Suffer Merkle’s children no more

2020-07-31 FredMerkle

Fred Merkle, the patron saint of baseball goats.

“Sports, especially pro sports,” Thomas Boswell wrote in 1989, “is not a morality play, much as it suits our national appetite to act as if it were. Even some athletes, perhaps including [Donnie] Moore, seem to crush themselves under a burden of self-imposed guilt in areas of life where no cause for guilt exists.”

Moore, the former California Angels relief pitcher, surrendered a shocking home run to Dave Henderson of the Boston Red Sox when the Angels were a strike away from nailing the 1986 American League pennant. Three seasons later, he shocked baseball and the world by shooting his wife before turning the gun on himself and killing himself.

A haunted man as it was before the pitch, Moore couldn’t bear its added weight. It wasn’t a mistake pitch, either. He threw Henderson a forkball that snapped down and away and was as shocked as anyone else in old Anaheim Stadium when Henderson sent it over the left field fence.

The game went to extra innings and the Angels lost the game. (Henderson’s sacrifice fly made that difference.) Two games later, they lost the pennant. To the Red Sox. Who suffered even worse miseries when they were a strike away from winning that World Series. Their bullpen melted down in the Game Six bottom of the tenth against those tenacious New York Mets, right down to allowing the tying run home on a wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball.

Then Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson whacked a ground ball that skipped impossibly between the feet of stout but ankle-dissipated Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, allowing the winning run home to Buckner’s and his team’s horror. A Red Sox Nation that already suffered from too many decades of surrealistic calamity on the threshold of triumph could bear no more.

Buckner, who died on Memorial Day 2019, turned out to be made of stronger stuff than Donnie Moore, and Buckner endured far worse than Moore did. And just as Moore’s Angels had two more chances to win that American League Championship Series but failed, Buckner’s Red Sox had a Game Seven yet to play in that World Series—and lost.

Buckner had no business even being in the game by then, but Red Sox manager John McNamara—loyally wanting his warrior standing at the end in triumph—failed to pinch hit for him in the eighth inning. We cherish loyalty, mourn its absence, and rarely think that there do come times when it backfires drastically.

McNamara died at 88 Tuesday, prompting such thoughts all over again. Especially after his widow, Ellen, pleaded to the Boston Globe‘s Dan Shaughnessy that her husband didn’t deserve to have his entire life judged by one game. She’s right.

Boswell was hardly the only one to say after Moore’s suicide that the goat business wasn’t funny anymore. It didn’t stop those so inclined to look for goats wherever they could be found, and to try making their lives a nightmare forever after.

The worst of Red Sox Nation got to Buckner’s son, born two years after that Series, as Buckner learned the hard way playing catch with the boy when a low throw sailed past. “That’s okay, Dad,” said the hapless kid, who eventually played baseball for the University of Texas, “I know you have trouble with grounders.”

Buckner was so aghast he moved his family the hell out of New England all the way to Idaho. He made a new life of success in real estate before Lewy body dementia took hold of him and finally killed him.

A well-syndicated Washington Post sports columnist for eons now, author of several best-selling anthologies of his work especially about baseball, Boswell was probably roundly ignored when he pleaded to put the goat business out of business by addressing the “goats” with forgiveness they shouldn’t have had to beg in the first place:

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not. 

Boswell opened the essay with a small roll of “goats,” but—perhaps unwittingly—he omitted their equally unwitting progenitor. Baseball’s goats have long since been Fred Merkle’s children.

That hapless New York Giants rookie was blamed for costing his team the 1908 pennant, running toward the clubhouse before touching second after a key game-winning run scored down the stretch of that contentious race. When Chicago Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, got it, and touched second. When Merkle was thus ruled out, and the run was ruled null, forcing a single-game playoff if the Giants and the Cubs tied for the pennant, which they ultimately did.

What everyone denouncing Merkle as a bonehead didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared about was Evers—whose Cubs were burned on a similar play earlier in the season, a play on which the out then was almost never called—taking the ball first taken by a fan, who threw it to Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh, who threw it to Evers. A ball touched by a fan is supposed to be ruled dead.

Not even Merkle’s own manager John McGraw absolving him mattered to those who saw only what they wanted to see. Never let the facts get in the way of outraged fans and writers looking for one man to blame for blowing a game the team absolutely, without question, should have won. Including, as McGraw himself pointed out, that there may have been at least twelve other losses the Giants could and should have won that could and would have made the difference.

Never tell people like that that two laws are inviolable: No game can be won by both sides, and Berra’s Law (It ain’t over until it’s over) has yet to be ruled inoperative or unconstitutional.

Merkle’s children have suffered under the ridiculous belief Boswell outlined, that losing a game or making a mistake in a game isn’t just a question of a mistake or a defeat but, rather, a question of sin. “The unspoken assumption,” Boswell wrote, “is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.”

Babe Ruth wasn’t exactly the epitome of morality off the field, but in Game Seven of the 1926 World Series—with Bob Meusel at the plate, Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on deck, and two out in the ninth—Ruth bolted for second. Everyone on earth knew a one-armed man could throw him out stealing.

Amoral? Not a chance. Self-involved? Surely. Anyone else making a mistake like that facing a managerial and sporting press tongue lashing? What do you think? But . . . he was The Babe. Thus being, he got away with what a rook or a journeyman would have been crucified for even thinking about.

Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi didn’t have Ruth’s kind of cred in Game Four of the 1939 World Series. The gentle giant was clearly morally flawed when Yankee outfielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller blasted into him at the plate, knocking him out cold, as Keller and Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio behind him scored the game and Series-winning runs in the tenth.

It couldn’t possibly have been Keller being built like a tank and nailing the likewise-built Lombardi’s cupless groin in the crash—toward finishing a World Series sweep.  “Lombardi,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract,” was now the Bill Buckner of the 1930s, even more innocent than Buckner, and Buckner has plenty of people who should be holding up their hands to share his disgrace.”

So should have had Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox shortstop who supposedly held the ball while Enos Slaughter made his fabled mad dash in Game Seven of the 1946 World Series. The fact that Pesky took a too-high throw in from late-game center field insertion Leon Culberson before turning to try throwing home proved entirely beside the point, to those who insisted that Pesky was obviously the devil’s spawn.

Too many Brooklyn fans thought Ralph Branca was on the wrong side of morality when he surrendered the now-tainted Shot Heard Round the World to Bobby Thomson, ending the 1951 National League pennant playoff. Branca’s own priest thought otherwise and got to him fast enough.

The priest told Branca God chose him because He knew he’d be strong enough to bear the burden. Branca proved stronger than those who wanted him drawn, quartered, and hung in the public square. And, in due course, what was too long rumoured was finally proven: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

Was it moral lacking that caught 1964 Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey by as much surprise as it caught anyone else in late September, in Connie Mack Stadium, when Cincinnati  rookie Chico Ruiz stole home for the game’s only run—starting the infamous Phillie Phlop?

Was Willie Davis prosecutable for terpitude when he lost a pair of fly balls in a too bright sun, and committed a third error off one of them, in Game Two of the 1966 World Series? (A game that turned out to be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s final major league game.) Did sunblindness mean its victim required an exorcism?

When B.F. Dent hit the three-run homer over the Green Monster to overthrow a Red Sox lead for what turned out keeps in the 1978 American League East playoff game, did it expose Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez as a moral idiot? (Come to think of it, was Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski morally suspect when, with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth, he popped out to end the game?)

I guess Tom Niedenfeuer was plain degenerate when his manager Tommy Lasorda, that devilish apostate, decided it was safe for him to pitch to Jack Clark with two on, first base open and the Dodgers one little out from going to the 1985 World Series. I guess that made Jack the Ripper the epitome of morality when he hit a home run that may have traveled to Pasadena, and those Dodgers couldn’t score a lick in the bottom of the ninth.

Maybe Don Denkinger was really degenerate when—in the bottom of the ninth, with Clark’s St. Louis Cardinals themselves three outs from a World Series championship—he mistakenly called Jorge Orta leading off safe at first when every camera angle showed him out by a step and a half.

Never mind that the Cardinals still had the chance to keep the Royals from overthrowing their lead. And, that nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to implode entirely in Game Seven, with or without Denkinger himself rotated behind the plate. In St. Louis and elsewhere, Denkinger became Beelzebub incarnate.

Time healed a few of Merkle’s children, of course. Sometimes it was a short volume of time; other times, it took a generation or two. Sometimes one or two of Merkle’s children shook it off almost immediately.

Maybe it was easy for Ruth to go on with his Hall of Fame career because, well, he was The Babe, The Big Fella, getting away with blunders (and misbehaviours) that harry mere mortals to the rack of their regrets. Maybe it was easy for Lasorda to shake off one miscalculation because he’d already won three pennants and a World Series.

Maybe it was easy for Mariano Rivera to go on with his Hall of Fame career after surrendering a World Series-losing base hit to Luis Gonzalez in 2001 because he, too, had been there, done that, had four World Series rings on his fingers going in.

Maybe Tim Wakefield being to four previous postseasons built up a survival mechanism to call upon after he saw his first eleventh-inning pitch to Aaron Boone, in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series, fly into the left field seats with a meal, a stewardess, and the pennant on board.

From whence the perennially star-crossed, snake-bitten Red Sox picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, started all over again in 2004, and delivered four straight wins against their eternal tormentors from the south Bronx, after being down to the final three outs of what would have been a sweep . . . before sweeping the Cardinals—Enos Slaughter’s descendants—in the World Series.

Every so often those who get ruined as spectacularly as the ’03 Red Sox get a chance at immediate redemption and pounce on it. But maybe we don’t really know what goes through the minds of human men playing human games who come up short in the worst possible moments of such games.

Before Astrogate cost A.J. Hinch his job, he had to try explaining why he didn’t bring in Gerrit Cole when Zack Greinke ran out of gas in Game Seven of the 2019 World Series. Cole being a starting pitcher had never come into an inning in the middle of it and the plan was to bring him in fresh to start an inning if and when need be.

Washington’s Howie Kendrick wrecked that plan when he rang the foul pole and the Houston Astros’ bells on reliever Will Harris’s dollar. Until it turned out that Hinch merely told his boys to knock off the Astro Intelligence Agency without putting some weight behind it, other than smashing a couple of swiftly-replaced clubhouse monitors, it looked as though he’d survive Game Seven well enough.

Sometimes Merkle’s children healed in unexpected ways. Branca and Thomson forged a sweet friendship in the years that followed, soiled only by the final proof that the 1951 Giants made their staggering pennant comeback (from thirteen games out of first place, forcing the playoff) the (then) high-tech cheating way.

Buckner and Wilson forged a comparable friendship in the years following their rendezvous with baseball’s often cruel destiny. Visiting Shea Stadium during the Aughts, Buckner spotted then-Mets coach Wilson on the field, and hailed him: “Mookie, what do you say you hit me some grounders?”

So have Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and Joe Carter. Already having a blown save in Game Four of the 1993 World Series, Williams pitched into infamy in the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, when Carter hit a Series-ending three-run homer that turned what was still called the SkyDome into bedlam.

Known now to have taken the ball after a sleepless night following death threats, Williams never flinched post-game, answering even the most ridiculous questions without once trying to pass responsibility on. In the worst defeat in the Phillies’ own tortured history to that point, Williams proved a better man than his critics including a teammate or two who wanted him run out of town.

He also accepted a near-immediate reaching-out from Carter himself. “Really, since the home run, we’ve been tied at the hip,” Carter once told the Toronto Star, when he and Williams hooked up for an event to help Canadian at-risk children.

Over the years I’ve seen him at MLB Network, but I’ve always known what type of guy Mitch is. He’s a great guy and the great thing about baseball is not just the sport itself, but the people you meet. Lives are going to be crossed, paths are going to be crossed a lot. It just so happens we’re kind of intertwined now and I thought it would be a great gesture to bring him back here because he is a fun guy to have around . . . he really is.

What pounds the minds of fans who can’t resist smoking out goats when their heroes lose, or doing their level best to make life miserable for those poor souls? Ask cautiously. You might be afraid of the answers.

“The right to a raspberry comes with the price of a ticket,” Boswell wrote, “and the right to an opinion goes with the First Amendment. Still, before we boo or use words like ‘choke’ and ‘goat,’ perhaps we should think sometimes of Donnie Moore.”

Don’t be afraid to say it’s well past time to stop letting single failures define entire careers. Joe and Jane Fan would both give their left ventricles to have the chance those players had in those moments. They’d be lying through their teeth if they say they’d have done no questions asked what Merkle’s children couldn’t do in those moments.

So this, as Boswell led off in 1989, is also for Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, John McNamara, Tom Niedenfeuer, Don Denkinger, Johnny Pesky, Gene Mauch, the 1964 Phillies, the 1978 Red Sox, the 1987 Blue Jays, the 2007 Mets, every Cub from World War II until 2016, and Donnie Moore.

It’s also for Ernie Lombardi, Cal Abrams, Ralph Terry, Art Mahaffey, Willie Davis, Mike Torrez, Mitch Williams, Byung-Hyun Kim (and he became the goat of a Series his team won), Dusty Baker, Grady Little, Nelson Cruz, Buck Showalter, Ken Giles (like Kim a goat in a Series his team won*), Yu Darvish, and A.J. Hinch.

It’s also for every St. Louis Brown, San Diego Padre, Milwaukee Brewer, Montreal Expo, and Seattle Mariner ever, every Washington Senator since Calvin Coolidge’s only election to the White House, every Ranger since the Watergate burglary, and every Indian since the Berlin Airlift.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more.


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