Brooks Conrad fumbles way into history
Three errors in NLDS Game 3 loss to the Giants likely won't ever be forgotten
ATLANTA -- By rule, baseball is a game with winners and losers, and as time goes by and memory fades, history always looks kindly at the winners, and mostly forgets the losers. There are times, though, when a team, or individual, does something so memorable in defeat that it is cursed to be remembered forever.
Who knows what went through Brooks Conrad's mind as he paced near second base moments after he had made a crucial ninth-inning error? It was his third of the game, leading to a 3-2 loss for the Atlanta Braves and shifting the series into the San Francisco Giants' favor as they now hold a 2-1 lead. With the sounds of a sold-out crowd's boos ringing in his ears, and the frustration of an entire city, and team, thrust upon him, the moment was made to last longer as Bobby Cox had immediately made a pitching change after the gaffe. While reliever Kyle Farnsworth warmed up on the mound, Conrad stood alone in shallow right field and bowed his head. First baseman Derrek Lee went over to offer a few words and patted him on the back.
"There's probably nothing he really wanted to hear, and there was not much you can say," said Lee, whose words for Conrad were so insignificant that he couldn't even remember what he said.
So Lee immediately walked away and left Conrad to his thoughts.
But most undeniable, and quite unfortunate, at that moment was that Conrad will now be lumped among the losers, the Ralph Brancas, the Bill Buckners, the Leon Durhams, players whose careers will be defined by mistakes during a postseason time when heroes are made and villains are shunned, and never forgotten. And there is no mistaking that at this point the second baseman is considered a villain as Braves fans even booed one of Conrad's highlights on the big screen.
"It's a whole lot to swallow, but I'll do my best to get over it," Conrad said. "I probably won't for a long time. If ever."
If there is any indication of the long-lasting nature of Conrad's infamy -- made even more memorable because it had come only moments after Eric Hinske's dramatic pinch-hit, two-run home run had given Atlanta a 2-1 lead -- less than an hour after the end of Sunday's game, his Wikipedia entry had already been updated to reflect the events of Game 3. It would have been bad enough had Conrad's night consisted of just that one mistake in the ninth. There were others.
In the first inning, with Andres Torres at first base, Freddy Sanchez hit a hard ground ball to Conrad, whose indecision about whether to turn a double play resulted in both runners being safe. Braves starter Tim Hudson managed to scramble out of that mess. But in the second inning, with Mike Fontenot at third, Cody Ross hit a popup to short right field, which Conrad dropped, scoring the first Giants run. Then while trying to sacrifice Alex Gonzalez to second base with the Braves down one run and with no outs in the eighth, Conrad popped up a bunt to third base.
"The bottom line, I gotta play better than I've shown out there," Conrad said. "Like I said, I'm embarrassed."
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And yet what history won't likely point out is that Conrad shouldn't even have been in that position. Conrad, an eighth-round pick of the Houston Astros in 2001, is in the Atlanta starting lineup only because of Chipper Jones' and Martin Prado's injuries. Ideally for Atlanta, Conrad would be the 25th man on the roster, if he was even going to be on the roster at all.
Conrad was a longtime minor leaguer with a decent bat who was not given a chance to play in the majors until 2008 because he was considered a defensive liability. Yet admirably he had carved out a career for himself as a utility player, and had even provided Atlanta one of the most memorable moments of its season this year when he hit a pinch-hit grand slam in July against the Florida Marlins. Conrad's inclusion on the postseason roster should have been celebrated as a testament to his persistence.
"This should be the time of his life," teammate Matt Diaz said.
Instead, a crowd of reporters hovered near his locker even before Conrad had arrived. It's the job of the reporters in that locker room to question, to observe, to, well, report even in the uncomfortable circumstances when players fail with either a bad at-bat or a bad pitch. But this felt worse. This was like a group of vultures preying on the unfortunate, and nobody, not Conrad, not his teammates, and not even the reporters themselves, was likely to feel any satisfaction with what the interview wrought.
"There's not one play he made that cost us the game," backup catcher David Ross said. "If a pitcher makes a better pitch, if we don't walk a guy, if we do better earlier in the game, we don't get to that position. We would not have been in this position without him. Brooks Conrad didn't lose us this game."
It's a whole lot to swallow, but I'll do my best to get over it. I probably won't for a long time. If ever.” -- Brooks Conrad
Several teammates observed the whole scene near Conrad's locker. First-base coach Glenn Hubbard dressed at his locker, but snuck a few peeks at the reporters near Conrad, and shook his head and pursed his lips in apparent anger. But there was nothing he could do. Conrad made the mistakes and had to answer the questions. But it didn't mean anyone had to like it.
"We love the guy to death," Jones said. "He deserves better than what happened to him."
And yet there is the harsh reality that Conrad is a professional baseball player, on a playoff team, in a key situation, who has to make plays. Teammates are counting on him. And though nobody said it, if you read in between the lines, there were some who implied that Conrad needs to be mentally tougher and overcome the eight errors that he's made in the past seven games. The Braves desperately need him, and he has failed.
"This time of the year, you have to have that pulse that never wavers," Jones said. "When the chips are down, you have to be calm and want the ball hit to you."
Clearly, Conrad isn't that person right now.
"I feel like I let everybody down," Conrad said. "I wish I could dig a hole and sleep in there."
Conrad said he did not want a day off on Monday, but the infielder's fate falls completely on Cox, who was noncommittal after the game on whether Conrad will start in Game 4 -- or any other game for that matter.
"I'll have to sleep on it," Cox said.
The Braves managed a tiny two-out rally in the ninth inning when Brian McCann reached base on an infield single. The Atlanta bench cheered loudly, except for Conrad, who remained quiet and inconsolable. When Conrad had gotten into the dugout at the end of the top of the ninth, not one teammate had spoken to him. A few trainers had said a few words, but really, again, what could anyone say, especially in that situation when there was still a game to win.
For most of the bottom half of the inning, Conrad stood near the bottom step of the middle of the dugout. McCann's single had brought up the possibility that Conrad might hit in the inning. So as the Braves pinch ran for McCann, Conrad went to the bat rack and grabbed his bat and helmet and watched Nate McLouth's at-bat.
But McLouth, on a 2-2 pitch, hit a harmless ground ball to second base -- the place where Conrad had anguished -- which Sanchez effortlessly, harmlessly and flawlessly handled for the final out of the game.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.