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One of the great things about playing a professional sport is the time one spends outside of the actual games with your teammates.

An MLB season is a grueling 162-game schedule, with a lot of travel to new cities, new hotels, new airports and unfamiliar terrain, which requires an athlete to spend most of his time away from family and friends.

Your teammates take on the role of a surrogate family, with the clubhouse substituting for your typical – OK, atypical – suburban household setting. Pat Corrales, Atlanta Braves’ bench coach during my tenure with the organization, would pass through the clubhouse on the first day of Spring Training each year and announce in a loud boisterous voice, “For the next eight months; you can’t pick your own friends. I hope you guys like each other.”

When people ask me what I miss most about the major leagues, it isn’t the games that evoke the fondest memories, but the bonds established in the locker room and the interactions my teammates and I had on a daily basis.

Baseball was just a job.

Pitching was just a job.

But spending time in the locker room and the bullpen with my teammates was an added bonus and experience no amount of money could duplicate.

Those are the memories that stay with you, memories of Hall of Fame pitchers like Greg Maddux cutting jokes hours before he’d pitch a nine-inning jewel or of Braves owner Ted Turner coming into the locker room and affectionately giving grief to any of us that may catch his eye.

It’s important to remember that playing in the big leagues is the opportunity to prolong being a kid – and get paid for it – for just a little bit longer than most.

Which brings us to the story of Texas Rangers pitcher Tanner Scheppers.

You’ve probably read about Schepppers, who claimed he was attacked in downtown Cleveland and “sucker-punched” while on a night stroll between games. In the process of being attacked by an indeterminate number of individuals, he sustained facial bruises, cuts above his nose and a black eye.

Cleveland’s CBS affiliate reported:

“Scheppers said he was ‘sucker-punched by several young males’ and knocked to the sidewalk, but never lost consciousness. Scheppers said he wasn’t robbed and that his attackers ran away.”

He didn’t file a police report; though the story sounds incredibly believable considering Cleveland is one of those cities (think Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Oakland and Cincinnati) where rampant black-on-white violence transpires so frequently it has even earned a name on the streets.

“Knockout Game.”

Besides street basketball, this has become one of the most popular urban games in cities such as St. Louis and Chicago: Black teens or youth attack an unsuspecting white or Asian and attempt to “knock” them out.

With stories of a “Justice for Trayvon” black-on-white assault occurring in Washington, D.C., and a black mob attack on a white person in Baltimore over the weekend, yet another assault in Cleveland (even involving a 6-foot-4, 200-plus pound baseball player) seemed plausible.

So it turns out Scheppers story might not be exactly “the truth.” The Cleveland Scene magazine reports:

Scene spoke to a witness to the “sucker-punch,” and there are more than a few discrepancies between his story and that of Tanner.

First, it was at 2:30 a.m. outside of Panini’s on W. 6th.

Second, Tanner was a verbal instigator. He was with Joe Nathan, A.J. Pierzynski and, according to our tipster, a bunch of girls. He had been jawing back and forth for a few minutes before the physical altercation took place.

“He lost a bar fight,” says the witness. “He had 10 chances to walk away before this happened.”

Maybe that’s why he didn’t file a police report.

Whatever comes out of the Scheppers story, the ultimate lesson is “nothing good happens after midnight.”

Tanner Scheppers is going to be the butt of a number of jokes in the media, on ESPN “First Take” and “Sports Center” and on every sports radio talk show in America, if the story the Cleveland Scene reports is the truth.

More to the point, Scheppers will be the punch line of every joke in his clubhouse and in the bullpen for the rest of year, which will be the harshest source of shame he should be feeling right now. He will undoubtedly receive a heavy fine from his brothers in a “kangaroo court.”

Though he gets paid to play baseball and paid to pitch, it’s the payment in terms of good, old-fashion ribbing he’ll be privy to in the Rangers locker room that he’ll hate the most.

But there’s one important aspect about this story that does deserve further consideration, and it involves the veracity of Scheppers’ original story.

One of my favorite things to do before an away night game was to wake up early, leave the hotel, and walk around the city my team was playing in to take in the sites and sounds.

No better way to clear one’s head before a big game (especially a playoff or World Series game) than to enjoy a few minutes of anonymity by casually walking around the tourist traps a city like New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia had to offer.

But many of America’s great baseball cities, like Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis, no longer offer safe streets for baseball players looking to waste a few hours before a game, or tourists for that matter.

It was just a few days ago the Guardian Angels passed out flyers alerting people that Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is actually “Muggers Mile”; Baltimore’s Inner Harbor would offer Tanner Scheppers plenty of opportunities for being the victim of a “random act of violence.”

Whatever the outcome of Scheppers’ Cleveland experience, we can all agree his teammates will give him plenty of grief if it turns out his story is false; but, for all those people who have been attacked in cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis, this story offers a glimpse into an unsettling reality.

Urban America is little better than a war zone.

 

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