Do sports columnists carry a license for name-calling?…

Memorial Day weekend will go down in Boston history for the Celtics’ comeback miracle in Game 3 at the Fleet Center. But it was a Globe columnist’s comment about that Saturday’s Red Sox game that dominated much of the weekend chatter at backyard barbecues and on sports radio.

The issue: Did Dan Shaughnessy go too far when, in his next-day column, he wrote: ”Let us consider for a moment the piece of junk that is Offerman.” The column went on to describe Offerman’s contribution to the Sox’ 3-2 loss to the Yankees.

There’s no doubt Jose Offerman would not have won any Memorial Day popularity contests in Boston. His failure to lay down a bunt in the 8th inning was painful – and pivotal. Many fans question whether he is worth his $6.5 million salary.

But ”piece of junk?” That, said readers, amounted to bad sportsmanship and was going too far. A sampling:

  • ”The column … went well beyond the bounds of decency and showed the meanness and pettiness at the heart of his observations.”
  • ”I’d like to think that the Globe aspires to a higher standard … That sounds like the kind of empty sports radio name-calling at which the Globe supposedly takes offense.”
  • ”If I wrote a letter to the Globe in which I described Dan Shaughnessy as ”the piece of junk that is Shaughnessy,” I have no doubt that the letter would be rejected. And rightly so … Offerman is not diminished by Shaughnessy’s poor taste. The one who is diminished is Shaughnessy and, indirectly, so is the Globe.”

Concluded a (now former) reader of 54 years: ”His [Shaughnessy's] level of class continues to slide, and is clearly not worth the price of admission.”

There’s a case to be made in Shaughnessy’s defense. As a columnist, he has license to express strong personal views. His job is, in part, to get people talking.

But the best explanation comes from Shaughnessy himself, and it’s not what you might expect: ”I was referring to his [Offerman's] performance and the lack of accountability as a baseball player. I don’t know him personally and would not make such a charge about him personally.”

He added: ”If the wording was inexact, I am sorry.”

Shaughnessy says his ”harsh” characterization was prompted by what, to his eye, was Offerman’s limited effort at the plate. ”It looked to me like he didn’t want to carry out the order [to bunt]. He made a half-hearted effort … [and] his failure resulted in a double-play groundout which may have cost them the game. He refused to answer questions about the event.”

If he had the column to write over again? ”In retrospect, it would be good to clarify the idea that I wasn’t talking about him as a person – but I do believe he needs to explain himself when, to many of us, it looks like he’s not trying.”

I join Shaughnessy in wishing his language had been more precise. Not because what he wrote exceeds the license granted to columnists (it doesn’t) but because it lacked the grace, insight, and analysis that Globe readers have come to expect in their sports columns. It came off sounding like gratuitous name-calling, a genre that is at best unenlightening, and usually worse. The Globe can do better.

That said, the incident helps define the license granted columnists – which is considerable.

”It was tough language … but a column is for the purpose of expressing an opinion, and he does that,” says Globe editor Martin Baron. ”This is a review, in essense, of someone’s performance on the field,” and as such was within bounds. Adds Baron: ”You can look at some Supreme Court cases and find tougher commentary than this.”

Asked if, in retrospect, the column might have been worded differently, Baron says, ”Almost certainly there was a way to say this without offending so many people.”

But ”retrospect,” says sports editor Don Skwar when asked the same question, is a luxury not afforded columnists writing on deadline; they must express their views and quickly move on to the next day’s assignment. Skwar calls Shaughnessy ”terrific” at what he does, but accepts the columnist’s view that, in the case at hand, more precise language might have served everyone well.

If nothing else, that would have eliminated an unnecessary distraction from the Celtics’ Saturday playoff performance, a record-setting, come-from-behind Game 3 victory that – unlike the ”piece of junk” comment – deserves to be remembered.