Brooks Conrad was probably the best player on every Little League team he ever played for: the most dominant pitcher, the most feared hitter, and if needed, the most capable defensive second baseman. He was probably the best player in his high school (even in competitive San Diego) and one of the best players on his college team (even at Arizona State). He must have been a standout player at the low minor league levels to spend so much of the last few years shuttling between triple A and the big leagues. He realized what one would assume to be some of his lifelong dreams this year by spending most of the season on the Braves active roster, hitting two walk-off grand slams, and making the playoffs. Brooks Conrad is probably a better athlete than anyone you or I know personally. And he’s probably better at his job than most people you and I know.
Sadly, after last night’s three errors, two of which were particularly costly in the Braves’ 3-2 loss to San Francisco in game 3 of the NLDS, Brooks Conrad will probably be remembered for generations as the guy who couldn’t hold onto a baseball long enough to get Bobby Cox one last series win.
What I’ve been thinking about today is not so much what a doofus Cox was for putting Conrad at second base (he didn’t have many better options), not what a shame it is that such an awful thing would happen to someone who most likely doesn’t deserve it, but whether Conrad has a chance to dodge what looks like the inevitably notoriety that would come from his role in the Braves losing a series they could have won. I’m looking for a little historical perspective.
For most of the past decade, there were two players in Major League Baseball named Alex Gonzalez, and both were shortstops (a third plays second base in the Rangers’ farm system right now). The elder Alex Gonzalez (who last played for the Phillies in 2006) is best known for booting the potential double play grounder that probably contributed more to the demise of the 2003 Cubs than Steve Bartman grabbing the second out of the inning out of Moises Alou’s hands a few minutes earlier. The younger Alex Gonzalez (who currently plays for the Braves) is best known for hitting a walk-off home run off Yankees’ starter-cum-reliever Jeff Weaver in the 12th inning of game 4 of the World Series later that month.
While one would like to think that a walk-off in the World Series, particularly from a player on the team that goes on to win the series, would be more memorable than an error in the Championship Series, it seems to me that the name “Alex Gonzalez” conjures more memories of the Cubs’ shortstop’s error. A Google search for “Alex Gonzalez 2003” confirms this assumption, returning three articles about the Cub before the first mention of the Marlin. Score one for infamy.
The Red Sox are another study in postseason fame vs. infamy. In postseason play since 1986, the Sox have played in 20 postseason series and won 10. Highlights from the ten series victories include Dave Henderson’s homer off Donnie Moore in ’86, Pedro’s no-hit relief outing against Cleveland in ’99, Trot Nixon’s homer and Derek Lowe’s save against Oakland in ’03, David Ortiz’s back-to-back walk-off hits, Dave Roberts’s steal, Mark Bellhorn’s ALCS and World Series homers, and Keith Foulke’s bullpen dominance in ’04, and JD Drew’s grand slam against Cleveland in ’07. Not a bad run of positive memories.
Now let’s look at the losing memories. Mookie Wilson’s grounder through Bill Buckner’s legs in ’86, Chuck Knoblauch’s phantom tag of Jose Offerman in ’99 (thanks to umpire Tim Tschida), Grady Little keeping Pedro in the game two batters too long in ’03, Papelbon’s meltdown in ’09.
I would argue that the two most powerful memories here are Buckner and Grady, with Roberts’s steal pretty close. But this isn’t precisely my point. Bad memories overwhelming good ones might be more of a Boston thing than a baseball thing. Let’s ask it another way. If I read off the names Dave Henderson, Trot Nixon, Mark Bellhorn, Keith Foulke, and JD Drew, would single postseason moments be the first things to come to mind? Ortiz, of course, is best known for coming through in the clutch in the regular- and postseasons, and Roberts may be the exception to the rule. But the rest of these guys are known for being good-to-great players who happened to have some postseason success. The names on the other end though- particularly Bill Buckner and Grady Little- are names that Boston has had a hard time forgiving, names that will live forever in the lore of Boston baseball futility, even years after the supposed curse ended.
Leon Durham. Don Denkinger. Donnie Moore. Mitch Williams. Jose Mesa. Steve Bartman. Javier Vazquez. Joel Zumaya. These are names that anger up the blood of one team’s fan base, whether they deserved it or not, and reglardless of how successful the rest of their careers might have been.
Of course, there’s a litany of names baseball fans will never forget because of something positive they did in the postseason. Bill Mazeroski. Chris Chambliss. Jack Morris. Sid Bream. Joe Carter. Scott Spiezio. Cole Hamels. There are others like George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Mariano Rivera, and Manny Ramirez, who are known for great postseason moments, but whose regular season accomplishments were impressive enough that their legacies will be colored as much in numbers as in snapshots.
My gut feeling is that, for a relatively unknown baseball player, a notable postseason miscue will live longer and define a career more than a notable postseason heroic moment. I may be wrong though.
Here’s a challenge to my readers: name a Brooks Conrad I’ve forgotten. Who made a particularly embarrassing postseason mistake (or several) that looked like it might afford him a good deal of notoriety, but for one reason or another, didn’t come to be defined by that mistake? I’m not talking about Mariano Rivera blowing a few postseason saves in the middle of a legendary career. I’m looking for otherwise lesser-known players who dodged the bullet Brooks Conrad would love to dodge.