For many years, one of the most famous botched plays in baseball history, probably as famous in its own way as "Merkle's Boner," was a blown rundown in which Giants third baseman Heinie Zimmerman participated in 1917, when the Giants played the White Sox in a World Series of the morally bankrupt versus the ethically vacant. The White Sox led the Series three games to two when Game 6 commenced at the Polo Grounds in New York on Oct. 15. The game was scoreless in the top of the fourth when Zimmerman helped Eddie Collins (the word "helped" is used pointedly) reach when he threw away his ground ball to third. An error by the right fielder allowed Collins to reach third. The next batter, Happy Felsch, tapped back to the mound. Collins was trapped off of third. A rundown ensued. The catcher threw the ball to Zimmerman. Collins somehow got through the catcher. No one was behind him, so there was no one to throw the ball to.
Helpless, Zimmerman chased Collins down the line and across the plate. "Who the hell was I supposed to throw to," Zimmerman supposedly said, "[home plate umpire Bill] Klem?"
The line would work better if we could assume everyone knew their Hall of Fame umpires and could leave the quote at "Klem?" but I've never felt safe doing that. The joke is that no one knows who Zimmerman was now anyway, and rightly so - the Nationals' extensive collection of Zimmerman(n)s is far superior and Heinie threw games and consorted with murders. The irony is that whatever he had to be guilty of as a result of those activities, his "mistake" was not one of them -- then and now rundown plays are one of those aspects of baseball that players can rehearse unto the point of perfect and still get wrong on a regular basis. It's the on-field version of what building a bullpen is to Dave Dombrowski.
In Monday's Game 3 of the Division Series between the Nationals and Giants in San Francisco, Giants ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner had a boner of his own. With the game scoreless and the Nationals batting in the top of the seventh, Ian Desmond led off with a single and Bryce Harper worked a walk to put runners on first and second with no outs and bring catcher Wilson Ramos to the plate. Despite being down in the count 1-2, Ramos risked bunting (Ramos hadn't executed a bunt, but Nats manager Matt Williams had a quixotic faith), pushing the ball back to Bumgarner. Rather than take the sure out, the pitcher made the aggressive play, going for the force at third base.
Heinie Zimmerman, classy guy, 1916. (Getty Images).
He didn't get it. The ball went past Pablo Sandoval and skipped down the left-field line, rolling over the bullpen mounds and not stopping until approximately Portland, OR. Both runners scored. Ramos finished on second. The next batter, Asdrubal Cabrera scored him with a single. For all intents and purposes that was the game, which ended 4-1.
It is a mark of some small progress on our parts that unlike the rabid, salivating press and fandom of 100 years ago, of Merkle's 1908 or Zimmerman's 1917, the focus on the part of the rabid, salivating press and fandom of now is likely to be on the seven scoreless innings pitched by Doug Fister, perhaps secondarily on the big of Detroit Tigers brilliance that gifted Fister to the Nationals to begin with (it has not been a high mental acuity twelve months for Dombrowski), and then thirdly on Bumgarner's bum play. Perhaps they'll think of Harper's good play on both sides of the ball. We understand, perhaps a little better than we did back then, that errors of both the mental and physical kind happen all the time, to ballplayers and civilians alike, and losing a postseason game on an overaggressive gaffe is not the end of the world. Conversely, Merkle and Zim had to live with that hapless loser label the rest of their lives. Lieutenant Calley was forgotten faster, and hell, those were just baseball games.
Perhaps the sheer amount of gambling going on around those events accounts for the intensity of the feeling at the time, but less so for the way baseball goats have to suffer for all eternity. Perhaps three World Series titles has gotten Bill Buckner off the hook, but even then, 30 years is a long time to suffer.
The full resonance of the Giants' loss has yet to be felt and won't be fully understood until the series is over. Given their thin starting rotation, they enter Game 4 at a disadvantage, at least on paper. Ryan Vogelsong is a journeyman who had a journeyman's year (though he pitched fairly well at home). Lefty Gio Gonzalez has Cy Young-type ability when healthy. He wasn't that for much of this season, suffering from inflammation in his pitching shoulder, but once off the disabled list in mid-June he had a 3.08 ERA in 18 starts, striking out a man an inning. The Giants were just a .500 team in games started by left-handed pitchers.
Anything can happen in any one game, of course, and the Giants might win Game 4 20-2, but right now, in the moments after Game 3, it's not unreasonable to anticipate a Game 5 back in Washington. Regardless of which team wins, we'll be forgiving, we'll remember that Bumgarner, 25, is one of the best young pitchers in the National League, and should have many great accomplishments ahead of him. One bad play, whatever its ultimate import, doesn't mean anything. We're more sophisticated than that now, more empathetic.
With apologies to John Cale.