Maybe We Get Our Goats at Last

Now, this is more like it.

Less than a full day after the Texas Rangers lost a World Series they came to within a strike of winning twice in two innings, Nelson Cruz–who promised to sign autographs at a Mesquite, Texas sporting goods establishment after the Series, no matter whether the Rangers won or lost–was slightly stunned to see four hundred people show up, none of whom had murder in their hearts.

“I was shocked to see all the people. It made me feel happy and it made the pain go away quickly,” the right fielder told reporters. “It definitely shows how good they are as fans. They support us all year. They’re behind us whatever happens.”

Maybe, little by little, enough people are beginning to wise up about the goat business. Maybe, little by little, they’re even beginning to get the idea that a postseason goat doesn’t always deserve the goat horns because he didn’t do anything he wasn’t supposed to do.

Cruz got hung with the goat horns in the ninth inning of Game Six. Rangers manager Ron Washington ordered the outfield, including Cruz, into the no-doubles defence. Moments after they re-aligned, with the Rangers a strike away from their first World Series rings ever, David Freese drove a full-count pitch to the right field wall. Cruz reached helplessly for the ball that sailed just past his reach, ricocheted off the wall, and shot back to the infield, allowing the Cardinals to tie it up for the first time on their final strike.

Fans show Cruz there's nothing to forgive . . .

Granted that hitting eight home runs in the postseason just ended had to have helped a little bit. Maybe, too, there’s a little residual sympathy at play, considering Cruz–playing despite a groin strain–looked like he’d hit number nine in the top of the sixth, Game Seven, until Allen Craig pulled it back from over the left field fence with a staggering catch. At the very least, Cruz plays before the kind of fan base that acknowledges, and exercises, what should have been obvious in the cases of, for openers, Donnie Moore, Bill Buckner, Don Denkinger, Ralph Branca, Grady Little. Ron Washington manages for that kind of fan base, too.

It’s a shame the Rangers’ brass decided there’d be no fan rally this year. “If we didn’t win,” spokesman John Blake said Saturday, “we didn’t think it merited it.” Where was he when Nelson Cruz was basking in the love at the Academy Sports and Outdoors? Four hundred people swarmed the right fielder to tell him, in effect, he merited it. He, and the Rangers, had tried, and done their absolute best with what they had, and they failed.

Unless you want to count some dubious strategy on Washington’s part, they didn’t exactly roll over and play dead. There’s a difference between being gassed and refusing to breathe. There’s an entire state of Texas ready to show the Rangers the love. They’re even willing to forgive Nolan Ryan for his rash prediction that the Rangers would win it in—you guessed it—six.

And there’s an entire Rangers ballclub, notwithstanding one or two changes in the key parts to come, ready to go out and try it again in 2012.

Would Blake and the Rangers’ brass rather be Moore and the 1986 California Angels? He had the Angels to within a foul tip of the World Series. Then Dave Henderson caught unlikely hold of a second knee-high, outer-edge forkball and sent it over the left field fence. That sent Buckner and the ’86 Red Sox to new life and, soon enough, the World Series, where they . . .

If only Angel fans showed Donnie Moore there was nothing to forgive . . .

A few years later, following merciless abuse in Anaheim Stadium and the collapse of his baseball career, Moore–whose agent swore he never got over losing the Angels’ shot at their first World Series–shot his wife and then, to death, himself.

Would the Ranger brass like to be Denkinger, who not only blew a call that helped open the way for the Kansas City Royals to thwart what looked like a Cardinals World Series triumph but turned up behind the plate the next night? It wasn’t Denkinger’s idea for the Cardinals to implode in Game Seven; nobody told those Cardinals not to shake off six and bear down for seven, but Denkinger–an otherwise competent and distinguished umpire–had to live with death threats, a radio DJ exposing his address and telephone number, and a police car in the driveway of his Iowa home–for his own protection. Today Denkinger is an outspoken enough advocate of official instant replay in the championship rounds. It only took almost three decades to rehabilitate his image.

Would they rather that the only ones who can get them through this defeat be the family priest? That’s the only way Ralph Branca managed to survive having served the pitch Bobby Thomson clobbered for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. That and eventually forging a sweet friendship with Thomson that ended only upon Thomson’s death a year and a half ago.

The Rangers aren’t about to pink Washington over some or any of his strategic mistakes in this World Series. The 2003 Red Sox showed how foolish that was. Grady Little committed to Pedro Martinez’s heart and Jorge Posada hit a Game Seven-tying two-run double.  In the bottom of the eleventh, Tim Wakefield’s gallant relief ended when Aaron Boone hit the inning’s first pitch into the left field seats for game, set, and American League pennant. There went Little’s job, lest Red Sox Nation kill either Little or the front office.

Until the Red Sox finally returned to the Promised Land a year later–and do you notice how Yankee fans don’t even think of hanging The Mariano with the goat horns over Dave Roberts’s grand theft second base?–Johnny Pesky would tell anyone who asked him, “To this day people think I’m the sonofabitch who lost the World Series.” “Johnny Pesky held the ball” took greater hold than the forgotten truth, that Leon Culberson’s throw in was high enough to keep Pesky from whipping around immediately for a stab at Enos Slaughter playing the Road Runner on his way home. Pesky was made of stronger stuff. He basked in his friendship with Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and Bobby Doerr, eventually became a respected Red Sox minor league manager and teacher, and remains the franchise’s grand old man.

Having to handle a high throw made it look like Johnny Pesky held the ball as Enos Slaughter shot home . . .

Unfortunately, this year’s Red Sox wiped even the 2007 Mets out of the rogues’ gallery. Their collapse was so stunning that even the Atlanta Braves, collapsing in damn near equal fashion, aren’t facing their fan base’s firing squads. Manager Terry Francona hung the goat horns upon himself and resigned the day after. Maybe he figured he’d better don the horns before Red Sox Nation jammed them down his throat. Except that nobody was quite as ready to blame him as they were . . . well, practically anyone in the Red Sox clubhouse–except, maybe, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, and Jonathan Papelbon–who a) moved, b) breathed, and/or were c) caught within twenty feet of any fried chicken spread or tub of beer.

We have our periodic hiccups, still, but by and large baseball fans are getting past the goat bit. Or, at least, getting past wanting to send them to the guillotine. Washington’s strategic mistakes are almost nothing compared to those made by Little. Or, by Gene Mauch. (He pitched Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest, doghoused his fine third starter, Art Mahaffey, over a surprise steal of home by a Cincinnati rookie on the best pickoff move in the National League, refused to trust his bullpen, and watched his 1964 Phillies lose ten straight and, in short order, a pennant they had in the bank.) Or, by Tommy Lasorda.

He told his '64 Phillies when it ended, "You didn't blow it. I did."

Was any managerial move of the past quarter-century more egregious than Lasorda deciding it was safe for Tom Niedenfeuer to pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from the 1985 World Series. All Jack the Ripper decided was that it was even safer to hit a three-run homer and send the Cardinals to the World Series, which they would lose after . . . no, it was not Denkinger’s fault. He wasn’t the first or last bad call in a World Series, and nobody told the Cardinals to blow themselves up in Game Seven.

But notice what’s happening with the Rangers. Time was when losing was considered the next worst thing to mortal sin. Time was when losing equaled a character flaw. Time was when a genuinely sensitive man like Donnie Moore could bury himself in guilt, then kill himself in guilt, when there was no cause for guilt, only nobody within or around his circle ever seemed to make more than a cursory effort at convincing him.

These Rangers needed no such bracing up. If Nelson Cruz can go from barely missing David Freese’s last-strike game-tyer to basking in the love of a 400-strong sporting goods store crowd, then maybe we’re growing up to the point where we can admit, acknowledge, and accept that there’s one rule in sports that nobody can overcome: Somebody has to lose.

If you lost doing the best you could with what you had, it’s not mortal sin, it’s merely being mortal. And should we ask the tired question of whom among you wouldn’t have given their right arm to be where those goats were–or would have borne up better having failed despite doing your best? Would you like to do your job in front of 55,000 live customers watching you work and about 25 million people watching you on television?

The Rangers’ front office should have let the Rangers’ fans remind them of all that and more once again. They didn’t win the World Series, but they didn’t exactly throw it away. Why not let their fans remind them of that? Or would they feel better if their fans decided to run Nelson Cruz out of town on the proverbial rail?

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