Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Boners At The Ball Yard

Last Friday night, I had the weirdest deja vu moment. I was at the local ball yard, seated up in the third deck behind home plate, watching our Seattle Mariners nurse a 2-0 lead. But in the seventh inning, the visiting Minnesota Twins loaded the bases with one out. The Mariners' pitching coach came out to talk to the pitcher and catcher, then returned to the dugout.

A moment later, the batter hit a comebacker to the pitcher. Hallelujah. The pitcher would throw the ball to the catcher, who had one foot planted on home plate, one out; then, the catcher would relay the ball to the first baseman. A one-two-three double play, inning over.

 But the pitcher wheeled around and threw the ball toward - not to, toward - the shortstop, who was covering second base. No outs were recorded, and the game was lost (or from the point of view of the Twins, it was won).

Once upon a time, I coached my son's, then my daughter's, Little League teams, and as I saw the Mariners' pitcher pause and start to turn, I was suddenly on the sideline of a neighborhood baseball diamond, cupping my hands around my mouth to call to a confused ten-year-old pitcher, "Home! Throw it home!" "Throw...the...ball...HOME!"

 What on earth had possessed a big-league ballplayer to pull off a doozie like that? It got even more confusing next day, when I read in the paper that the pitching coach had told the pitcher, "If they hit anything back to you, throw it home." After the game, Eric Wedge, the tough Seattle manager, told reporters, "I'm sure he'll learn from this," which made me think that if I were that pitcher, I might keep my back firmly to the wall till I could jump on the next plane to Japan. The pitcher was quoted as saying that with the ball in his hand, he could think only of getting two outs, second to first. "I had a brain fart," he explained.

Well, brain farts do occur in baseball games, often enough that there should be provision for them in the official scorer reports. Back in the 1930s, a Brooklyn Dodger named Frenchy Bordagaray was picked off second base because the fielders were aware of his tendency to tap his foot, and he got tagged out, as he put it, "between taps." This was the same Frenchy Bordagaray who once became so angry at an umpire that he spat on him. For that, Frenchy was fined $500, which he said was more than he'd expectorated.

Not only players have brain farts. One day in 1942, Lou Boudreau, the manager of the Cleveland Indians, had a bad cold, and during the game, with his team at bat and its two slowest runners on base, blew his nose. Unfortunately, a towel over the face was the signal for a double steal, which ended in a unique double play.

 These events used to be called bonehead plays, or boners. The term goes back to 1908, when Fred Merkle, a young player for the New York Giants, did not run all the way to second base on a walk-off single in a crucial game against the Chicago Cubs. One of the Cub infielders noticed, got hold of a ball that may or may not have been the game ball, tagged second base, and Merkle was called out. As the result, the Cubs beat out the Giants for the pennant, and then won the World Series, which they've not done since. Maybe it was Merkle who put the curse on them. In any event, poor Fred was known the rest of his life as Bonehead Merkle. "I suppose that when I die, the epitaph on my tombstone will read: 'Here lies Bonehead Merkle,'" he once said.

It could've been worse. What if Merkle had done his deed 100 years later? Brainfart Merkle all his life, then on the tombstone?



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