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.

 

John McNamara, RIP: Forgiven

Boston Red Sox

John McNamara, who wouldn’t let himself live Game Six of the ’86 World Series down.

John McNamara died at 88 Tuesday. He lived a lot more quietly as a retiree in Nashville with his second wife, Ellen, than he once lived as an ill-fated Boston Red Sox manager. And, to the day he died, Johnny Mac lived with an extraterrestrial baseball burden.

“I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game,” Mrs. McNamara told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy when texting him of her husband’s death. “He was so much more than that. A good, kind, loving man.”

Good, kind, loving men make mistakes. Not all of them do it as publicly as McNamara once did. Not all of those doing it publicly  do it managing a World Series team with a history even half as snake-bitten as McNamara’s 1986 Boston Red Sox carried into Game Six that October.

McNamara was the good, kind, loving man whose loyalty to one, contradiction of another, and inability to read a third, abetted the next-to-last greatest heartbreak in the history of a team whose surrealistically harsh legacy needed a new century to end.

Those Red Sox defied their history when, with the California Angels one strike away from going to the ’86 World Series, late-season Red Sox acquisition Dave Henderson rifled a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth, then won the game two innings later with a sacrifice fly.

The Red Sox won the rest of the set and went to the Series instead. Where they had the New York Mets—that band of mostly wild and crazy guys who made the Gas House Gang resemble monks—down to their final strike of the Series and the year. Maybe beating a franchise with their own star-crossed reputation to get to the Series in the first place was a little too presumptuous for those Red Sox?

Even before that tenth inning disaster, the Red Sox flirted with death. McNamara lifted his young, stout starting pitcher Roger Clemens with a 3-2 lead but a blister on his pitching hand. Clemens swore later the blister was no big deal. McNamara pinch hit Mike Greenwell for Clemens with one on and one out in the top of the eighth.

“My pitcher told me he couldn’t go any further,” McNamara said post-game. When that remark was repeated to Clemens, it was reported widely, the Cy Young Award winner-to-be had to be restrained from charging the manager in his office.

It tore John up that the press believed Clemens,” Mrs. McNamara texted Shaughnessy. “John would not make something like that up. When Roger told him he wanted to come out, John said, ‘You’ve got to be [expletive] me!’ That’s what happened. When the chips were down, Roger spit the bit.”*

“The decision was definitely all Mac’s,” Clemens told reporters in due course. “Yeah, my finger was bleeding and it was up to him.” That was then, this was Clemens to Shaughnessy upon McNamara’s death and Mrs. McNamara’s remarks: “Interesting. I think after Fish corrected him on the non-truthful things, they didn’t talk much after that. Need to focus on the positives . . . Sorry to hear of the passing of John. We had great success with him as our manager.”

In that same eighth, with the bases loaded against Mets relief pitcher Roger McDowell, Mets manager Davey Johnson lifted McDowell for the lefthanded half of his great closing tandem, Jesse Orosco—with lefthanded hitting, ankle-challenged first baseman Bill Buckner coming up to hit. No pinch hitter in sight.

As Shaughnessy would write in The Curse of the Bambino, there was “only one logical” reason McNamara refused to pinch hit for Buckner in the top of the eighth.

McNamara wanted his veteran war horse in the victory celebration photographs. The manager and Buckner have always bristled when this subject is raised, but leaving Buckner in the game simply didn’t make sense and was a departure from the way McNamara had managed in every other postseason victory. Boston won seven playoff and Series games in 1986, and in the final inning of every victory, Dave Stapleton was playing first base.

Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth. The game went to the tenth inning. Henderson led off against Rick Aguilera with a home run shot right off the Shea Stadium auxiliary scoreboard in left field. Marty Barrett subsequently drove Hall of Fame Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs (double) home with a base hit.

In that moment McNamara looked like a genius with a two-run tenth-inning lead. He also left his young closer Calvin Schiraldi, a former starter now working his third inning on the night, in for the bottom of the tenth. On the Mets bench, Aguilera spent most of his time in apparent deep prayer.

Back-to-back fly outs to center from Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez. Carter dumping a single into right center field. Aguilera’s pinch hitter Kevin Mitchell lining Schiraldi’s 0-1 slider into short center. Ray Knight—down to the Mets’ final strike—dumping a quail into center to send Carter home. 5-4, Red Sox.

Then McNamara lifted Schiraldi for veteran righthander Bob Stanley. Finally, it seemed, McNamara paid attention to Schiraldi’s self-admitted wounding flaw as a pitcher, a tendency to indict and convict himself when things got a little dicey. The Mets, who’d developed Schiraldi before trading him for stout lefthander Bob Ojeda, thought this game was too big for Schiraldi, who’d only been closing since August after not quite making it as a starter.

Stanley had Mookie Wilson to a full count and the Mets down to their final strike once more. Then, the wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run and Knight to take second. Then, the slow roller up the first base side. Then Buckner playing Wilson deep on the infield creaking over to field it with Stanley going to cover first base.

Then the ball skipping through Buckner’s feet and into right field. Knight barreling home with the winning run. The Mets living to play another day and eventually winning Game Seven after being down 3-2 again, but after would-have-been Series MVP Bruce Hurst finally ran out of fuel on the mound. Buckner—who died last year—wrongfully and often cruelly derided as the Series goat, though he alone seemed to know it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world.

“Hey,” he’d remember thinking, “we get to play in Game Seven of the World Series.”

Stapleton’s major league career ended after that season for one reason: a Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980, Stapleton gradually lost what bat he had and couldn’t hit now if you handed him a door. He’d lost his regular first base job to Buckner in 1984. But he was healthy and could play the position without caution tape wrapped around his hide.

“He would have fielded that ground ball,” wrote Mike Sowell in One Pitch Away. “He would have gotten the out. Stapleton knew it. The other ballplayers knew it. Maybe deep down even the manager knew it.”

Maybe he would have. But Wilson had the play beaten by about two steps at first, with Howard Johnson—to come into his own as one of the National League’s premier power hitters in 1987—on deck. The best case for the Red Sox was Wilson beating out the grounder, first and third, tie game, two out, and hoping Stanley could get Johnson out.

Another Red Sox relief pitcher, fellow former Met Joe Sambito, told Thomas Boswell the following spring training that Schiraldi was so down on himself it worried Sambito. Possibly every other Red Sox, too.

“So what happened after Schiraldi’s defeat in Game Six?” Boswell wrote. “He came back the next day ready to redeem himself. And it rained. He had a day to sit in a New York hotel room and think. When Schiraldi took the mound in the seventh inning of the seventh game, score tied, he was a wreck.”

Eventual Series MVP Knight wrecked Schiraldi at once with a leadoff liner into the left field bleachers. Schiraldi now looked like the guy who came home with anniversary roses for his wife and found his best friend in bed with her. Tie broken. Heart broken. Game, set, and Series eventually lost.

Schiraldi told Sowell that, so far as he was concerned, the League Championship Series was way more significant than the World Series: “If you lose the championship series, basically nobody remembers you. The World Series, at least you’re there. And there’s a lot of people who haven’t been there.”

McNamara would long insist in the years to follow, “We lost Game Six but [the Mets] won Game Seven.” Strictly speaking, he was right. But he may not really have taken the complete measure of his players, may not have known them as fully as he might have. He also overestimated his righthander-heavy Series relief corps (Sambito was its only lefthander), as Backman hinted to Sports Illustrated after the set: “I wouldn’t have said this before the Series, but we knew that if we could get into their bullpen it would be no contest.”

McNamara lost his team gradually in 1987 and just about permanently in 1988, before he was fired in favour of Joe Morgan (not the Hall of Fame second baseman), who yanked the Red Sox up and back into the race and to a division title.

Before that dissipated ’86 Series, McNamara had a reputation as a firm but fair man managing several teams, including having been the man to take the Cincinnati Reds’ bridge when—with the Big Red Machine’s late-1970s dismantling in full swing—Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson was fired. Not a pleasant way to take a job.

McNamara managed to get the Reds to the 1979 National League West title before they were flattened in the League Championship Series in three straight by the “Fam-I-Lee” Pirates. He’d previously managed in Oakland (where a crack by Dave Duncan provoked owner Charlie Finley to fire Johnny Mac with those A’s on the threshold of dominance) and San Diego. (Where equally over-his-head owner Ray Kroc didn’t get that the Padres’ poor pitching was killing the team.)

After the Red Sox, McNamara would get final managing chances with the Cleveland Indians (where he shepherded the coming-together of the young team that would restore the Tribe to greatness in the early 1990s, though he’d be fired in 1991) and the Angels. (When Marcell Lachemann, who’d succeeded Buck Rodgers, resigned in August 1996, McNamara finishing the season before handing off to ill-fated Terry Collins.)

Remembering McNamara’s ill-fated 1987 spring counsel that his players not even think about getting to that previous World Series, Hurst thinks like Mrs. McNamara that Johnny Mac never got over the ’86 Series loss. “Everything seemed to be negative after that,” Hurst told Shaughnessy while saying McNamara’s death saddened him.

The haunted Angels relief pitcher who surrendered Henderson’s ALCS-changing home run, Donnie Moore, would find his own inner demons married to the fury of Angel fans and writers who never forgave him for throwing a nasty, down-and-away fork ball that Henderson somehow sent over the left field fence.

They culminated in Moore’s 1989 suicide. Upon which tragedy Boswell, in a Washington Post column re-published in his anthology Game Day, laid down the new law: the sports goat business was too far out of hand.

This is for Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, John McNamara, Tom Neidenfuer, Don Denkinger, Johnny Pesky and Gene Mauch. It’s for the ’64 Phillies, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’87 Blue Jays and every Cub since World War II. In particular, it’s for Donnie Moore, who shot his wife, then committed suicide this week.

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

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.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson would agree with Ellen McNamara that her husband was a good, kind, loving man who doesn’t deserve to be remembered for one larger-than-life game loss. In one of his memoirs, Jackson remembered McNamara managing him in the minors and being a man who’d stand up to bigots on the road in the minor-league South still under segregation’s yoke.

“When we’d be on a road trip and we’d stop at a diner for hamburgers or something to eat, McNamara wouldn’t compromise,” Jackson wrote. “It was simple for him: if they wouldn’t serve me they weren’t going to serve anybody. He’d just take the whole team out of the restaurant, we’d get into the bus and we’d keep driving.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a good, kind, loving man does. The best of men have made the worst of mistakes, and the worst of men have often done even one thing transcending them. So why do enough of us still forgive, justify, and spin politicians’, police’s, and even soldiers’ transgressions—but still want to guillotine baseball players and managers for theirs?

A man who managed to manage 2,395 major league baseball games and win 1,160 of them, despite skippering a not-so-great team here and there, doesn’t deserve eternal condemnation for one terrible night in New York.

I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game.

Mrs. McNamara, as far as I’m concerned, it no longer is. May the angels of the Lord escort your Johnny Mac to the gentler world of the Elysian Fields, where surely Bill Buckner awaited him with an embrace, a drink, and a hearty thank you for the loyalty laid waste by one skipping ground ball.


* An interesting turn of phrase, that. I wonder if Mrs. McNamara is aware that the Yankees’ King-of-Hearts owner George Steinbrenner once used it to humiliate a prospect whose rough patch provoked Steinbrenner to banish him to the minors.

The prospect was Ken Clay, whose moment in the Yankee sun was when he combined with Jim Beattie to beat the Kansas City Royals on a two-hitter in Game One of the 1978 American League Championship Series.

Clay would ultimately be used erratically, inconsistently deployed between starting and relieving, until a particularly rough outing in September 1979. “He’s a morning glory,” The Boss said of Clay after accusing him of lacking heart. “That’s a term we use for a horse who is great in the morning workouts, who looks beautiful, but who can’t do it in the race. The horse spits the bit, and Ken Clay has spit the bit.”

The Yankees traded Clay to the Texas Rangers for Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry in August 1980. After eight games with the Rangers, then 22 in 1981 following a trade to the Seattle Mariners, Clay was released in spring training. Career over, except for a bid in the 1980 Senior Professional Baseball League—where he joined, but never pitched for, the Gold Coast Suns.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more

2019-05-28 FredMerkle

Fred Merkle, the patron saint of unwarranted 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 Angels relief pitcher, surrendered a shocking home run to Dave Henderson of the 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 apparently couldn’t bear the weight of that pitch. 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 and, two games later, 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 bottom of the tenth against those tenacious 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 shot a ground ball that skipped impossibly between the feet of stout but ailing 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, 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 were defeated.

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

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 a pennant, after he ran toward the clubhouse before touching second after a key game-winning run scored down the stretch of that contentious pennant race. When 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 from the moment the game ended 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 outraged 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, 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 were made to suffer 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. But . . . he was The Babe.

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 otherwise likewise-built Lombardi’s cupless groin in the crash—to finish 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 held the ball while Enos Slaughter made his fabled mad dash in Game Seven of the 1946 World Series. The fact that Pesky had to take 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 maybe-it-is-/maybe-it-isn’t tainted Shot Heard Round the World 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.

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 Red 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? (Which just so happened to be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s final major league game as things turned out.) 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 morally suspect 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. 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 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 Babe Ruth to go on with his Hall of Fame career because, well, he was The Babe, the Big Fella, and could get away with blunders that harry mere mortals to the rack of their regrets. Maybe it was easy for Tommy Lasorda to shake off one mistake because he’d already won three pennants and a World Series.

Maybe Tim Wakefield being to four previous postseasons built up a survival mechanism to work after he saw his first pitch to Aaron Boone in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series sail into the left field seats with the pennant attached.

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 . . . and swept 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.

Sometimes they heal in unexpected ways. Branca and Bobby Thomson forged a sweet friendship in the years that followed, soiled only by the revelation and final proof that the 1951 Giants made their staggering pennant comeback 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.

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. Game failure isn’t crime.

Joe and Jane Fan would both give their left ventricles to have the chance those players had in those moments. And 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.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more.

 

Bill Buckner, RIP: The injustice of it all

2019-05-27 BillBucknerMookieWilson

Bill Buckner with Mookie Wilson: bound by the Grounder Heard ‘Round the World, the two struck up a genuine friendship in the years that followed.

Bill Buckner tried to continue living in Massachussetts after his playing career ended. Then, playing catch with the youngest of his three children one fine day, the boy threw one back to his father and the old man missed it.

“That’s ok, Dad,” the boy is said to have told him. “I know you have trouble with grounders.”

Buckner couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Especially since the boy was born two years after Buckner’s hour of infamy in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. The kid had heard only too much about his father’s unintended mishap, and Buckner finally had enough.

An outdoorsman at heart, Buckner packed up his family and moved to Idaho, where the former first baseman dabbled in real estate, ranching, and auto dealership. He died today at 69 after a fight with Lewy body dementia, one of the most grotesque dementia variants, and long after he finally made peace with Red Sox Nation.

It was a peace he shouldn’t have had to make in the first place.

Forget that Buckner shouldn’t even have been kept in Game Six when it went to the bottom of the tenth with the Red Sox leading. Forget that the Red Sox at one point came down to one strike away from winning that Series. Forget everything except the one thing one man above all others on the field or in Shea Stadium that night remembered.

“Hey,” Buckner consoled himself as he walked off the field after Mets third baseman Ray Knight shot home with the winning run. “We get to play the seventh game of the World Series.”

And, forget for now the absolute best case scenario for the Red Sox if the ball didn’t skip past but hop into Buckner’s downward-extended mitt. Wilson had the play beaten at first. Buckner played back far enough that even on healthy ankles he couldn’t have outraced Wilson to the pad. Pitcher Bob Stanley running over to cover on the play was behind Wilson at least a full stride.

It would have been first and third and Howard Johnson—a switch hitter on the threshold of becoming one of the National League’s home run kings—coming up to bat. And the Mets might still have forced a seventh game.

Forget all that for now. As Thomas Boswell wrote indignantly enough after the eventual suicide of another 1986 postseason goat, Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, who’d unintentionally helped the Red Sox reach that Series in the first place, “what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this ‘goat’ business isn’t funny anymore.”

Moore threw Dave Henderson a nasty forkball with the Angels a strike away from going to the ’86 Series. Henderson somehow sent it over the left field fence to tie a game the star-crossed Angels lost in extra innings. Buckner’s misfortune happened to be failing while doing his best with what he had in the uniform of a team even more so star-crossed, then and for years yet to remain, that Peter Gammons waxed thus in a Sports Illustrated essay, “Living and Dying with the Woe Sox,” published 3 November 1986:

[W]hen the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, 41 years of Red Sox baseball flashed in front of my eyes. In that one moment, Johnny Pesky held the ball, Joe McCarthy lifted Ellis Kinder in Yankee Stadium, Luis Aparicio fell down rounding third, Bill Lee delivered his Leephus pitch to Tony Perez, Darrell Johnson hit for Jim Willoughby, Don Zimmer chose Bobby Sprowl over Luis Tiant, and Bucky (Bleeping) Dent hit the home run.

Boswell conferred eventual absolution upon Buckner, his manager John McNamara, plus Tom Niedenfeuer, Don Denkinger, Pesky, Gene Mauch, the 1964 Phillies, the 1978 Red Sox, the 1987 Blue Jays, “and every Cub since World War II” as well as Moore:

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

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.

Whomever were the unknown Red Sox fans who told Bill Buckner’s kid his old man had a little trouble with grounders probably didn’t know and couldn’t have cared less about the toll such a public failure takes on a man who’d been a solid major league player for sixteen seasons through that World Series, with 2,464 major league hits to that point, not to mention a reputation as a student of the game.

Buckner may have been crazy to even think about playing with his ankles turned to cardboard as they were that fall (commentators waxed almost daily about the special high-top shoes he wore all postseason long), but others admired his courage for even thinking about it, never mind trying. Until he ambled over trying to field Wilson’s roller up toward first, bent down, and watched in horror as the ball skipped through his feet.

Never mind that after rain delayed Game Seven by a day, Red Sox lefthander Bruce Hurst continued his mastery of the Mets until the middle of the game, when—after Sid Fernandez worked two and a third relief innings and shut the Red Sox down cold in those innings—Keith Hernandez shot a pair of runs home and Gary Carter sent the tying run home to end the night for Hurst who finally ran out of fuel.

Never mind Ray Knight leading off the bottom of the seventh with a line homer and two more coming in. Never mind the Red Sox clawing back to within a run before Darryl Strawberry provided a much-needed insurance run with a leadoff skyrocket in the bottom of the eighth, or Jesse Orosco’s faked bunt sending a six-hop single up the middle to send home the eighth and final Met run. Or Orosco striking out Marty Barrett to end the Series.

For years to come it was all Buckner’s fault. Well, maybe it was manager McNamara’s fault, for letting sentiment overrule baseball and letting Buckner go back out to the field to have his warrior there when the Red Sox won it, instead of making his usual move and sending Dave Stapleton out for defense.

Almost three decades later a Mets manager, Terry Collins, let sentiment overrule baseball and let a gassed Matt Harvey go out to try to finish the Game Five shutout he’d started in the 2015 World Series. It cost the Mets a chance to send a World Series to a sixth game. But Collins owned the mistake, and still does. McNamara didn’t own it in 1986, and he still may not own it now.

Buckner once watched history made on his dime, sort of, being in left field for the Dodgers and running futilely to the track when Henry Aaron sent Al Downing’s service into the left field bullpen to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. In the 1986 World Series Buckner made the kind of history nobody wants to make and nobody tries to make.

If it happened in another uniform (except maybe the Cubs’, and possibly the Phillies’), he probably wouldn’t have suffered a sliver of the slings and arrows fired his way afterward. “When that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, “hundreds of thousands of people did not just view that as an error, they viewed that as something he had done to them personally.”

Buckner couldn’t bring himself to be part of the festivities when the Red Sox chose to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1986 pennant winner. But on Opening Day 2008, after the Red Sox won the second of their (so far) four 21st Century World Series, there was Buckner, walking out from under a huge American flag hanging over the Green Monster.

He had tears in his eyes when he walked to the mound and threw out a ceremonial first pitch to his old Red Sox teammate Dwight Evans. “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner told reporters later. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Not long before that, Buckner paid a visit to Shea Stadium. He spotted Mookie Wilson, then a Mets coach, on the field and hailed him. “Mookie,” Buckner called out puckishly, “what do you say you hit me some grounders?” Wilson, the human antidepressant, laughed heartily. Buckner’s face split into a mischievous grin. That must have been the same grin Buckner must been tempted to flash when he hit his final major league home run against the Angels, in Fenway Park as a returning Red Sox, on 25 April 1990.

It was an inside-the-park homer.

When Ralph Branca threw the pitch Bobby Thomson hit into the lower deck to win a pennant for the tainted (we now know) 1951 Giants at the end of a contentious three-game playoff, his family priest told the inconsolable Branca that God chose him to carry the burden because He knew Branca was made of stronger stuff. And he was.

“I lost a ballgame but I gained a friend,” Branca once said of Thomson and the friendship that would be soiled only when it was finally revealed, and proven, that Giants manager Leo Durocher did indeed implement a technological sign-stealing scheme to help the Giants deliver their staggering 1951 pennant race comeback.

Buckner and Wilson forged such a friendship, too, even as the pair frequently signed copies of photographs showing the ill-fated play, signings that are said to have been as therapeutic to Buckner as was moving to Idaho. They proved better men than the fools who wanted to make Buckner baseball’s Cain.

“Bill and I have become very, very close,” Wilson told a Philadelphia radio station a few years ago. “We’re really the best of friends. As good a friend as you can have . . . I think I’ve learned more about Bill since both of us have gotten out of the game . . . He is a great, great person. We enjoy each other’s company and we have a lot in common, a lot more than you would think. And it’s just been great.”

Someone should have told Buckner what Branca’s priest once told him. It might have given Buckner a little extra armour against the worst elements of Red Sox Nation and other baseball fans, and even writers. May the Lord accept Buckner into His embrace and grant him in the Elysian Fields the peace he wasn’t always allowed after the grounder heard ’round the world.