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October 7, 2011

The BP Broadside

The ALDS Goat Remains Masked and Anonymous

by Steven Goldman

In his second postseason as a starter, the 1952 World Series, Brooklyn first baseman Gil Hodges had a miserable time. In seven games he went 0-for-21 with five walks and one RBI. The Dodgers lost to the Yankees in seven games, and Hodges was the official goat. Hodges played in another four World Series and he never had another bad one, hitting .337 with four home runs in 26 games, yet he never did stop hearing about what happened in ’52, and that terrible series may have helped keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

There have been other goats, like Fred Snodgrass in 1912, Hack Wilson in 1929, Ernie Lombardi—very unfairly—in 1939 (ever since it has been argued whether Charlie Keller kicked him in the head or in the groin, as if one or the other was somehow preferable), Mickey Owen in 1941, Dave Winfield in 1981, Bill Buckner in 1986—and perhaps Alex Rodriguez in the 2011 American League Divisional Series between the Yankees and the Tigers.

I think about the “Snodgrass Muff” a lot because, like “Merkle’s Boner,” it’s a good example of how unfair life can be. “Snow” supposedly cost the Giants the 1912 World Series against the Red Sox—the last World Series the Sox ever won, you’d think, from the way folks are carrying on this year—but he was only a contributor. The two teams were playing the eighth game of a seven-game series, a previous game having ended in a tie, at Fenway Park. It was the bottom of the 10th inning. The Giants had just gone up 2-1 in the top of the frame by scoring an impossible run against Smoky Joe Wood, on in relief. Christy Mathewson was still in for the Giants.

Wood, a very good hitter (after his arm went, he had a five-year career as an outfielder, hitting .298/.376/.433) was due to lead off, but at that moment he couldn’t grip the bat, having ended the Giants’ rally by stopping a line drive with his pitching hand. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle came up instead. A utility infielder, Engle wasn’t much of a hitter, and Mathewson induced him to hit a weak fly to center field. Snodgrass settled under it… and simply dropped it. Engle reached second by the time that Snodgrass got the ball back in.

The Giants expected the next batter, Sox leadoff man and future Hall of Famer Harry Hooper, to bunt Engle to third, so Snodgrass wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next: Hooper swung away and cracked a line drive to deep center. Snodgrass raced back to deep left center and caught the ball over his shoulder, a play that was, according to reports, every bit as good as the previous one had been bad. Engle tagged and scampered to third base. Nothing had happened yet. There was one out and a runner on third, Giants leading 2-1, a not terribly threatening hitter, second baseman Steve Yerkes, at the plate.

Here’s where things got weird. My sense of their painful strangeness may have been exacerbated by reading about the aftermath of this moment in one of the few truly great baseball novels, Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s The Celebrant, in which it is a central event, but even without the intercession of literature the moment would be an exceedingly odd one given the players involved—the great Mathewson, catcher Chief Myers, and first baseman Fred Merkle, who had already had enough trouble, thank you. First, Mathewson, who never walked anyone, walked Yerkes. Maybe this was semi-intentional and the Giants were trying to set up a double play, maybe Christy was just gassed—he’d thrown 310 innings in the regular season, 11 innings in the stalemated Game 2, and eight innings in Game 5. He had walked 34 batters in those 310 innings and none in his first two starts in the Series, but he passed four in Game 7, not counting an intentional walk.

Whatever the cause, the really bad thing about walking Yerkes was that it brought the number-three hitter, Tris Speaker to the plate. Speaker is in the Hall of Fame, but I get the sense that he’s not remembered with quite the same reverence and awe as Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, and yet he was a .345/.428/.500 career hitter whose name was synonymous with defensive excellence in center field for decades. Speaker hit .383/.464/.567 in 1912 and would win the MVP (Chalmers) Award, so he wasn’t someone you wanted to put in a position to plate both the tying and the winning runs in a World Series game.

Of course, even the all-time greats don’t always deliver, especially when facing off against another all-time great. Speaker hit a foul pop-up in the area of first base, “almost in the first-base coaching box.” That would seem to be the first baseman’s play, but Merkle didn’t go for it. Mathewson was calling for Myers, the catcher, to take it, or maybe it was the Boston bench—Myers thought the Red Sox were yelling out conflicting instructions. Mathewson also could have caught the ball. Instead, he and Merkle stood by watching as Myers hauled up the line, lunging as the spheroid came back to earth but falling just short of making the catch. Given a second chance, Speaker lined a single to right field, driving in the tying run and advancing the winning run to third.

With only one out, Mathewson walked Duffy Lewis to set up a force at any base, but a Larry Gardner sacrifice fly later and the Series was all over. The Giants won the pennant every year from 1911 to 1913 and lost the World Series each time, very little of which was Fred Snodgrass’s fault. He had to live with the results the rest of his life, because somehow blame that should have accrued to Mathewson and Merkle was deflected onto him. Perhaps Mathewson was too beloved and people just couldn’t get their heads around saddling Merkle with another blunder, sensing he was already doomed to go down in history as “Bonehead.”

That brings me back to Alex Rodriguez, who hit .111 in the series just ended. His 2-for-18 with six strikeouts, the last of which sent the Yankees home for the year, will go down in another in a long line of October failures not wholly ameliorated by his strong showing in the championship season of 2009. I have mixed feeling about this given that Rodriguez was not the sole author of the defeat—the club as a whole stranded all the baserunners in creation. For example, the odd decision to leave Austin Romine off the roster in Francisco Cervelli’s absence, but to retain Jesus Montero and yet be afraid of using him, meant that Russell Martin got to hit in key situations and fail to drive in a run in the series.

Though Rodriguez spent most of the season dealing with injuries and seemed to have been seriously debilitated by them, he insisted after the game that, “I was healthy enough to do whatever I needed to do.” He may not have been the best judge, which brings up another important question of goat-dom: if a player failed to execute because he was incapable of doing so, shouldn’t we blame the person who put the player in that position rather than the player himself? When Bill Buckner butchered that key grounder up the first-base line in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, he presumably did so because his knees were shot. Manager John McNamara had frequently replaced Buckner in the late innings, particularly in September, but had failed to do so in that situation because he had decided that Buckner deserved to be on the field when the Red Sox won, a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Buckner wore the horns, but McNamara should have been sued for negligent operation of a ballclub.

Think back too to catcher Mickey Owens’ screw-up in 1941. The Dodgers took a 4-3 lead over the Yankees to the top of the ninth inning of Game 4 at Ebbets Field. Tommy Henrich batted with two out and nobody on. Hugh Casey, one of the great early relief aces, was on the mound. Casey had a vicious sinker, and with two strikes he threw one in the dirt to Henrich. Henrich swung and missed, striking out, but the ball ticked off of Owens’ mitt and rolled away. It took Owens approximately a half an hour to find the ball, by which time Henrich was safely standing on first base.

The passed ball could have been no more than a bump in the road on the way to the Dodgers tying a series they trailed 2-1, but what happened next was the stuff of nightmares for the team and their fans: Casey completely unraveled. Joe DiMaggio singled to left field. Charlie Keller crushed a ball off of the right field wall to chase home both Henrich and DiMaggio. Bill Dickey walked. Joe Gordon pulled a ball to left field for another double, scoring both Keller and Dickey. Four runs had scored, and the Yankees led 7-4. The Dodgers went down meekly in the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees won Game 5 and therefore the World Series the next day.

Through that barrage, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher just sat there. As he said later, “I froze.” He was a pioneer of relief pitching, but he didn’t go out to the mound to calm Casey, didn’t call in another pitcher. He might as well have been sitting in the stands instead of the dugout, because he just watched. Owen was credited for laying an egg even though all he did was put the tying run on base. He didn’t lose the other three contests that gave the Yankees their title, and he wasn’t the one who could have brought in another pitcher to rescue Casey. So, is that loss on Owens, on Casey, or on Durocher?

The Yankees’ alternatives to Alex Rodriguez were meager: Eric Chavez, who can’t hit anymore, and Eduardo Nunez, who can hit a little for a utility man and can’t field. Yet, 100 percent of Nunez might have been better than 20 percent of A-Rod, or whatever portion of him was functional these last five games. The fans will be rushing to blame the expensive and aging slugger, but it was whoever made the assessment that he should play is the true goat. I want to know who that was, but if history is any guide, he won’t be in a hurry to reveal himself.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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