second ball was a miracle worker.)
Play-by-play guy Kay was doing what announcers do when they have nothing better to say. The Intranet aggregators spotted a modestly amusing clip from a reputable source and did what they do, with headlines intended to grab the most eyeballs.
Who here is the bad guy? And yet, five utterly innocent people had their reputations smeared from one end of the Intertubes to the other. And by the way, those smears will last as long as electrons flow.
Not that they are remotely the first so besmirched online by selective editing and negative voiceovers. Remember Shirley Sherrod, the low-level federal bureaucrat slimed unfairly by the late Andrew Breitbart?
Should Kay (and other broadcasters) be more mindful of their words, now that they may no longer vanish as soon as the echoes fade. Maybe so. Should at least the more responsible websites be more, well, responsible with their snark? Yeah, somebody needs to be the adult in the room. But the real problem here is deeper and more intractable: Gossip.
While modern American culture trivializes the offense, that's not always been the case.
Traditional Judaism has a long and detailed history of condemning what is called "lashon hara," literally "evil tongue."
It's considered sinful to talk about people unless the information is useful in some fairly specific ways. This applies even if the gossip is true. Even if the information is already public. Even if the person you talk about would say the same thing.
The idea tracks back partly to the Torah and Leviticus 19:16, which says: "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people." Because a reputation once tarnished, even unfairly, is never really recovered.
A famous Hassidic tale makes the point.
A man who spread vicious rumors about a rabbi later repented and went to the rabbi offering to make amends. The rabbi set him a task: Take a feather pillow, go to the center of town, rip the pillow up and scatter the feathers to the winds.
The task didn't make much sense to the man, but he hurried to comply and returned to the rabbi. Was he forgiven?
"Now go gather all of those feathers," the rabbi said. "You can no more make amends for your words than you can re-collect all of those feathers."
In that story, the feathers scattered only through one village. In a day or two, who would be able to identify any particular feather? In 2012, the feathers live forever in high-def, as pristine and damaging tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow as they were the day the clip first aired.
And here's the worst part: How far are any of us at any time from a camera that could catch an otherwise unremarkable awkward moment and blast it online? It's a fishbowl world. While instant replay is at least a mixed blessing in sports, the rest of us would mostly rather pass.
Not that we have the choice.