Commentary

Fates sealed in playoff infamy

Originally Published: October 13, 2010
By Jim Caple | Page 2

Baseball is filled with glorious nicknames. The Yankee Clipper. The Splendid Splinter. The Say-Hey Kid. The Sultan of Swat. Then there's Carl Frederick Rudolph Merkle's nickname: Bonehead.

Off Base

Fred Merkle played 16 seasons, had more than 1,500 hits and batted .300 one year, but the only thing he is remembered for is failing to touch second base on what should have been a game-winning hit that wound up costing the Giants the 1908 pennant. When he died 48 years later, this was the headline on his obituary in The New York Times:

"Giants 1st Baseman's 'Boner' in Failing to Touch 2nd Led to Loss of '08 Pennant"

In addition to being a sad sendoff for a man's departure from this world, I believe this may be the last time the word "boner" has been used in a New York Times headline.

Merkle played in five World Series and his team lost each one. He drove in a run in the top of the 10th inning to give his Giants a 2-1 lead over Boston in the deciding game of the 1912 World Series. But in the bottom of the inning, he let Tris Speaker's foul popup drop, allowing Speaker another chance. Speaker then singled home Clyde Engle with the game-tying run. But how did Engle get on base in the first place? Center fielder Fred Snodgrass dropped Engle's routine fly ball on what should have been the first out of the inning. Snodgrass made a great catch on the next play but it didn't matter. Boston scored two runs and beat the Giants. So when Snodgrass died 62 year later, this was the headline to his obituary in The New York Times:

"Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly."

That's the problem with playing in the postseason: The national spotlight occasionally shines directly in your eyes, blinding you like a deer caught in front of a pair of headlights. Deer, at least, only wind up as road kill. Ballplayers wind up on YouTube.

Merkle, Snodgrass, Ralph Branca, Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, umpire Don Denkinger … it doesn't matter what else they did in their careers, they all are remembered for their worst moment in the majors. This is especially unfair to Buckner, who hit .300 seven times, won a batting title and finished with 2,715 hits. Being remembered only for his one error is like Matt Damon only being remembered for "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

I bring this up, of course, because of Atlanta infielder Brooks Conrad. According to an MLB.com story, his parents named him after the best fielding third baseman of all time (Brooks Robinson). He's 30 years old, grew up in San Diego rooting for the Padres, played baseball at Arizona State, was picked by Houston in the eighth round of the 2001 draft, spent seven years in their minor league system (four at Triple-A Round Rock) before the Astros let him go after the 2007 season. He signed with Oakland, hit .158 for the Athletics in 2008, was let go again and signed with Atlanta in 2009. He hit .204 last year and .250 this year, and in May was named the major league Clutch Player of the Month (I bet you didn't even know there was such an award).

And then Sunday he made three errors in Game 3 of the Giants-Atlanta division series. His second error allowed the Giants to score their first run of the game. His third error allowed them to score what proved to be the game winner. He's the 11th player to make three errors in one postseason game (Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis made three errors in one inning in the 1966 World Series).

I'm a Giants fan, so I was delighted to see the run score, but I also felt awful for Conrad. My wife felt so sorry for him she brought up the subject the next day. "Don't you feel bad for him?" Yes. I do. His whole life has been about baseball since the moment his parents named him. He's endured years on long bus rides and cramped clubhouses in the minors. And the game has rewarded him with this. His errors are already on his Wikipedia page. If he's like Merkle and Snodgrass, he could carry this to the grave after he dies.

"Here Lies Brooks Conrad, Who Cost Bobby Cox His Last Chance to Reach the World Series (And Lose It Again)"

There is some hope, though. For one thing, Conrad's errors came in a division series game rather than a World Series game, which will lessen the infamy. Plus, his errors didn't cost a New York, Boston or Chicago team a championship, so Ken Burns won't focus on him in "Baseball: The 11th Inning."

Plus, he still has a chance to redeem himself. The beauty of baseball is it provides second chances. And if you make good on that second chance, people forget the earlier mistake. Consider Ralph Terry. Fifty years ago today, he gave up one of the most famous home runs in World Series history -- Bill Mazeroski's homer to win the 1960 World Series.

Two years later, Terry pitched a 1-0 shutout to win Game 7 of the 1962 World Series and was named the series MVP.

So cheer up, Brooks. It could work out for you yet. Just keep your chin up and your glove down. Oh, and you might want to work with Tom Emanski over the winter.

BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK

Tim Lincecum pitched one of the finest games in postseason history in his postseason debut (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 14 K) but it wasn't even the best game of the week because the previous day Roy Halladay pitched a no-hitter in his postseason debut to become the second pitcher in history to throw a postseason no-hitter. Halladay's line:

9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

Where do the Halladay and Lincecum games rank in postseason history? I heard one broadcaster I respect a lot say that they may have been in the top five. But people forget that there have been a lot of postseason games and a lot of fabulous pitching performances. In fact, there have been 127 shutouts in postseason history, including 28 in clinching games, 23 by 1-0 scores, 21 with 10 or more strikeouts and 15 in sudden-death games (Game 7s of seven-game series or Game 5s of five-game series). In addition to Don Larsen's perfect game, Bob Gibson's 17-strikeout Game 1 shutout in 1968, Jack Morris' 10-inning 1-0 shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and Roger Clemens' 15-strikeout one-hitter in the 2000 ALCS, here are five other superb postseason performances people often forget:

Mike Boddicker, 14K shutout, Game 2 1983 ALCS

Dave McNally, 11-inning 1-0 shutout, Game 2 1969 ALCS

Joe Coleman, 14K shutout, Game 3 1972 ALCS

Jim Lonborg, one-hit shutout, Game 2 1967 World Series

Mike Scott's 14K, 1-0 shutout, Game 1 1986 NLCS

Both Halladay and Lincecum were dazzling, but Halladay's no-hitter was something only one other pitcher has ever done in the postseason while many pitchers have had games similar to Lincecum's. Rather than worry too much over where they rank, however, let's just look forward to their Game 1 matchup against each other Saturday.

CSI: BOX SCORE

We now move into the postseason section of our game. For the next couple of weeks, these box score fragments will be from postseason games. That should make them a little easier to identify beginning with this one, which has a difficulty rating of 2.5.

BASEBALL CARD OF THE WEEK

Bill Mazeroski player card
ToppsMaz's home run for the ages was celebrated with the squirrels.

I always loved the World Series cards Topps made. This one (1961 Topps, No. 312) marks Bill Mazeroski's famous home run to win the 1960 World Series, hit 50 years ago today and still one of the greatest games in baseball history. What is interesting is that despite the 19 runs, the game took just 2:36 to play, just two minutes longer than Halladay's no-hitter last week. And because the game was played in the afternoon -- the first night World Series game wasn't played until 1971 -- that left Maz with a lot of time to celebrate before going to bed. So what did he do? He says he spent about two hours in the clubhouse, an hour with reporters and an hour or so with his teammates. Then he and his wife got in their car and drove to Pittburgh's Schenley Park, where they found themselves alone because everyone was downtown celebrating.

"The only people there were my wife and I sitting on the bench and we watched squirrels eating nuts," he remembers. "That was about it. We had to come down off of that high we were on, and that's how we did it. We just sat and watched squirrels eat nuts."

Maz, by the way, says he enjoys hunting squirrel. He says he uses a .22 rifle and needs to hit the squirrel in the head to avoid ruining the meat. He's 74 and able to hit a squirrel in the head with a .22 bullet. Obviously, he still has superb hand-eye coordination.

CSI: BOX SCORE ANSWER

You should have recognized this as the box score from the game Mazeroski hit his series-winning home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, played 50 years ago today. Give yourself extra points if you noticed something unusual in the pitching lines. No pitcher on either team struck out a batter. That's the only time neither team had a strikeout in a postseason game. There have been eight other games in the postseason in which one of the two teams didn't have a strikeout, including Game 3 of that 1960 series.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at jimcaple.


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