Maybe It’s Still Getting Our Goats, After All?

On the other hand, maybe we’re not getting our goats as readily as I thought last fall. What the hell is this crap with sending San Francisco 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams death threats?

That was then: Nelson Cruz, designated goat of the 2011 World Series, kept a promise to turn up at a Mesquite, Texas sporting goods establishment the day after the Series ended. The right fielder kept the date despite knowing the eyes of Texas were locked upon him, but good, after the bottom of the ninth in Game Six: Pulled in shallow enough, in manager Ron Washington’s no-doubles defence, and with the Rangers a strike away from the Promised Land, Cruz couldn’t reach far enough to haul down the drive David Freese whacked to the wall, for the first of two final-strike game-tyers the Cardinals would hit, before the night ended with Freese’s Game Seven-guaranteeing walkoff bomb.

Never mind the eight postseason bombs Cruz had hit to that point. Nor the would-have-been ninth earlier in Game Six, had Allen Craig not hauled it back in from over the fence in the Texas sixth. When the Cardinals finished what they began in the bottom of the eleventh the night before, Cruz must have felt as though Bill Buckner was going to knock on his door holding a wreath in advance of his funeral. But wait—Cruz kept his Mesquite date and four hundred people showed up, not with murder in their hearts but love in the arms they wanted to throw around him.

This is now, and a mere three months later: Kyle Williams, punt returner for the San Francisco 49ers, waited on an overtime boot from New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford in the NFC championship game. He was already on the griddle after he couldn’t handle a Weatherford punt late in the fourth quarter, the ball bounding off the 49ers’ 39-yard line and then his  right knee, tumbling off toward the hands of a Giant defender and turning into Giants’ ball, 49ers’ 29. Now, on the 49ers’ 24, Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams punched the punt out of Williams’ hands for Giants receiver Devin Thomas to fall upon. Five plays later, Lawrence Tynes sent one 31 yards through the posts to send the Giants off to a Super Bowl rematch with the New England Patriots.

The tumble heard 'round the world?

It sketched Williams’ name onto a stall plate in the goats’ barn. And the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl, too, because Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff picked the wrong moment to swap his helmet for goat horns. On a day New England quarterback Tom Brady looked like anyone but Tom Brady, and just moments after Ravens’ wide receiver Lee Evans was stripped of a certain touchdown catch, with bare moments left in the AFC championship game, Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal attempt that otherwise might have sent that game, too, into overtime.

Maybe it speaks better of Baltimore fans than San Francisco fans, but neither Cundiff nor Evans have received any known death threats, on Twitter or through other channels. (It sure doesn’t hurt that Cundiff may have been deked by a scoreboard error that compelled him to bum’s-rush it onto the field for the attempt, though the sober professional in you says you’re a field goal kicker, it’s part of your job to be prepared for the prospect of a bum’s rush to the tee.) Williams was flooded with death threats from cyberspace and through elsewhere for at least two days to follow. And while Williams has responded with class, mindful enough of receiving far more moral support from his teammates on through most 49ers fans, it looks like the sports goat business still hasn’t finished graduating to reasonableness.

You’d think 49ers fans had never been there before. Good thing Twitter wasn’t around on 20 January 1991 with 2:36 remaining in that NFC championship game, a shot at a third straight Super Bowl win still within the Niners’ reach. That’s when Steve Young (filling in for Joe Montana, who was injured) handed off to Roger Craig, Craig plunged right into the middle of the Giants ‘defencive line, and nose tackle Erik Howard—who was ready for the inside run—butted the ball out of Craig’s hands. Lawrence Taylor smothered it on the New York 43, Matt Bahr sent one through the posts seven plays later as time expired, and the Giants went to the Super Bowl on the wings of a staggering 15-13 win.

Apparently, nobody paid all that much attention to the manner in which Nelson Cruz was embraced and forgiven rather than villified and run out of town, if not out of state. Kyle Williams now has the unfortunate status of keeping company with such baseball men as Don Denkinger and Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams. This is a very disheartening status for a punt returner who was in the game in the first place only because the 49ers’ regular go-to guy on punt returns, Ted Ginn, Jr., was injured two weeks earlier. Denkinger wasn’t exactly a fill-in; Mitch Williams wasn’t exactly a last-minute minor league callup spelling a suddenly-injured Phillie.

He refused to wish Joe Carter's Series-winner back from over the left field fence . . .

The Wild Thing was believed to have received threatening messages, and was affirmed to have received assorted sharp instruments lain around the tires of his family cars in his driveway . . . and that was only after blowing the save in Game Four of the 1993 World Series. When he surrendered, with the Phillies up 14-10, yet, Tony Fernandez’s fifth RBI of the game. When he walked Pat Borders, surrendered a two-out, two-run single to Rickey Henderson (in fairness, center fielder Lenny Dykstra seemed to freeze before trying to run in for a catch), then served a pitch meaty enough for Devon White to hammer for a two-run triple and the game, 16-15.

Then, come Game Six, the Blue Jays ahead in the set 3-2, Williams gets the call in the ninth, the Phillies three outs away from sending it to a seventh game. All he has to do is dispatch the gaudiest lineup in the American League that season. All he has to avoid is letting Henderson lead off by reaching base. All he does is serve the Man of Steal a four pitch walk. All the Wild Thing has to do now is get rid of White, Paul Molitor, and Joe Carter. He does his job with White, luring him into a fly to center that Dykstra—who might have been the Series MVP had the Phillies survived—hauls down easily enough.

But he throws the wrong fastball to Molitor, and the Hall of Famer hits it on the screws and up the pipe.

Then, he throws the wrong slider to Carter on 2-2. Carter merely hits a three-run homer for game, set, and World Series rings. And even if the Wild Thing had managed to bag Carter, there’s another Hall of Famer (Roberto Alomar) on deck, and his bat isn’t exactly papier mache, either.

Kyle Williams has something else in common with Mitch Williams. The latter Williams absolutely refused to let it get his goat or anyone else’s. His teammates may have wanted to bury their heads in brown paper bags, after having swaggered their way to the World Series in the first place, but Williams didn’t have a brown bag anywhere near his person when the postgame swarm of reporters reached his locker.

“Don’t come to my locker and expect excuses,” the Wild Thing said, soberly if with a small catch in his voice, the once-cocksure relief marksman brought to his knees, by the worst public humiliation since Mookie Wilson’s grounder skipped through Bill Buckner’s creaky wicket, after two Red Sox relievers had blown a save into a tie Game Six that the Red Sox started the bottom of the tenth leading by two. “I don’t make excuses. I blew two games in the World Series. I feel terrible for letting my teammates down. But sulking doesn’t bring the ball back over the fence. Life’s a bitch. I could be digging ditches. But I’m not.”

Kyle Williams sounded almost Mitch Williams-like in the immediate aftermath of the 49ers’ overtime deflation. “It’s one of those things you have to take accountability for,” Williams said soberly enough. “Everybody is responsible for what they do on the field. It’s something that I was responsible for and I made a mistake, and it’s time to own up to it and move forward.” He’s only a second-year NFL man; he probably has a decent enough football career ahead of him. And if he doesn’t, he’s probably got a very decent life yet to live.

Phillies fans—too long reputed to be the least forgiving sports fans on the face of the earth (“Those people,” pitcher/flake Bo Belinsky, briefly a 1960s Phillie, once crowed, “would boo at a funeral”)—turned out to be the most forgiving of Mitch Williams’s fans. This is in large part because the Wild Thing wouldn’t let them do otherwise. He had a mere three more major league seasons in him, in which he was anything but the pitcher who once saved multitudes of games after getting thatclose to blowing them sky high, or so it often seemed. He went from there to tending bar to managing in the minor leagues to becoming a television commentator. Not to mention turning up every so often for charity with Joe Carter, with whom he’s forged a strong enough friendship. (Shades of Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson.) And it’s even money that nowadays people will talk more about Williams’s endearing on-air persona than about the fatal 2-2 pitch that sailed over the left field wall.

Denkinger had it at least as bad in his hour of agony as Williams would in his. When he inexplicably called Dane Iorg safe at first base in the top of the ninth, when everyone in Royals Stadium including his teammates knew St. Louis reliever Todd Worrell had beaten him to the pad, and by three feet at least, it opened a door for the Royals to send the 1985 World Series to a seventh game. A game in which Denkinger, to the absolute and unapologetic outrage of everyone in a Cardinal uniform, turned up calling the balls and strikes in the standard ump rotation. It was no further Denkinger’s idea for the Cardinals to implode as profoundly as they would in Game Seven than it was Whitey Herzog’s idea, even, that Denkinger should have had to live with death threats, a radio disc jockey exposing his home address and telephone number, and the hapless ump having to accept police protection including a patrol car in the driveway of his Iowa home.

Today Denkinger is an outspoken advocate of official instant replay in baseball’s championship rounds. It only took about three decades to rehabilitate his image, however long it took for the death threats and radio idiocy and police protection to dissipate.

Turner Gill thought he was trying to win an Orange Bowl, not calls for his head coach to lose his job . . .

Football fans can be and often are even more grotesque than baseball fans when it comes to failures in the heat of the biggest moments. The failures don’t always have a common definition, either, and it isn’t just players who are prone to those and the excess of fan outrage, either. Ask Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne. He was the school’s winningest head football coach ever, winning three national titles, and going an extraterrestrial 60-3 in his final three seasons in that job. And you can find enough Husker fans even now who remember little much else beyond Osborne’s gutsy but failed attempt—when Miami safety Ken Calhoun smacked away Turner Gill’s certain pass to Jeff Smith in the end zone—to win the 1984 Orange Bowl and the national title with a two-point conversion, instead of backing into the title with a tying point-after field goal kick.

Give me a dollar for every moment I heard someone call for Osborne’s execution in the two or three years following that game (I lived in Nebraska in those years, serving with the Air Force) and I could retire myself and three other people comfortably.

“We were trying to win the game. I don’t think you go for a tie in that case. You try to win the game,” Osborne said matter-of-factly when it was all over. “We wanted an undefeated season and a clear-cut national championship . . . I don’t think any of our players would be satisfied backing into (the win and the title) with a (point-after). I don’t think that’s the way to do it.” Eerily enough, in the preparatory run-up to the game, Osborne was asked if he’d try the two-pointer in just that situation. “I hope it doesn’t come up,” the coach replied. “I’ll be crucified one way or another on that one.” Jeane Dixon, call your office.

On the other hand, however, I don’t remember Osborne getting death threats, either. Calls for his firing every ten minutes, maybe. Burning in effigy, perhaps. I don’t remember seeing or hearing about one, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. This was a state, after all, whose voters—enjoying intiative, referendum, and recall among their electoral rights—once got thisclose to recalling every member of Nebraska’s unicameral state legislature who voted against making the state’s licence plates the colours of the Huskers’ uniforms. There’s something just a little untoward about demanding a man’s unemployment because he tried his level best to win and the attempt was beaten in fair competition. Never mind demanding the unemployment of a large group of men and women because they though there were more important laws to pass than flashing your team colours on your licence plates.

Maybe Roger Craig learned to live it down because he’d already had three Super Bowl rings on his hand before running into Erik Howard’s helmet. Maybe it doesn’t matter how many rings you’ve got on your hands.

Here’s hoping Kyle Williams—like his Wild Thing namesake; like Don Denkinger; like Tom Osborne (did I mention he also survived enough to beat Peyton Manning in the 1997 Orange Bowl, and become a three-term Republican Congressman from Nebraska not long afterward); like Roger Craig; like Ralph Branca; like Johnny Pesky; like Tommy Lasorda (he lost a trip to the World Series by letting Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open, two on, and the Dodgers one out from the ’85 Series); like maybe every other Chicago Cub, every third Detroit Lion, and half as many New York Mets; like just about any of sports’ most notorious goats—stuffs it right back down the throats of the idiot brigades whose software simply isn’t programmed to accept the idea that games are played by humans. That humans are only too fallible. And, that somebody has to lose, because nobody, political correctness or otherwise, has yet figured out a way to make everyone a winner.

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