Death Threats Be Not Proud: Not toward players, especially not toward their families

Little-known Brett Phillips made national headlines with Tampa Bay during the 2020 World Series.David B. King, Flickr, Blogspot

By Jeff Kallman 

Whenever you or I have a bad day at the office, we get to go home (or, in my case, shut down, since I work from my home), shake it off, chill for the rest of the evening, and start all over again the next day.  

Apparently, major-league ballplayers can’t have bad days at the office and shake them off without their lives, and those of their families, being threatened by jackasses who think such threats are just cute passionate fan stuff. 

Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Erik Swanson had a terrible day at the office last Sunday. In to close out a potential 3-1 Mariners win, he surrendered a leadoff base hit to Texas Rangers first baseman Nate Lowe. That was the least of his problems.  

The next Rangers batter, second baseman Andy Ibanez, smashed a game-tying two-run homer down the right-field line, followed immediately by designated hitter Jonah Heim hitting one over the right-centerfield fence for game and set, enabling the Rangers to take two of three from the Mariners on walk-offs that weekend. 

Over an hour later, there was Swanson on Twitter. He pleaded go ahead, hammer him to your heart’s content in direct messages to him, but he draws the line when you’re brain-damaged enough to get into his wife’s social media account and threaten her life and their family’s lives.   

A week earlier, Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Nick Wittgren and his wife learned the hard way about the brain-damaged when Wittgren had, arguably, a worse day at the office than Swanson. Taking the ninth-inning mound against the Tampa Bay Rays with the game tied at four, Wittgren’s none-too-extended outing ended with five runs on three hits including a home run battered out of him. 

You probably don’t need me to remind you that Swanson’s wife wasn’t the one who threw home run pitches to back-to-back Rangers hitters. If you’re more inclined to think like me, you surely don’t need me to remind you that losing a baseball game isn’t exactly the equivalent of murder, manslaughter, or storming the Capitol in a bid to overthrow a presidential election. 

Wittgren’s wife, Ashley, tweeted afterward, “Y’all I get it, my husband had a bad day at work. But sending both of us very explicit death threats aimed at him, me, and our children is absolutely inexcusable.” 

“Sadly, this is considered 'normal' in professional sports’,” her husband tweeted, after acknowledging those who sent him messages of support against the idiot brigades. "It's happened to 90% of players I know and basically after every bad outing a player has. But there is nothing normal about threatening someone and their family's lives.” 

They should only know. Last fall, Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen threw the pitch Tampa Bay pinch hitter Brett Phillips lined to right center to start a Three Stooges-like run of mishaps that allowed the tying and winning Rays runs to cross the plate, tying the World Series at two games each. Jansen’s Instagram account was flooded with with racist insults (grotesque enough) and death threats against him (worse enough)—but also with death threats against his wife and children.  

It isn’t just game outcomes and bad days at the plate or on the mound that prompt the idiot brigades. Outrage over the Houston Astros’s systemic, illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing was one thing. Threatening the lives of both Mike Fiers (former Astro, Astrogate whistleblower) and assorted incumbent and former Astros (most notoriously, outfielder Josh Reddick receiving death threats and wishes that his children come down with cancer) crossed more lines than even the Luhnow-era Astros crossed

Sometimes even the heroes have to deal with such terpitude. Hall of Famer Babe Ruth’s two successful home run record pursuers learned the hard way. Roger Maris (single-season) and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron (career) dealt with death threats from miscreants who didn’t want either an “interloper” (Maris, as enough Yankee and other fans saw him) or a black man (Aaron) knocking the Sacred Babe to one side. 

It’s always been bad enough when those who did their best but failed—whether in a regular season game or in the World Series—were held up for hangings by fans who couldn’t grok in moments of abject passion that one player fails because another one succeeded.  

Now retired, Thomas Boswell had it only too right in 1989: “The flaw in our attitude—perhaps it is even an American predisposition with Puritan roots—is to equate defeat with sin. The unspoken assumption is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.” 

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: You almost don’t want to think about what they’d receive if Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Ralph Branca, Willie Davis, Leon Durham, Don Denkinger, Donnie Moore, Bill Buckner, Mitch Williams, the 1964 Phillies, the 1986 Red Sox, every Washington Senator before and after 1924, every Cub from 1909 through the end of the 20th Century, and maybe every St. Louis Brown ever, came up short in the social media era. 

When the Dodgers held Vin Scully Day in 2016, the tribute that stood out most came from Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax: “Before the World Series, Vin would go to church and pray. Not for a win, but there would be only heroes in the World Series, no goats. He didn’t want anybody’s future to be tarnished with the fact that they lost the World Series for their team.” 

If you didn’t know better, you might swear under oath that in the social media era there are too many praying that there should only be goats, not heroes. (Last fall, after the Dodgers clinched the National League West, there was one Twitter twit who invited people to answer this question: “If you could curse any MLB player for all of October who would you choose?”) Maris and Aaron notwithstanding, where’s the fun in threatening the lives of heroes and their families?  

Back in March, a California gambler named Benjamin Tucker Patz—known as Parlay Patz for having once won $1.1 million in sports betting parlays—pleaded guilty to threatening the lives of several Rays players and a Chicago White Sox player through social media messaging.  

That was after a July 2019 game that ended with the White Sox winning in extra innings after tying the game in the ninth. Presumably, Patz lost a pile of money on the game. (He’d also lost big on Super Bowl LIII and sent similar threats to a few New England Patriots.) Patz hasn’t been sentenced yet, but he faces up to five years in the federal freezer when that day comes. It's almost a shame that he can't be sentenced to up to five years per threat.

Maybe it’s time to think about doing likewise to the not-so-famous Twitterpated and Instagrammarians who think it’s a laugh and a half to threaten ballplayers’ and their families’ lives over bad days or nights at the office?

You get to boo, hiss, and hoist insulting placards at the game. You get to second, third, and fourth guess after the game. You don’t get to send death threats over a bad pitch, a bad swing, an error, a bad base-running play, a manager’s bad strategic move, a loss. The words for that only begin with “degenerate.” 

Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research,  The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007 and, alas, has been a Met fan since the day they were born.  

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