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Memorable missteps

10/7/2003 - Oakland Athletics

In baseball, some numbers are known, some are not, and the meaning of most can be debated. But there's one number everyone knows and agrees with: three. Three outs and you're gone. Period. The end. All runners cancelled, all theories moot, all probabilities zero. That number must, in any rational evaluation of the game, dominate planning.
--Eric Walker
"The Sinister First Baseman," 1982

Strange how in writing the post mortem for the 2003 Oakland A's we must evoke the passage that in many ways started it all. The above words, written by a Bay Area NPR correspondent named Eric Walker, so intrigued Sandy Alderson upon his arrival in Oakland that he retained Walker as a team consultant for most of the next two decades. It was Walker's philosophies that provided the bridge for Alderson's respect for Earl Weaver -- "Your most precious possessions on offense are your 27 outs" -- and the sweeping protect-your-outs doctrine that not only resurrected the A's (twice) but has since influenced the entire sport.

Ironically, it was also the approach the A's forgot these last three days against Boston, squandering their season and perhaps their lasting legacy. They protected their outs at the plate by drawing walks, yes. They protected them in steal situations by not stealing. But they frittered away a half-dozen opportunities with baserunning blunders, many of them ending key innings with the most unforgiving out of them all: the third.

Miguel Tejada not running through an obstruction call and Eric Byrnes missing home plate Saturday night were the most sensational screwups, but more elemental others flew under the radar. With the A's down 2-1 in the fourth inning of Game 4, Jose Guillen tried to advance from first to third on a single and was thrown out by Johnny Damon, dousing a rally. Monday night found two similar ill-advised gambits that ended innings: With two out in the fourth, Guillen doubled to score Scott Hatteberg but was gunned down trying to stretch it into a triple; the seventh was cut short the same way when Jermaine Dye, watching the Damon-Damian Jackson collision, tried to stretch his single into a double but was thrown out by Nomar Garciaparra. These extra outs helped tick away Oakland's clock until it rang midnight.

At least for now, the story of the 2003 Oakland A's will be their commission of the greatest concentration of costly baserunning mistakes we've ever seen. Does any of them rank among the all-time worst? As if A's fans don't have enough to argue about right now, here is their competition, the 10 most celebrated baserunning blunders in baseball history:

10. Herb Washington, 1974
It seems fitting we should start out with an Oakland Athletic. A world-class sprinter who hadn't played baseball since high school, Washington was signed by renegade Oakland owner Charlie Finley before the 1974 season exclusively to pinch-run. Washington didn't do that particularly well, getting caught 16 times in 45 stolen-base attempts. But then he really messed up when it counted most. In Game 2 of the World Series against the Dodgers, with one out in the top of the ninth inning and Oakland trailing by just one run, 3-2, Washington pinch-ran for Joe Rudi at first base. Mike Marshall promptly picked him off. One Angel Mangual strikeout later and the game was over.

9. Lou Brock, 1968
One of the greatest World Series performers ever, and in the midst of batting .464 with seven steals in the 1968 Fall Classic, Brock made one mistake that seriously hurt his Cardinals' chances for a championship. In the fifth inning of Game 5, with St. Louis up 3-1 in games and 3-2 in score, Brock chose not to slide into home on Julian Javier's single to left, and was tagged for the second out by Detroit catcher Bill Freehan. The Cardinals never scored in Game 5 again, losing 5-3, and lost the next two games as well to lose the World Series.

8. Lyn Lary, 1931
Thanks to the wizards at Retrosheet, we know why Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth only tied for the American League home run championship in 1931. On April 26 against the Senators, Gehrig hit a home run to center field that happened to bounce back onto the field. Lary, on first with two out, thought the ball was caught, didn't run, and was passed by Gehrig, forcing the umpire to call Gehrig out and the scorekeeper to give him only a single. Gehrig wound up at the end of the year tied with Ruth at 46 homers. Other notable passing-baserunner blunders: Joe Adcock lapping Hank Aaron after hitting an all-but home run to win Harvey Haddix's (formerly) perfect game, and Tim McCarver losing a grand slam on the Bicentennial (July 4, 1976) when he passed Garry Maddox.

7. Charlie Brown, 1974
With Snoopy one away from Babe Ruth's record 714 home runs and at the plate in the ninth inning of the last game, Charlie Brown gets picked off second base to end the season. Linus dubs Charlie Brown "the goat of goats." Snoopy demands a trade.

6. Babe Ruth, 1926
Back to reality. ... Down 3-2 in the deciding seventh game of the 1926 World Series against the Cardinals, Ruth drew a walk with two out in the bottom of the ninth. As cleanup man Bob Meusel -- a .315 hitter that season -- prepared to keep the rally going, Ruth broke for second, trying to steal. He was summarily nailed by Cards catcher Bob O'Farrell. Series over.

5. Phil Stephenson, 1982
Tough to rank Stephenson as a goat, but he was the victim of Miami's "Grand Illusion" play that helped win the Hurricanes the 1982 College World Series. Down 4-3 in the sixth, Stephenson, Wichita State's top player, danced off first base, threatening to steal. Miami pitcher Mike Kasprzak stepped off the rubber and fired a pickoff throw -- or so it seemed. As Miami fielders and even the Hurricane ballgirls pretended as if the throw had gotten away and was bouncing out toward right field, Stephenson reflexively took off for second. But Kasprzak had never thrown the ball -- he instead tossed it calmly to shortstop Billy Wrona, who tagged out Stephenson to kill the rally. The Shockers never scored again.

4. Babe Herman, 1926
Lovable losers during this period, the Dodgers were known for their bizarre behavior, much of it belonging to weird but otherwise talented rookie outfielder Babe Herman. He came to the plate on Aug. 15, 1926 with the bases loaded -- Hank DeBerry on third, Dazzy Vance on second and Chick Fewster on first -- and hit a shot off the short right-field wall. DeBerry scored easily, but Vance got tied up between third and home and headed back to third. There he found Fewster. None of this seemed to faze Herman, who kept running and slid into third. Herman was out for passing Fewster, who in the confusion stepped off the suddenly crowded base and was called out himself. For years afterward, when anyone mentioned that the Dodgers had loaded the bases, wisenheimers would follow: "Which base?"

3. Jeremy Giambi, 2001
With his A's one win away from taking the American League Division Series and down 1-0 to the Yankees in Game 3, Giambi led off the seventh inning with a single. Terrence Long hit a double to right. Shane Spencer overthrew two cutoff men as Giambi rounded third, but as the ball bounded aimlessly, shortstop Derek Jeter came out of nowhere to grab and shovel-pass it to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged out a stunned Giambi -- who didn't slide. The A's lost the game by the same 1-0 score and lost the next two for their most heartbreaking series defeat ever. Until Monday night, that is.

2. Fred Merkle, 1908
This is the granddaddy of all baserunning blunders, though it might also be the most forgivable. A 19-year-old rookie in 1908, Merkle's Giants were dueling the Cubs for the pennant as the two met on Sept. 23. The score stood 1-1 entering the bottom of the ninth when the Giants rallied, Merkle's two-out single sending a runner to third. Al Bridwell then singled to center, ostensibly scoring the winning run, but Merkle -- following convention at the time -- jogged off the field without touching second. Knowing this was against the rules, if not practice, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers procured a ball (no one quite knows where it came from during the confusion) and stepped on second base, disallowing the run. The game later ended in a dark-shortened tie, and wound up needing to be replayed two weeks later when the Cubs and Giants finished the season tied for first. The Giants lost the rematch and the pennant as Merkle became baseball's most famous goat. "Merkle's Boner," as the play became known, wound up overshadowing what was otherwise a fine career.

1. Lonnie Smith, 1991
Everyone remembers Game 7 of the 1991 World Series as the game in which Minnesota's Jack Morris outdueled Atlanta in 10 innings to win 1-0. What some forget is that he got some help from the Braves, particularly Smith. With no score in the top of the eighth, Smith led off with a single and was running with Morris' pitch when Terry Pendleton drove it off the wall in left-center. Smith, confused as to where the ball was, hesitated rounding second and therefore reached only third, where he was ultimately stranded thanks to a groundout and a double play. "I made the mistake of not looking in when I started running," Smith later explained. "If I saw the ball off the bat, there's a good chance I could have scored. But I didn't see it. I didn't take that look in. That's my mistake." Had Smith scored, the Braves probably would have won that game 1-0 and the World Series, setting a completely different tone for their success ever since.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.