Postseason Fame vs. Infamy

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.

Anyone? Bueller?

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2 Responses to Postseason Fame vs. Infamy

  1. Chad says:

    Interestingly, one potential postseason goat that dodged that is nevertheless an eternal goat: one Fred Merkle, whose dropped foul pop-up in the bottom of the tenth inning of Game 8 of the 1912 World Series was at least as important, if not more so, than the fly ball that center fielder Fred Snodgrass dropped earlier that inning, but has been forever forgotten–Merkle, of course, is instead infamous for failing to touch second base after the winning run scored in a regular season game and thus being forced out, eventually costing the Giants the 1908 pennant.

    Still, looking back at your list of positive Boston memories reminds me of another goat that got away: Miguel Tejada. Trot would have never gotten the chance to have that pinch-hit walkoff homer in the eleventh if not for Miggy standing between third and home, arguing with the third base umpire that he should be awarded home plate due to fielder’s interference (a call that had been made in favor of the Red Sox earlier in the game, and in fact he had been awarded a base due to fielder’s interference–third base), and getting tagged out by Jason Varitek heading all the way up the line. As a Boston fan, I know that by all rights, Oakland should have swept us in that series, and due to that baserunning blunder of epic proportions, we were granted a chance to take Game 3 to extra innings and ended up turning the 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win.

    Also, while this one isn’t a player, I see another of his ilk among the list of names who were defined by something negative in the postseason, so I’ll take the effort to look him up, yes, I said look him up, because I can’t even remember who he is off-hand. For where better to look for an overlooked goat than a series that is best remembered for a game won by the team that lost the Series? Yes, I’m talking about 1975, which will forever be remembered for Carlton Fisk’s walkoff home run in Game 6 despite the fact that the Reds won the series in 7 games. The goat, of course, is umpire Larry Barnett, who was behind home plate for Game 3 and who never seems to get mentioned along with Denkinger, Ken Burkhart (behind-the-back phantom out call in Game 1 of the 1970 World Series), and Rich Garcia (the Jeffrey Maier home run). After Game 3 was tied 3-3 after nine innings, Cesar Geronimo singled to lead off the bottom of the tenth for the Reds, and an otherwise forgettable player named Ed Armbrister was called upon to try to bunt Geronimo over to second. Armbrister ended up bunting it almost straight into the ground, giving Fisk an easy play for the force at second or potentially even a double play, so Armbrister decided to not even bother running towards first and bumped into Fisk as he was trying to make the play, leading to a wild throw that went into second field; Armbrister ended up on second with Geronimo going to third. Barnett insisted that Armbrister was not guilty of batter’s interference. Geronimo would eventually score the winning run, and the Reds needed the full seven games to close out the series, so it definitely was a pivotal play. Fun fact: Barnett was also the home plate umpire in the aforementioned Jeffrey Maier game (Garcia, the one who gained infamy from that play, was the right field umpire).

    • Bryan says:

      I had no idea about Merkle’s other boner. Thanks for sharing. I read Joe Posnanski’s “The Machine” recently, so I did know about the Barnett thing, but I’m not sure umpires can be goats the same way players can. Villains, maybe, but not goats.

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