Mistakes don’t equal murder

Will Craig, Javier Baez

Will Craig, after taking the errant throw pulling him down the first base line and into unexpected infamy . . .

“I guess I’m going to be on the blooper reels for the rest of my life,” said Pirates first baseman Will Craig last Friday, before the team’s game with the Rockies was postponed by rain. And, the day after Cubs shortstop Javier Baez deked him and his into a third-inning rundown that looked like the year’s funniest television moment in the moment.

It wasn’t all that funny in retrospect when Joe and Jane Fan plus Joke and Jerk Sportswriter/Talk Show Commentator started painting Craig as though he flunked the casting calls for Howard the Duck.

“It all boils down to me losing my brain for a second,” the 26-year-old Craig continued. “I take full responsibility for it and now will just try to keep moving forward. I know I’m a good defensive player and I can do a lot of good things on that side of the ball.”

The snarky side might suggest Craig and the Pirates who collaborated with him on the season’s most surrealistically slapstick play thus far handled things like men who’d learned their infield basics from the 1962 Mets.

Observing his coming place on eternity’s blooper reels indicates Craig—who won a Triple-A Gold Glove during his minor league life—has at least the sense of humour those ancient Mets needed just to get through that first calamitous season without losing their marble. Singular.

Maybe, too, the fact that neither the Pirates nor the Rockies look destined to reach this year’s postseason works in Craig’s favour. If he’d suffered last Thursday’s mishap in a postseason game, especially a World Series game, Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk alike would do everything in their power to make the rest of his baseball life—and maybe his life life—a living death.

Baez batted with two out and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras aboard in the top of the third, with the Cubs ahead 1-0. Baez whacked a sharp ground ball to Pirates third baseman Erik Gonzalez. He picked the ball cleanly. Then, he threw to first well enough off line to pull Craig forward, several feet down the line and in front of the pillow.

Craig had only to tag Baez or touch first for inning over. Then Baez got cute. Enough to break Craig’s concentration and prior knowledge for just long enough.

With about three feet between himself and Craig, he hit the brakes and went about-face back toward the plate, with Craig chasing him down the line instead of thinking about just tagging first. This is the kind of thinking lapse to which major league rookies are prone—even those with outstanding defensive reps in the minors, as Craig had—and into which even grizzled veterans can and do get caught sinking.

Contreras kept gunning it all the way home. Craig flipped to catcher Michael Perez. Contreras slid under the tag and Baez took off back to first. Perez threw past second baseman Adam Frazier looking to cover the base and Baez hit the afterburners for second.

I’m still trying to fathom how Craig ended up the sole goat on the play. Why does he wear the horns alone, when Gonzalez’s off-line throw started the whole megillah in the first place? Why does he wear the horns alone, when Perez threw well past first instead of bagging Baez there?

Baez basically had second on the house and the Cubs had a 2-0 lead. It became 3-0 when Cubs center fielder Ian Happ dumped a quail into short right center on which Baez with a good jump scored.

The official scoring on the play, according to Baseball-Reference, reads thus: Javier Baez—Reached on E3 (catch) (Ground Ball to Weak 3B to 3B); Contreras Scores/No RBI/unER; Baez out at 2B/Adv on E2 (throw).

Where were the Pirates to cover their rookie mate’s head and hide? Committing a pair of chargeable errors, that’s where. Where were the Pirates in the dugout to remind Craig in the immediate moment, step on first? Maybe they were as dumbstruck as everybody else in PNC Park when the thing began to unfurl. Maybe.

At least Craig’s manager had his post-game back. “He made a mistake and that’s it,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “You don’t option a guy [to the minors] because of the fact he made a mistake. We make mistakes in all realms of life. It just happened to be something nobody’s ever seen before.”

I didn’t mention the 1962 Mets just to be cute. Writing Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? about that embryonic troupe, Jimmy Breslin swore the Mets infield lapsed almost likewise in the eighth inning of the first game of a doubleheader with the Cardinals.

Yes, I saw those Mets. They had Who the Hell was on First, What the Hell was on Second, You Didn’t Want To Know Who was on third, and You Didn’t Even Want To Think About It at shortstop. If it could have happened to anybody in the past, those Mets were them.

Breslin swore first baseman Marv Throneberry—the Original Mets’ original super-anti-hero—got so caught up trying to catch Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer in a rundown (they had Boyer cold, according to Breslin) that he and fellow Met infielders Rod Kanehl and Charley Neal forgot about Hall of Famer Stan Musial on third—to Musial’s slack-jawed amazement, before The Man shot home with what proved the winning run.

That was Breslin’s story. I had to be a spoilsport and look it up. I looked at every game log involving the first games in every doubleheader between the Mets and the Cardinals in 1962. They played three doubleheaders against each other that year. That play never happened.

There ain’t much good you can write about us, but I don’t see where that gives people the right to make stuff up, lamented Hell’s Angels president Sonny Barger about their notoriety in the mid-to-late 1960s. All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?

The ’62 Mets may not have pulled a mental mistake quite as grave as Craig’s, not against the Cardinals, anyway, but that didn’t give Breslin any more right to misremember than it gives Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk the right to make Craig resemble the most blundering bonehead on the block this side of . . .

No, we’re not going to exhume Bill Buckner’s corpse. Or John McNamara’s. Or those of Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Johnny Pesky, Charlie Dressen, Ralph Branca, Casey Stengel, Gene Mauch, Willie Davis, Dick Williams, Curt Flood, Tommy Lasorda, or Donnie Moore.

We’re not going to haul the still-living among Tom Niedenfuer, Don Denkinger, Mitch Williams, Dusty Baker, Grady Little, Buck Showalter, Matt Weiters, the ’64 Phillies, the ’69 Cubs (and every Cub from the [Theodore] Roosevelt Administration through the Obama Administration), the ’78 Red Sox, the ’07 Mets, the ’17 Nationals, and maybe every St. Louis Brown who ever walked the face of the earth, before the court, either—kangaroo or otherwise.

They failed despite their efforts, often as not in baseball’s most broiling hours. They suffered momentary lapses of eyes, ears, and minds, too, and with a lot more at stake than what’ll yet prove a meaningless game between two National League bottom feeders.

Joe, Jane, Joke, and Jerk still don’t get what Thomas Boswell (whose pending retirement will still be a loss to baseball wisdom) wrote upon Moore’s 1989 suicide:

Nobody will ever be able to prove that the haunting memory of giving up Dave Henderson’s home run in the 1986 American League playoffs led Moore to commit suicide. Maybe, someday, we’ll learn about some other possible cause. [Alas, we did.–JK.] But right now, what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this “goat” business isn’t funny anymore . . .

The flaw in our attitude—perhaps it is even an American predisposition with Puritan roots—is to equate defeat with sin. The unspoken assumption is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.

Rookies make mistakes. Well-seasoned veterans make mistakes, even if they’ll be misremembered by even the funniest and sharpest reporters. Even managers who win ten pennants and seven World Series (including five straight to open) in twelve years make mistakes—the way Hall of Famer Casey Stengel did, when he failed to plot his pitching to allow his Hall of Famer Whitey Ford three instead of two 1960 World Series starts.

Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski and his Pirates still say thank you. Ford steamed quietly about it for years, until Stengel finally apologised to his old lefthander and earned Ford’s forgiveness. (Remember that when you think of a certain fan base’s unspoken motto, To err is human, to forgive must never be Yankee policy.)

Rookies and veterans alike also have things unexpected happen to them that turn routine plays into disasters you’d think made Hurricane Katrina seem like just a bathroom pipe break, the way Joe, Jane, Jerk, and Joke paint the poor souls.

Lucky for Craig that he does have that sense of humour about it. He’s already proven he’s made of better stuff than his critics and howlers, which doesn’t take all that much.

Put a meal and a stewardess on that flip

You’re not seeing things. That’s Willson Contreras’s bat in flight after the Cubs’ DH sent a three-run homer about that high en route the right field bleachers Friday night.

If you’re taking tallies to determine the bat flip of the year, Chicago Cubs designated hitter Willson Contreras should be among your top finalists. His Friday night flip in the ballpark formerly known as Comiskey Park, in the top of the third, was an absolute work of art. Enough to make Tim Anderson, Jose Bautista, Bryce Harper, and Tom Lawless resemble nursery school finger painters.

If you’re taking concurrent tallies to determine the most brain-damaged delayed over-reaction to Dali-esque flips, Chicago White Sox pitcher Jimmy Cordero should hold a place among the finalists likewise. He threw a pair of high inside pitches to Contreras and the second caught Contreras flush enough in the back, just off the C that begins the spelling of Contreras’s surname on his uniform back.

Flipped his bat high in the air? Contreras’s flip off the three-run homer he smashed on White Sox starter Dylan Cease (and Desist)’s dollar was the only flip yet where you were tempted to say what you used to holler watching a titanic home run fly out: “Put a meal and a stewardess on that one!”

If you’re going to be Fun Police enough to want retribution for a bat flip that looked as though it took off from O’Hare International and not Contreras’s hands, the time to go for it was Contreras’s next plate appearance in the top of the fifth. Cease walked Contreras on ball one up and a little in, ball two up and away, ball three inside middle, and ball four down and away.

There was no way Cease wanted to feed Contreras anything resembling the fastball that arrived just off the middle of the plate and flew the other way into the right field bleachers two innings earlier.

There was also no way Cease was trying to throw one through Contreras’s assorted anatomy, even if you could make a case that ball one up and in might have been a subtle nastygram reminding Contreras it’s not nice to channel your inner Michelangelo when you’ve already hit a ball through the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Might.

Maybe Cease got it when Contreras defended himself after the game. “I’m not going to change anything,” he told reporters. “I play hard for my team. I always want to do the best for my team. But if they don’t like me, that’s fine. I don’t play for other teams to like me, anyways. And if I have to do it again, I will do it again.”

But there was every way the White Sox—clinchers of a postseason berth at least, hopefuls toward snatching the American League Central title, even in this pandemic-truncated season of surreal—were feeling just a little over-punished on the night.

You tend to feel that way when Yu Darvish and company are shutting you out, Darvish not quite so nail driving as he’s been most of this season—during which he’s redeemed himself to the tenth power and into the Cy Young Award conversation—but effective enough to keep you to three hits and one walk and only two runners getting as far as second base under his command.

You feel even more that way, after Contreras’s bomb flip put the Cubs up 4-0 and Javier Baez’s leadoff launch over the left center field wall made it 5-0 in the top of the fourth, after Victor Caratini wrestled your relief option Gio Gonzalez to a seventh-pitch sinker that didn’t have enough weight to pull it quite to the bottom, and Caratini sunk it into the same bleachers Contreras reached three innings earlier. Not to mention Kyle Schwarber’s second-inning blast, making for the Cubs a four-bomb evening.

“The dog ate his homework,” pleaded White Sox skipper Rick Renteria. “Detention!” replied the umps.

When Contreras got drilled, the Cubs got riled. They hollered mightily from their dugout, enough to get the umpires into a confab that resulted in Cordero, White Sox manager Rick Renteria, and pitching coach Don Cooper the rest of the night off for bad behaviour.

Renteria tried the dog-ate-my-homework excuse after the game. A second-grade child had a better chance of making it stick. “The ball got away from him,” he insisted of Cordero’s cone job. “We couldn’t convince [the umpire] of that . . . There was no warning. They just gathered and ejected him.” As if a second straight up-and-in pitch was inadmissible evidence.

Cordero tried the same excuse. “It was just a bad pitch, a bad pitch to him,” he said after the game. “The ball sunk a lot, and that happened.” Sorry. Attempted sinkers that rise enough to get a man in the back don’t sunk a lot. Detention for you.

Understand that Cubs manager David Ross is just old school enough that it wasn’t programmed into his own playing software to deliver as Contreras did after hitting a hefty home run. But the man whose first major league home run came off an ex-Cubs first baseman named Mark Grace in Arizona late in a blowout, and whose last major league home run put the Cubs up by three in an eventual World Series-winning Game Seven, wouldn’t throw his man under the proverbial bus for his exuberance.

“It wasn’t to disrespect the other group,” Ross told reporters after the Cubs finished what they started, a 10-0 shut-and-blowout. “It was because we’ve been struggling offensively and he brought some swagger. He brought some edge. I loved every second of it. I don’t think he deserved to get hit at all.”

Why, Grandpa Rossy even had the pleasant audacity of comparing Contreras’s orbital flip to the one Anderson delivered a year ago April. When Anderson ripped Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller’s canteloupe over the fence and made of his bat a helicopter rotor while he was at it, got drilled in the rump roast by Keller his next time up, and objected vociferously. Drawing his teammates out of the dugout, getting both Keller and Anderson ejected by Country Joe West—who may or may not have remembered Anderson zapping him over an unwarranted ejection the previous season.

“All the hype is on the guy on the other side when he bat-flipped, right?” said Ross. “I thought Tim Anderson’s bat flip last year where he flipped it and looked in his dugout, that’s what you want. That’s what Willson did.”

Making the White Sox resemble hypocritical flip-floppers is also what Willson did. Their Andersons can flip until the flock flies home, but the opposing flock better not even think about it. The Fun Police are now reduced to the dog eating their homework. The dog looks better than the White Sox.