On Mistakes and Baseball’s Long Memory

This is Kate Preusser’s fourth and final piece as part of her month-long residency. It has been a pleasure to host her work! Missed her previous posts? You can read them here. Listen to her appearance on FanGraphs Audio here.

“What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error, but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”

–Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

On paper, it looks like Jurickson Profar had a successful WBC stint for Team Netherlands. He batted .464 during the team’s run through the Classic, with five doubles, four RBIs, and a home run — this while also playing a passable center field, a position at which he’s never recorded a start as a professional.

But Profar’s sterling performance will be overshadowed — for him, at least — by a baserunning blunder made in the first inning of an elimination game against Puerto Rico. Andrelton Simmons led off that game with a single. Xander Bogaerts was hit by a pitch right after that. When Profar followed with another single, it could have potentially loaded the bases for the Dutch. Could have, except that Simmons had just gotten picked off trying to steal third against Yadier Molina — because, I don’t know, maybe he didn’t recognize one of the best defensive catchers in the world with his blond hair?

But back to the Profar single. Even after accounting for Simmons’ caught stealing, that single still put the Dutch in a good position, with two runners on base and just the one out. The advantage didn’t last long, however. After rounding first, Profar used the opportunity to gesture towards the Netherlands crowd — an admittedly smaller contingent than Puerto Rico’s — and was slow getting back to the bag. Yadier Molina, a tiger who has the reflexes of a cobra that’s also a member of MENSA, threw him out. Which, of course he did! Yadier Molina likes throwing people out in the same way you and I like breathing. And of course Profar was celebrating his base hit, because people celebrating base hits is what makes the WBC so delightful. As an event, it’s like NES Super Punch-Out but with actual live humans doing the taunting.

There are multiple angles of the sequence in question. Here are two of them:

The Netherlands would still go on to score that inning thanks to Wladimir Balentien’s two-run homer, but it’s hard not to note that it could have been a grand slam. Profar certainly isn’t failing to note that. As he told the Orange County Register: “I just want to put this loss on myself… I made that mistake. I think we paid for it.”

Netherlands’ manager Hensley Meulens, for his part, seemed to agree in a postgame press conference, mentioning his frustration with the team for getting picked off after he had specifically warned them about Molina’s arm. He went on to call out Profar by name, calling his baserunning blunder “unacceptable… That could have been the difference in us winning or not.”

Both of these mistakes were costly; both were easily avoidable. But only Profar’s became a .gif, widely circulated throughout the sports world. (Deadspin’s headline cruelly — or kindly — neglects to even mention Profar by name, referring to him as “Netherlands Baseball Player”.) These two baserunning gaffes reveal something to us about how mistakes are made and remembered in baseball, the sport with the longest memory.

In Catholicism, there are two major classes of sins: you have your mortal sins, the momma-just-killed-a-man variety; and then you have your venial sins, your lustful thoughts and covetousness and general garden-variety human-flaw stuff. So, too, in baseball are there two classes of mistakes: lapses in judgment and lapses in mental alacrity. Lapse is an important word, here, too — and one with some heavy old-time religious connotations. The Judeo-Christian world is divided into prelapsarian (that is, before expulsion from Eden) and postlapsarian times, and the word lapse is related to the Latin labi, meaning “to slide” or “to slip” — a cousin of our English word sleep. “To lapse” isn’t just to become distracted for a moment, then; it’s to literally check out of the world for a time and, in doing so, to incur the moral judgement of falling.

Profar’s mistake was a lapse in mental alacrity. He got a big hit in what was, to this point, the biggest game in his life, and he left his brain behind momentarily while he celebrated, something about which I bet St. Teresa knows a thing or two. And yet his mistake appears to have garnered harsher censure than Simmons’, which I would argue is a lapse of judgment. Simmons was at second base, with full knowledge of who was behind the plate, yet taking an enormous lead anyway. When Yadi the genius tigercobra popped up from his catcher’s crouch with smiting in his eyes and threw over to Francisco Lindor for the rundown, this is the result:

Simmons seems almost to be tempting Molina to throw — this in spite of Molina’s obvious talents. And yet this moment, this wildly bombastic display of poor judgment and poorer baserunning, isn’t the iconic image of the Netherlands’ failure in this game. Rather, it’s this guy who gets saddled with that:

Probably you’ve made a mistake in your life. Maybe it was a big one, one that caused grievous harm to one or several or many people. Maybe it was one of the smaller, everyday lapses we make in being human, a lapse of faith — in a business venture or a partner’s ability or your own self — that can nonetheless produce a tremendous echo in the tiny caves of our lives. Whatever your mistake, there probably wasn’t a camera trained on your face, as we see with Jurickson here, capturing the exact moment your error becomes clear to you. The “Wait, what?” as his head snaps around, reacting to the umpire’s call. Then the hands on the hips, the befuddlement, hoping this is some kind of mistake. Then the search for an ally. (There is never an ally. It’s human nature to cut our eyes away. I’m terribly sorry, Jurickson.) Finally, the staring off into the middle distance. So this is postlapsarian life, then. It’s embarrassing, and it’s public, and it’s a gif.

Some mistakes fade into history, or become toothless as tragedy accrues time; Ten Cent Beer Night is a punchline now, safely removed from the inebriated masses wielding stadium seats like halberds. Other mistakes persist, an indelible stain on a player’s career. The name “bonehead” hung on Fred Merkle like Marley’s chains throughout the rest of his life, even after he fled New York for a quieter life in Daytona Beach. Not even death could unshackle Fred Snodgrass from his muffed catch in the 1912 World Series; when he died in 1974, the headline of his obituary in the New York Times read “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.” Snodgrass said he couldn’t go a day, or sometimes even an hour, without someone bringing up that dropped fly ball. Bill Buckner’s official website, meanwhile, offers no mention of his infamous through-the-wickets error that supposedly extended the Curse of the Bambino, but on his Wikipedia page, the sections after the 1986 World Series are titled “Fallout,” “Career Twilight” and “Forgiveness.”

Of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of mistakes that are made in any day with a full slate of baseball games, only a few endure past the day in which they occur: an error goes on the board, big as life, glares out for nine innings, and then is quietly packed away, maybe to be remarked upon in a column, but probably not. An error to break up a perfect game might attract some notice, especially if it fits into a larger narrative, such as Yunel Escobar’s short throw and Clint Robinson’s Pewter-Glove-caliber pick attempt to break up a Max Scherzer perfecto in the sixth. Oh look, it’s that face again:

Escobar’s error might not have loomed so large, except this was the second time Scherzer had lost a perfect game in later innings in the 2015 season. In 2016, Taijuan Walker lost a perfect game in the sixth in similar fashion, when Ketel Marte made a poor throw on a routine grounder that was poorly picked by rookie first baseman Dan Vogelbach. Unless you’re a Mariners fan (or possibly an Angels fan), you probably don’t know about that, or don’t remember it. This is how a mistake moves past happenstance and becomes an identifying feature: it fits Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must be serious and have magnitude, which is why so many of these memorable errors occur during the World Series. The stakes have to be high, in order to arouse pity and fear in the audience. It’s that pity factor that makes it hard to watch some of these videos (or it should, unless you’re a dreadful masochist who enjoys the suffering of others), but the fear is a component, too: the fear of our own flawed humanity, our inborn inclination to slip, to fall. A momentary lapse can lead to a lifetime of regret.

The larger these mistakes loom, the more difficult it is to achieve escape velocity from them. Jim Joyce will forever be linked to Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game, just as Fred Merkel forever had the word “bone” appended to his name. Steve Bartman was nowhere to be seen during the Cubs’ run to the World Series, although that didn’t stop his name from being invoked at every turn, a specter in turtleneck and headphones. Bill Buckner may have forgiven the city of Boston, but Google still autofills “Bill Buckner gif.” A public confession may soothe the conscience, but unfortunately has little effect on one’s eternal legacy. As Jim Joyce wryly admitted in 2011, “I don’t want to be known as Jim Joyce, the guy that blew the perfect game. But I think that’s inevitable… Because I’m Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew the perfect game.”

These are the mortal sins of baseball, the ones that dog a player or umpire’s steps for the remainder of his days, that fundamentally change who he is. Baseball history may not be as unkind to Profar for his brush with baseball infamy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t stick with him on a personal level. Ultimately, the most ruthless historians live inside our own heads.

*****

Postscript!

It has been a privilege and an honor to be the first one up in this new series. Thank you so much for reading these pieces, and for welcoming me so warmly into the FanGraphs community. Like you, I eagerly anticipate who’s up next!

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Kate Preusser lives in Seattle, where she manages Lookout Landing and spends too much time thinking and writing about Mariners baseball. Follow her on Twitter @1nceagain2zelda.

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Monsignor Martinez
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Monsignor Martinez

Did Cistulli get a new name? Awesomely written.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

This is much better than Cistulli’s nonsense.

Kyle
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Member
Kyle

exactly what I was thinking! HA