Tuesday, October 29, 2013


It's that time of year again and my son and I are heartily enjoying another World Series. We're watching this one more intently than usual perhaps because our lives, mine by association only, have more than any other year to date, revolved around baseball, and we're not quite ready to see it end for the year. My son just had an experience that doesn't come along all that often in sports or in life for that matter. Last week, he and his team won the very last game of their season, meaning they went out as champions. In some ways that's a double edged sword as experiencing early success like that may make anything less in the future seem like a letdown. Of course many times in his life he's also experienced, as they used to say in the opening of the TV classic, The Wide World of Sports, the "agony of defeat", so I guess it all balances itself out in the end.

Anyway, this year's Series, at least the first five games of it, has proven to be a real corker featuring just about everything a baseball fan could hope for. For starters, the two best teams over the grueling 162 game regular season, actually made it into the Series, something that doesn't happen all that often in these days of extended playoffs. Last night, Boston's Jon Lester pitched a brilliant game while his teammate, David (Big Papi) Ortiz has been so hot at the plate that even when the opposing pitchers try to walk him, he still manages to hit doubles and home runs. On the other side, the St. Louis Cardinals under the capable hands of the best catcher in the game, Yadier Molina, have had some excellent pitching of their own, especially the youngsters, starter Michael Wacha, and their relievers, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, both capable of 95 plus mph heat. Despite game one being a comedy of errors, and with a few other miscues sprinkled throughout, both teams have shown brilliance in the field, especially the second basemen: Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox and Matt Carpenter for the Cards. Carlos Beltran perhaps made the play of the series by robbing Ortiz of another home run. Plus, this series features teams with long, storied traditions, each representing a great city that I love.

Quite honestly the only thing I'm rooting for this year is a seven game series, so what's there not to like?

Actually there are two things: the endings of games three and four. Game three ended with a controversial call when Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, in the process of attempting to field an errant throw from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, was charged with obstructing the progress of the runner, Allen Craig.  Although Craig would be thrown out at home by the Sox left fielder on that play, he and the Cardinals were awarded the winning run of the game because of the obstruction. Upon scrupulous viewing of replay after replay, the home plate umpire made the correct call in my opinion. However no one wants to see a game, especially a World Series game, decided by an umpire's judgement call.

Then in game four, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Cardinals down by two, Allen Craig (him again), got a base hit. Rookie Kolten Wong came in to pinch run for the slow-footed Craig who had recently come back to the team after a leg injury. The Cards' best hitter, Beltran was next up, but he didn't get a chance to swing the bat because Koji Uehara, the Red Sox reliever picked off Wong at first, game over. It was the first time ever that a World Series Game ended with a runner being picked off a base. Thrilling to be sure, but it came at the expense of a huge mistake on the part of the base runner. As has been pointed out ad-nauseum since the play occurred, the run that Wong would have represented was essentially meaningless, as the batter Beltran would have represented the tying run. Therefore there was no need for Wong to have taken a big lead off first, placing himself in jeopardy of being picked off.

Wong has been raked over the coals since the play, he was publicly excoriated by his manager Mike Matheny as well as by the incessant blabbering of sports radio. Close to tears, Wong did not shun the cameras after the game as he could have, but stood up to account for his error. He later apologized via Tweet to "#Cardinal Nation."

Last night, the Cardinals dropped their second game in a row after the aforementioned Jon Lester masterpiece, meaning that in order to win the World Series, they must win the next two games in Boston, no easy task.

And so we have the birth of yet another baseball scapegoat. If the Cardinals lose this World Series, you can rest assured that poor Kolten Wong's base running miscue will be remembered for as long as there are people who care about baseball. His name will go down in history, grouped with other players, and at least one spectator, as people who through one unfortunate act, allegedly cost their team a championship.

I don't know if any other sport produces as many goats as baseball. Perhaps it's because every play in the game hinges around the actions of relatively few players. If you mess up, it's there for all to see, and right there in the scorecard, recorded for posterity. There are as many ways to mess up in baseball as there are different plays, but I think you can distill baseball mistakes down to three or four categories:

The missed opportunity. Case in point: you're up to bat with tying run at third and only one out. Then you hit into a double play, game over. Probably the most famous missed opportunity in baseball is the mythical "Mighty Casey,"who after much anticipation comes up to the plate with two runners on and the chance to win the game with one swing of his bat. But with his "haughty grandeur," he just stood there watching the ball go by for strikes one and two. Then with the force of his mighty blow, he shattered the air, but not the ball, for strike three, dampening the joy of the faithful fans of the Mudville Nine. However, batters who fail to come through in the clutch are not usually blamed for their team's demise. As the great Ted Williams once said:
Baseball is the only field of endeavor in life where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.
The error. When you play in the field and the ball is hit to you, you either make the play or you don't. If it is determined by the official scorer that the play should have been made but wasn't, it's an error. Errors are simply a part of the game and for the most part are quickly forgotten. They do become a big deal when they have a direct impact on the outcome of a game, especially a big game. One of the most famous errors in history came in game seven of the 1912 World Series. The New York Giants were leading the Red Sox 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th inning. The Sox' Clyde Engel hit a routine fly to center fielder Fred Snodgrass who misplayed it. That opened the door for a series of events that enabled the Red Sox to tie the game, (with Engel scoring the tying run), and win it later in the inning. Snodgrass, otherwise a terrific fielder, made a sensational diving catch preventing a sure triple immediately following his error in that game. Despite that, a distinguished career, and a long, productive life, the headline of his New York Times obituary 62 years later read:
Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.
In recent memory of course there was Bill Buckner, another player of distinction who will always be remembered, especially in Boston, for misplaying a ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson of the Mets, that would have ended the inning but instead allowed the game winning run to score in game six of the 1986 World Series. The Mets went on to win game seven and the Series.

The mental gaffe: This is probably considered the most inexcusable of mistakes as baseball players are expected to be 100 percent in the game at all times. It's true that despite being a rookie, Kolten Wong should never have allowed himself to be picked off in that situation. But he's in good company. In a play during this year's American League Championship Series, Detroit Tiger great Miguel Cabrera was rounding third when he got the "stop" sign from his third base coach. He chose to ignore the sign and ended up being thrown out by at least twenty feet at home. The culprit of one of the most famous boneheaded plays in World Series history, was none other than the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth himself, who made the last out of the 1926 World Series against the Cardinals by being thrown out while trying to steal second base. When asked why he attempted to steal in that situation, the Bambino just said: "because they weren't expecting it." Turned out it didn't matter, they weren't expecting it but the Babe  was so slow they got him anyway.  To this day no other World Series has ended with a runner caught stealing.

Wrong place at the wrong time: This is the most unjust cause of goatsmanship. Here in Chicago, we just witnessed the tenth anniversary of the Steve Bartman incident. In case you don't recall, the Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins 3-0, and five outs away from their first World Series appearance in 58 years, and counting. With a runner at second, Luis Castillo hit a foul ball hit in the direction of the stands and several fans reached out to grab it. At the same time, Cubs left fielder Moises Alou tried to make a play on the ball. Of all the hands that reached out, it was Bartman's which actually touched the ball, deflecting it away from Alou, who may or may not have had a play. That simple out of play foul ball, and the ensuing hubbub the Cubs made charging Bartman of "fan interference," completely unravelled the team and by the end of the inning, the Marlins scored eight runs, more than enough to win the game. They won the next game too and the Marlins, not the Cubs represented the National League in the 2003 World Series. Despite all the the bad plays from the team that game including shortstop Alex Gonzales booting a tailor made, inning ending double play ball (hit by Miguel Carbrera), that would have gotten the Cubs out of that disastrous eighth inning virtually unscathed, it was the poor fan who to this day is blamed for his team's demise. Today the name Steve Bartman is more familiar to the public than most of the names of the players on that ill-fated team.

Probably the most famous incident in baseball history took place even before Fred Snodgrass's muffed fly. On September 23, 1908 in the old Polo Grounds in New York, the Giants were in a heated pennant race with the Cubs. The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner at first. Up to bat comes another rookie, Fred Merkle of the Giants. He gets a hit that advances the runner to third. The next batter, Al Bridwell, hit a solid single to center field, scoring the runner at third, game over, Giants win. Or so it seemed. Merkle, the runner at first, did what every other major leaguer had done up to that point after a game winning run, he turned around and went back to his dugout. Well it so happened that the Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers had been prepared for such a situation. You see, the rules of baseball state that if there is a force out at any base with two outs, any runner crossing home plate will not be awarded with a run, even if he crosses the plate before the out is registered. Evers yelled to his center fielder, who himself was headed to the dugout, to retrieve the ball which he did. After getting the umpires' attention, Evers then tagged second base with the ball and argued that since Merkle had not touched second before the ball (he had in fact long since left the field), he was forced out, and that the run should not count. After agonizing with the decision, the umpires ruled in Evers' and the Cubs' favor, Merkle was declared the third out of the inning, the run was not allowed, and the game was still tied. But since by that time darkness had settled upon New York, the game was suspended, to be replayed at a later date if necessary. It turned out that it would be necessary as the Giants and the Cubs both finished in first place with identical records. The game was replayed in its entireity on October 8th. The Cubs won that game, the pennant, and the World Series (for the last time to date).

Despite himself having a long respectable Major League career, from that point on Freddie Merkle, for doing what anybody else would have done in the same situation at the time, would be forever known as "the Bonehead." He died in 1956, and here's how he was remembered in the New York Times:
Giants 1st Baseman’s 'Boner' in Failing to Touch 2nd Led to Loss of ’08 Pennant
In each case depicted above, despite all the other things that went wrong in those games, despite all the opportunities other members of the teams had to pick up their teammates, one person was singled out by fans and sportswriters, (but not the players who know better), as the scapegoat for the team.

It's a sad comment about the human condition that whenever something doesn't go our way, it always helps to blame somebody else.

And who says baseball isn't a metaphor for life?

So now I have a legitimate reason to root for these Cardinals. I'd like to see them win this thing for no other reason than saving Kolten Wong from the burden of being forever known as the guy who cost St. Louis the 2013 World Series.

Well actually I do have another reason. I really can't stand those stupid Red Sox beards.

Go Cards!

POST SCRIPT: In a case of life imitates art, (or is it the other way around?), in my haste to get this post out in a timely fashion, I originally credited John Lackey for the brilliant win in game five. Of course it should have been the lefty, Jon Lester. Lackey pitches tonight. Score that as an E-B (Blogger). In my defense all those Boston beards make their players look alike.

POST POST SCRIPT: The Red Sox just won their first World Series at home in Boston since Babe Ruth was on the team in 1918 and they beat the Cubs in six games. Game six of the 2013 World Series was filled with what I described above as missed opportunities as the Cardinals left nine runners on base in their 6-1 loss to the Red Sox. John Lackey, (yes I believe I got it right this time), was just as good as Jon Lester was in game five, pitching himself out of several jams and giving up only one run. After missing two games because of a back injury, Shane Victorino was the offensive hero of the game breaking a scoreless tie with a bases loaded triple in the third inning off Michael Wacha. And the Cardinals just gave up on David Ortiz, the Series MVP, intentionally walking him three times, tying a World Series record.  What can I say, the better team won, it's going to be hard to pin this loss on Kolten Wong, but I'm sure we haven't heard the last about him and his adventures on the basepaths.

Congratulations Red Sox!

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