Behind the ScoreboardOctober 20, 2009
Izturis Error Has 95-Year Old Cousin, Modern Sportswriter Does Not
By Sky Andrecheck

The walk-off error. A fielder's nightmare. One minute the game is tense as can be and in the next the ball is thrown away or through the legs of the fielder to end the game. On Saturday, Maicer Izturis had the misfortune of making a walk-off error in a crucial playoff game, putting his Angels in an 0-2 hole. If the Angels lose the series, and despite their victory on Monday it's a likely scenario, that play will likely be looked back upon as one of the turning points of the series.

But Izturis is not the first player to literally throw away a playoff game. Saturday's error was the fifth walk-off error in playoff history, and so far the offending team has lost the series each time (in yesterday's contest there was very nearly a sixth walk-off error, saved only by good back-up defense by Johnny Damon).

Of course, the most famous of these plays came in the 1986 World Series as the ball got past Bill Buckner and the Mets' winning run crossed the plate in the infamous Game 6. But while that play has been written about ad nauseam for the last 23 years, perhaps more interesting is the very first walk-off error in postseason history, which came in the 1914 World Series. For those too young to remember, the '14 Series was a classic matchup between the defending champion and perennial powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics and the Cinderella underdog Boston Braves, who had spent the first half of the summer in the cellar before storming back to win the pennant.

After two games, the underdogs were in prime position for an upset, besting both of Philadelphia's aces by taking game one in a 7-1 rout, and winning game two with a 1-0, two-hit performance by one-season wonder Bill James.

The third game was a tight affair which went into extra innings. Philadelphia took the lead by scoring two in the top of the tenth, but the Braves came back to tie it in the bottom of the inning. From there, the teams battled into the twelfth, where the fatal walk-off error would occur. Setting the scene was the New York Times:

The purple haze of eventide was gathering over Fenway Park, and the 35,520 persons who had sat for more than three hours were restless and fatigued as they looked down, from all sides of the solid banks of humanity, at the figures which moved about phantomlike in the twilight. The score was 4 to 4, and Boston was at the bat in the last half of the twelfth inning.

After pitcher Joe Bush allowed Hank Gowdy to lead off with a double and intentionally walked Larry Gilbert, light hitting right-fielder Herbie Moran laid down a sacrifice bunt almost identical to the one fielded by Mariano Rivera last night.

He dropped a bunt down along the third-base line. It was Bush's play to get the ball to Baker at third and force Mann. Poor Bush! Cool under fire all afternoon, the strain had been too much for him. He got the ball, whirled about and made a ghastly throw to third which was out of Baker's reach and Mann rushed home with the victory. The crowd went wild. All the feeling and enthusiasm which had been bottled up as the game seesawed one way and then the other, burst forth with unrestrained fury. The mob jammed down to the field and smothered the Boston players in a demonstration of fanatical joy which has rarely been seen at a baseball game.

A heart-broken youth, his eyes blurred with tears, slunk away under the big stands as the paeans of victory rang in his ears. His had been a great responsibility. His team mates, the fading world's champions, had played masterful ball behind him, and they were all fighting shoulder to shoulder to try to stem the relentless onslaught of an all-powerful enemy.

Then, by one tragic throw, he had knocked the foundation from under the Mackian machine and it came tumbling down in ruins. There was no comfort for Bush. Not even the soft, fatherly forgiveness of the Athletic leader could push back that strangling lump which lodged in the youngster's throat. O fickle fame!

While the play itself had a lot in common with both Izturis' and Rivera's errors 95 years later, it's interesting to note how things have changed. First of all, sportswriters and beat reporters don't write articles like that anymore. The description is astounding and brings the reader right into the ballpark. While the invention of TV and radio perhaps made descriptive writing like this obsolete, perhaps people would buy a few more papers if the articles were this vivid.

The entire account is a rip-roaring read, from the description of the crowd ("the howling, yelling, hostile populace making [Bush's] eardrums ache with clamor") to the tension in the ballpark in the 10th inning ("For once in the game the multitude was still. It was so quiet that one could hear the big fat man sitting next to him breathing hard.") Somewhere along the line, word count restrictions and newsprint space cut out things like descriptions of the guy breathing next to you. In the age of internet, somebody should start writing like that again.

Second of all, how great is it that the fans were allowed to rush onto the field after the Braves victory? I'd like to have seen the Yankee Stadium crowd rush onto the field last Sunday night after the Yankees took a 2-0 lead. Of course, on second thought, 50,000 Yankees fans mobbing the field might not be the safest of all ideas. Still, you can't beat the fun.

Third, I was struck by the description of a tearful and inconsolable pitcher leaving the mound. While of course, such a description makes you feel bad for the guy, such is an innocence rarely seen on the diamond today. The last I remember crying in baseball was Joey Cora sitting in the dugout after Seattle lost the 1995 ALCS.

In contrast to the whole scene, consider the New York Times' description of the similar play this past Saturday night:

Cabrera bounced a ball to the left of Izturis, the second baseman. Trying for the inning-ending double play, he whirled and whipped an off-balance throw to second, nowhere near shortstop Erick Aybar. It skipped on the dirt toward third base, where Chone Figgins dropped it. Hairston, who had stopped running, raced home and slid for the winning run.

“I was trying to be a little aggressive there, but that stuff happens in baseball,” Izturis said through an interpreter. “That’s the way I am. I’m aggressive. I’m not afraid to be aggressive, but, sadly, it cost us the game.”

While nearly everything surrounding the game is different - the sportswriting, the fans, the interpreters, the excuses, the post-game press conferences, the lack of bloggers incredulous over how Mack allowed Bush to hit for himself in the 10th and 11th innings - the actual game itself remains nearly the same as it was during the 1914 World Series. I can only imagine what the writers of 2104 will think of our antiquated customs of today, but we can all hope that the game on the field will remain constant as it has for the previous 95 years.


One difference:

Bush attempted to make the correct play. His was a purely physical error.

Izturis shouldn't have thrown to second at all (mental error, plus physical error). That runner simply doesn't matter, and no way were they going to turn 2. Take the out at 1st. Of course, he has to make those types of decisions in real time under great pressure. But then he's a major league second baseman. That's his job.

Not that it's fair to blame him, but Figgins also had a heckuva shot at Hairston if he picked the ball up cleanly. Given the conditions and the shock of the situation, I can understand why he didn't.