MLB reflection: Past time to put the goat business out of business

Undated: First baseman Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox slides into base. Mandatory Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport
Undated: First baseman Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox slides into base. Mandatory Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport /

As we look back through MLB history, it may be time to put the goat aside.

I mentioned in my last essay that has linked to one classic game per team for all thirty teams, the better to get you through baseball’s coronavirus-imposed hiatus. One of the linked games to which I referred was Game Six of the 1993 World Series. The one that ended with Joe Carter‘s three-run homer and a second straight Toronto Blue Jays lease on the Promised Land.

The part that I didn’t mention was the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who surrendered the fatal pitch, Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams. Thinking about that now, I wonder if and when baseball’s goat business will ever, at last, go the way of the Pontiac, the Oldsmobile, the telephone booth, and the Palm Pilot.

Most recently the fans of the defeated tried hanging the goat horns upon since-deposed Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch. For something he did that was “wrong” but for something he didn’t so that worked out wronger. Not because the Washington Nationals won the World Series but because they just couldn’t have won it if Hinch had been in his right mind.

Right? Wrong.

It actually wasn’t wrong for Hinch to lift Zack Greinke when Greinke began faltering clearly enough in the top of the seventh. Greinke threw thirteen pitches and only three strikes, one of which got sent into the Crawford Boxes by Anthony Rendon. And Hinch didn’t want to bring Gerrit Cole in—however big the psychological boost—unless it was a fresh inning, Cole’s natural habitat as a starter, and the Astros had a lead.

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So he brought in his best relief option, Will Harris, with Juan Soto aboard and one out. The only thing wrong with Hinch’s move was Howie Kendrick. The only thing worse than that was forgetting that there do come times when your absolute best move gets spoiled because, one moment later, the other guy just happens to do his job a little bit better.

Hinch didn’t deserve the goat horns any more than the late Bill Buckner did in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. Maybe (big maybe) if Boston Red Sox manager John McNamara hadn’t let sentiment overrule baseball and made his normal late-game defensive insertion, Mookie Wilson‘s slow roller would be fielded cleanly . . . but still leave first and third for the New York Mets, since Wilson had the play beaten at first base.

Maybe on-deck hitter Howard Johnson, on the threshold of his breakout as one of the National League’s more dangerous hitters, nails another base hit to send home the winning run or makes an out and pushes the game to an eleventh inning. We’ll never know. What we did know then, if we could forget the outrage and sorrow, was that a Game Seven still loomed.

Williams, of course, had no place else to help his Phillies when Carter ripped that 2-2 fastball over the left field fence. What wasn’t known widely until long after the fact: Williams entered the evening under death threats over a blown save earlier in that Series. He’d even spent a sleepless night with a rifle in his lap over them.

After the game, Williams faced the press gamely and answered every question no matter how dumb. In public, the Phillies had his back. In private, a teammate or three agitated on behalf of running him out of town, which is exactly what happened that off-season. Today, Williams and Carter are long since friends who appear often at charity events.

“Sports, especially pro sports,” Thomas Boswell wrote in 1989, “is not a morality play, much as it suits our national appetite to act as if it were. Even some athletes . . . seem to crush themselves under a burden of self-imposed guilt in areas of life where no cause for guilt exists.”

Boswell wrote that in the immediate wake of former California Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore‘s jolting suicide. Moore’s crime was throwing a pair of nasty forkballs to Red Sox outfielder Dave Henderson in the 1986 American League Championship Series, with the Angels a strike away from going to where the Red Sox endured their own unorchestrated hell.

Henderson barely foul ticked the first. The second, in the same down-and-away spot, Henderson managed to send over the left center field fence. Sending the game to extra innings and an eventual Angels loss. Sending Moore further into the pits of MLB hell—Angel fans and even his own general manager (accusing him of loafing while he dealt with back trouble) were merciless to him from that point—than his personal demons already had him.

“You, and countless others who get branded as ‘goats’ in sports, didn’t do anything wrong,” Boswell wrote, to Moore and an entire roll of MLB goats. “We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.”

Boswell both understood and objected to the fan attitude that a game isn’t just a game but some sort of morality play in which the alleged goat is guilty not of failure alone but of moral failure in that fatal moment. Well, now.

Did Tommy Lasorda commit moral turpitude when he decided it was absolutely safe to let Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Los Angeles Dodgers one out from going to the 1985 World Series? Was Jack the Ripper the epitome of morality when he sent a three-run homer to . . . well, they still can’t determine whether the ball landed in the Rose Bowl or in Casey Stengel‘s former backyard.

Half of Missouri, the half that roots for the St. Louis Cardinals instead of the Kansas City Royals, thought MLB umpire Don Denkinger was a downright degenerate for calling Jorge Orta safe at first with the Cardinals three outs from the Promised Land. The same half probably thought the Cardinals epitomized grace by fuming long enough to let it carry over into Game Seven, where they imploded spectacularly on behalf of the Royals’ first World Series triumph.

Don’t get me started on the Phillies fans who probably thought spindly righthander Art Mahaffey needed a thorough morality check when Cincinnati Reds rookie Chico Ruiz stunned both him and the Reds themselves by breaking from third and stealing home—for the only run in the loss that began the infamous 1964 Phillie Phlop.

Haven’t Merkle’s Children suffered long enough?

Fred Merkle. That hapless New York Giants rookie was blamed for costing his team the 1908 National League pennant, after he ran toward the clubhouse before touching second after a key game-winning run scored down the stretch of that contentious pennant race. When Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, got it, and touched second. When Merkle was thus ruled out, and the run was ruled null, forcing a single-game playoff if the Giants and the Cubs tied for the pennant, which they ultimately did.

What everyone denouncing Merkle as a bonehead from the moment the game ended didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared about was Evers—whose Cubs were burned on a similar play earlier in the season, a play on which the out then was almost never called—taking the ball first taken by a fan, who threw it to Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh, who threw it to Evers. A ball touched by a fan is supposed to be ruled dead.

Not even Merkle’s own manager John McGraw absolving him mattered to those who saw only what they wanted to see. Never let the facts get in the way of outraged MLB fans and outraged writers looking for one man to blame for blowing a game the team absolutely, without question, should have won. Including, as McGraw himself pointed out, that there may have been at least twelve other losses the Giants could and should have won that could and would have made the difference.

Sometimes a goat survives because he’d been there/done that already. Babe Ruth could shake off the baserunning blunder that ended the 1926 World Series in the Cardinals’ favour—when he was fool enough to try stealing second with Bob Meusel at the plate and fellow Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on deck—because he was already The Babe. Never mind that anyone with even a nursery school education knew he ran about as fast as a cement mixer with a flat.

Lasorda had enough comparable cred to fess up and weep to his players after Clark obliterated him and shook it off post haste. He’d already been to a few World Series and won one of them. Maybe he knew something the MLB fans screaming blue murder forgot about the hard reality of games—even those that might have sent you to the World Series.

For generations, there was no more heinous Red Sox goat than Johnny Pesky. Enough so that you sometimes thought his full name was Johnny Pesky Held the Ball. It wasn’t Pesky’s fault that late-game outfield insertion Leon Culberson threw in high enough while Enos Slaughter inspired the future Road Runner that Pesky couldn’t get a throw home off in time.

Sometimes a goat gets everyone else’s goat unexpectedly. Too many Brooklyn fans thought Ralph Branca was on the wrong side of morality when he surrendered the maybe-it-is-/maybe-it-isn’t tainted Shot Heard Round the World ending the 1951 National League pennant playoff. Branca’s own priest thought otherwise and got to him fast enough, telling him God chose him because He knew Branca would be strong enough to bear the burden.

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Branca proved stronger as the years went passing by than those who wanted him drawn, quartered, and hung in the public square so they could really get mad at him. “He carried the cross of the Thomson home run with dignity and grace,” said Dodgers broadcast legend Vin Scully when Branca died almost four years ago.

Sometimes a goat lives long enough to enjoy a last laugh, even if he’s the only one who knows it. Buckner’s shattered ankles abetted his hour of darkness in 1986. A few years later, he returned to the Red Sox. All may not have been forgiven all the way just yet. But Buckner managed to whack his final MLB home run during his return.

It was (yes, you can look it up) an inside the park job.

Buckner finally made his way to Idaho, a successful real estate life, and an enduring personal friendship with Wilson. Just as Williams and Carter would. When Buckner appeared at Shea Stadium about a decade and a half ago, and spotted Wilson in uniform as a Mets coach, he hailed Wilson puckishly, “Mookie, what do you say you hit me some grounders?”

They knew better than to let their lives be stained by one fateful moment in which one guy just so happened to be better than the other guy who was left to the fates because his boss forgot to make the move made just about every previous time when necessary.

It’s long past time to stop calling them goats and put an end to such disgraceful business. It’s long past time for Joe and Jane Fan to get straight that rapping knuckles when somebody knows better (Ruth? Lasorda? McNamara?) is one thing, but when one guy’s a little bit better the other guy isn’t a criminal, a derelict, or a degenerate.

Joe and Jane Fan have it made. They don’t go to work knowing they’ll have 50,000 or more around them watching them in person. They don’t have to do their jobs knowing a few million more are watching on television or listening on radio. When they get out-performed or screw up, they only have to answer to their bosses. They don’t get booed, hissed, or harassed out of the office over it.

They don’t get fired publicly, either, as another ill-fated Red Sox manager, Grady Little, did after he stayed with Pedro Martinez’s heart while ignoring that Martinez’s tank was below E in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

Joe and Jane Fan also love to fume that they could play a bloody MLB game for half the money or less that these spoiled brats make. Now, let’s see how quickly Joe and Jane would really like to risk blundering or failing in front of audiences that big. The goat horns feel a little strange, no?

Next. Spring training pranksters. dark

With MLB baseball on hiatus for who knows how long, this would be a good time for one and all to decide that whatever businesses should have become obsolete for whatever reasons, the goat business is one of them. Boswell remains right. There’s nothing to forgive.