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Putting Some Polish On Baseball Careers Tarnished by Key Goofs

EVERY baseball player makes mistakes, most of them quickly forgotten. But then there are the few who had the bad timing to commit their boo-boos in the national spotlight - at key moments of decisive games.

It's hardly fair that one mishap, even a crucial one, should overshadow the achievements of an entire career. But rightly or wrongly, this all too frequently happens - as we see by recalling names like Fred Merkle, Mickey Owen, or, more recently, Bill Buckner.

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While these names ring a bell for most fans, the incidents involved tend to become obscured over the years. What was it they did - or failed to do - to earn their dubious places in diamond lore? And shouldn't we take a moment to learn about their positive accomplishments as well?

Merkle is a case in point. It was 85 years ago this month (Sept. 23, 1908) that he committed what knowledgeable fans still consider baseball's quintessential base-running blunder. The Giants and Cubs, battling for the National League pennant, were tied 1-1 in the the ninth inning at New York, with runners on first and third and two out. When an apparent game-winning hit got past the infield, the crowd poured onto the field. Meanwhile Merkle, the runner on first, turned before reaching second and ran into the clubhouse.

Such laissez-faire base-running was customary in those days, and usually went unpunished. But this time Chicago's canny second baseman, Johnny Evers, desperately seeking any chance, seized on the omission. He retrieved the ball and touched second for a force-out.

The umpires, unable to clear the field, called it a tie. Two weeks later, when the teams finished deadlocked for first place, the game was replayed. Chicago won.

Obviously, there were mitigating circumstances for Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie who was only following common practice. He overcame the ``goat horns,'' too, fashioning a solid 16-year career and playing in five World Series. Yet mention his name today and he is ``the guy whose blunder cost the Giants the pennant.''

Owen was an excellent catcher for 13 seasons, but his name is forever linked to one pitch in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series. Brooklyn led New York 4-3 in the ninth inning with two out and no one on base when Tommy Henrich struck out, apparently ending the game. But the ball got away from Owen, Henrich reached first on the error, and the Yankees went on to win 7-4. They won the next day, too, to close out the series in five games.

The 1986 series is fresher in our minds - though even in Boston people are becoming confused and think Buckner's miscue came in the final World Series game. Actually, it was Game 6, with Boston poised for its first world championship in nearly 70 years. The Red Sox led New York 5-3 in the 10th with two out and nobody on. The Mets rallied to tie, then a grounder got past Buckner to let in the winning run. New York won again the next day to wrap up the title.

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Buckner was hardly the only culprit for Boston. Three hits and a wild pitch preceded his error in that fateful 10th inning. And, of course, the Red Sox lost three other games. Looking at the big picture, Buckner had a distinguished 22-year career that included a batting championship and 2,715 total hits. But as with Merkle, Owen, and others in similar circumstances, this goes by the boards in the minds of many fans, who remember him - unfairly - for that one ground ball.

* An occasional series. Other articles ran April 5, May 14, June 4, July 9, 20, and 27.

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