In Chad Harbach’s novel “The Art of Fielding,” Westish College catcher Mike Schwartz wonders to himself, “What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”
None. Baseball and baseball alone remembers its individual failures, for lack of a better word. The romanticism that drenches the national pastime requires it. For every winner there must be a loser. For every triumph there is heartache. For every home run there is a fateful pitch that precedes it.
When a player fails on the grandest stage, his name is immortalized as a champion of choke. Jack Chesbro, winner of 41 games in 1904, cost his New York Highlanders a pennant with a single wild pitch. After his death, Chesbro’s widow worked tirelessly to change the ruling of the spitter gone awry to a passed ball. Try as she might, her late husband’s legacy remains unchanged.
Fred Merkle failed to touch second base in a pivotal 1908 game for the New York Giants. The Cubs, winners that day, would go on to take the pennant and the World Series. Merkle’s Boner entered the sports lexicon and never left.
Mickey Owen’s passed ball in 1941 ensured Brooklyn would endure another winter of “wait ’til next year.” Ralph Branca intensified the gloom in the borough when he surrendered Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” in 1951. Tony Kubek took a bad hop off the throat in 1960 an inning before Bill Mazeroski launched the first World Series-clinching wallk-off home run. Thirty-three years later, Mitch Williams slumped off the mound after Joe Carter had his own Mazeroski moment. Then, of course, there’s Bill Buckner, whose sure-handed career erupted in flames when Mookie Wilson’s dribbler squirmed through the first baseman’s legs in 1986. All of these players, from Chesbro to Williams, are victims of baseball reductionism. If a single play in a series of several thousand can affect the outcome of a season, then why can’t the same theory apply to a career?
If the Boston Red Sox lose this World Series, another name will join the infamous list. When the ball left Craig Breslow’s hand from just behind home plate Thursday night, so too did his legacy.
His 2.82 career ERA is gone. His win against the Rays in the divisional series landed in foul territory. The thought surely crossed Breslow’s mind as the Cardinals’ eventual winning run crossed home plate: “I’m done.”
Baseball is never crueler than in these moments. Because its vast history has provided us with so many precedents, the names of the infamed emerge with little thought. We reduce Breslow to a tragic figure, a Buckner reborn.
Five games remain for the Sox to exonerate their beleaguered reliever. If they falter, Breslow will take his place in that special wing of baseball immortality.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God’s country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I’ll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday