A few years ago, I asked then-New York Yankee Nick Swisher if Toronto baseball fans were as terrible as their reputation.

Swisher is the sort of player who invites the rage of opponents, so he was uniquely qualified to give an opinion. He gave the question a long, chin-stroking think.

“I would say they’re the worst,” he finally said. “But I don’t want to give them the credit.”

Like, how bad?

“You would not believe the things you hear out there,” Swisher said. “Not just things about you. Things about your family. They’ll go on the Internet and find out their names and use them. It’s really unbelievable.”

We believe it today.

Long before someone threw a can of beer at Baltimore’s Hyun Soo Kim and others flung racial slurs at Kim and teammate Adam Jones, we knew there was a problem.

But nobody records what gets shouted from the outfield stands, and nobody really cares about what happens in a game in May (the last time some wobbly nitwit in Toronto colours used an Oriole as beer-can target practice).

When it comes to these sorts of things, it’s the stage that matters. Tuesday’s events, coupled with a babe in arms nearly getting nailed with a beer during last year’s postseason projectile protest have clinched it in everyone else’s mind – Toronto is the new Philadelphia.

We are, officially, the worst.

That it’s hard to argue the point has made Torontonians suddenly shy and unsure.

Do we deny what’s pretty plainly true? Do we embrace our new identity as the drunken cousin who ruins every family gathering? And if neither of those things suit us, whom can we blame instead?

It didn’t take long to decide. It’s that guy (whether or not it’s a guy). The guy who threw the beer. As of this writing, that guy was still in the wind.

That would be missing the point.

That guy is criminally responsible for his actions.

But everyone standing around that guy – to one degree or another – is also culpable. When it happens again, remember now that it is not one idiot’s fault. It’s Toronto’s fault.

At some point, we’ve all been in a crowd when it starts to tip. Depending on your turn of mind, it is either a chilling or thrilling experience.

The first indicator is alcohol consumption. Once a group reaches a critical mass of drunkenness, anything is possible. Things people would never do or say while alone, they will suddenly do and say when surrounded by a frothing, inebriated gang.

(On this front, let’s also apportion a good deal of blame to the Toronto Blue Jays organization and their owners, Rogers Communications Inc. This is the bar rule. If you’re going to ply people with booze until they are discombobulated enough to think rank assault on another person is funny, whatever happens is on you just as much as it’s on them.)

The second indicator is a shared cause. A crowd becomes a mob when everyone is pulling their oar in the same direction. A sports crowd is uniquely susceptible in this regard. The bad guys are all out there. The good guys are all up here. Let’s get on them. But, hey, all in good fun.

Until something goes wrong or the stakes are particularly high. Then it’s definitely not fun any more. It’s us against them, with all the potential darkness that connotes.

The third thing is permissiveness.

It may seem like nothing the first time someone curses. Most people flinch instinctively when they hear that sort of thing at a game, but they won’t do anything about it. It’s none of their business.

If you did it a kids’ soccer game or a school concert – “Stick your (blanking) flute up your (blank), Timmy” – proceedings would halt. There would be immediate social consequences – a public humiliation by your peers. Which is why it so rarely happens.

But in certain crowds who’ve all had a snootful, it seems like the next logical step. The knuckleheads in the crowd are paying attention. If no one (or, preferably, several someones) doesn’t turn and say, “Please don’t do that,” it will spread.

Now everyone has permission to swear. And much worse.

In this environment, crazy is starting to make sense. And then it happens. Throwing things. Saying things that can never be said. Going out onto the field. Hurting someone. It’s all on the table.

What was notable after the beer was hurled at Kim is that, in the immediate aftermath, many people cheered. What was also notable is that nobody thought to stop the guy who’d done it. He melted back into what was, for a moment, a mob and had now become a crowd again. Passive and blameless.

Presumably all of these people are good burghers of Toronto – community-minded types who can afford a $300 night at the ball game.

Had it happened at their work, on their street, or at their church, they’d have been appalled. But in this milieu, it seemed okay. Amusing, even.

That’s a problem bigger than one guy with poor impulse control and so-so aim.

The things that are good about sports can also be bad – their binary nature (win/lose); their tribalism; their invitation to the soporific mental ease of the hive-mind. You put on a cap, go to a game and forget your troubles.

That assumes that you are taking all this in the spirit in which it is intended – as entertainment, as functionally meaningless.

Aleppo matters. The Blue Jays in the playoffs does not matter.

But evidently some people in Toronto are bringing their troubles to the game.

A good first step would be banning alcohol sales in the Rogers Centre for the remainder of the playoffs. That would indicate seriousness. Any other measure indicates that the Jays would like to be seen making a gesture while also continuing to make a lot of money.

A much better step would be a shift in authority. Right now, the dummies are winning. They have assumed control in the stands.

They are still a minority. If Toronto baseball is to shed its unwelcome reputation as a haven for knobs and racists, it is on everyone else to marginalize those voices until they are silenced entirely.

ARLINGTON, TEX. — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Oct. 05, 2016 3:46PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Oct. 05, 2016 4:00PM EDT