Which ending was weirder: Game 3 or Game 4?

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We sports fans will argue about anything. ANYTHING. Everyone knows that. We will not only argue about who the American League MVP should be, we will argue about the Dolphins’ new helmet (old one better), we will argue about Frank Caliendo’s best impression (Morgan Freeman), we will argue about the strongest arm in the NFL (Joe Flacco usually wins the day, but after Sunday night I’m more convinced that it’s actually Aaron Rodgers), we will argue about what horrible thing should happen to the Jeremy family in the T-Mobile commercials (stranded on desert island without power).

In many ways, we sports fans are like the parents in Woody Allen’s classic “Radio Days.”

Narrator: And then there were my father and mother … two people who could find an argument in any subject.
Father: Wait a minute. Are you telling me you think the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific?
Mother: No, have it your way. The Pacific is great.

When Sunday’s World Series Game 4 ended, I reflexively tweeted* that, in a way, the finish was even weirder than the already classic obstruction call that ended Game 3.

*New JoeWord: Twex, verb, to tweet something instantly, emotionally and with almost instant regret. Can also be used as a noun.

Several people almost instantly responded with a simple response: No way. And also: You are crazy. And I got a few emails that said: No way. And also: You are crazy. And then a friend of mine wanted to argue that there is NO WAY that Kolen Wong getting picked off to end Game 4 could be weirder than the whole Allen-Craig-Will-Middlebrooks-Jim-Joyce obstruction party that ended Game 3. He too mentioned that I was crazy.

Wait a minute. Are you telling me you think the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific?

Of course, it doesn’t matter — they’re both weird. They’re both unprecedented (no World Series had ever ended either way). They’re both keyed around colossal blunders that you would not expect Major League Baseball players to make. There’s a bit of controversy in the obstruction, I suppose, while I have not heard anyone say the umpire missed the call on Wong. It doesn’t really seem a subject worth arguing about.

So let’s argue about it anyway.

The thing about the obstruction call is that the only weird part WAS the obstruction. The rest of it was just good and bad baseball. St. Louis’ Jon Jay hit a ground ball that Boston’s Dustin Pedroia stabbed and threw home in time to get the runner. Good baseball. Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia then launched the ball somewhere toward third base in an utterly misguided effort to get a runner that was already there. Bad baseball. If third baseman Will Middlebrooks and runner Allen Craig don’t get tied up, Craig scores, the game’s over and nothing especially crazy happened. But they did get tied up, then the outfield throw beat Craig to the plate, and Jim Joyce called obstruction. Weird. No doubt.

But think now about Sunday night’s game. In the ninth inning, the Red Sox led the game by two runs. With one out, that man Allen Craig singleed off closer Koji Uehara and limped to first base. It would have been a double for just about anyone with two functional legs. Uehara is almost unhittable, except by Allen Craig — he must have some Kojinite or something. Anyway, Craig was replaced a pinch runner by Kolen Wong, a 23-year old rookie who was born in Hawaii. Wong had been in the big leagues long enough to get 62 plate appearances — he hit .153/.194/.169, so that wasn’t why he was on the World Series roster. He was there to pinch-run and play some late-inning defense.

Wong did not represent the tying run, of course, so he did not figure to be an important part of the story. The Cardinals were sending up two of their best hitters — Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran — so the focus was on home plate. Uehara had the lowest WHIP in baseball history (for pitchers with 50-plus innings pitched). Carpenter had a legitimate MVP season. Beltran has an amazing postseason history. This was going to be good.

But something really weird was happening in the background. The Red Sox were holding Wong on at first. This was hard to figure. It might have made just a little bit of sense when Matt Carpenter was hitting because there was only one out and pinning Wong at first base kept the double play in order. But let’s be real here: In that situation, almost any other team would concede the double play rather than give up the giant hole on the left side of the infield with a talented left-handed hitter like Matt Carpenter up there. Red Sox manager John Farrell has proven that he dances to his own tune. Anyway, when Carpenter hit an infield pop-up for the second out of the inning that double-play reason was gone.

And still the Red Sox held on Kolten Wong at first base — even with dead-pull hitter Carlos Beltran up next.

Everyone, these days, seems to be talking a lot about the difference between process and results. The discussion is based around the superficially simple idea that you really want to focus on how you do things rather than how they turn out. This can be frustrating, though. Sometimes, a thing done well ends up badly. You might leave an hour early for an important meeting, buy your client’s favorite coffee on the way, then have someone carelessly sideswipe your car, delaying you so long that you show up late with the coffee cold enough to make the client spit it out. You lose the contract. You get demoted. The process was right — leaving an hour early, buying the coffee. But the result was bad.

And, just as frustrating, you might do things COMPLETELY wrong and have them turn out well. You might leave 20 minutes late for that same meeting, catch every light, have the client and your boss stuck in traffic, and have a friendly co-worker give you the client’s favorite coffee at the last possible second, which wins you the contract.

The temptation, of course, is to judge things by the results — and we usually do. The boss in the first scenario might be angry enough to demote you and to give you a giant raise in the second. In reality, the first process is much better than the second and should work much more often. But it’s hard to judge things that way. You wouldn’t give the first guy a raise for losing the client. You would demote the second guy for winning the contract. This is luck. This is randomness. This is life.

The process of holding on Kolen Wong on first base seems to me hopelessly flawed. It seems exponentially more likely that Carlos Beltran would whack a hit through the gaping hole in the infield than anything good happening because you held the runner.

But … the result was shockingly good for Boston. Wong blundered in a way that, sadly, will always attach itself to his name. He learned a bit and Uehara unexpectedly threw to first. Wong’s right foot slipped a bit as he tried to dive back to the bag, and he was out. You can give a million reasons why Wong should not have been picked off. His run wasn’t the important one. There was no need for him to get to second base. His sole purpose out there was to make sure Carlos Beltran got his chance at the plate.

But reasons don’t matter here — nobody was more aware of the situation than Wong. He made a combo physical/mental mistake — a mesical mistake — and he was out.

And I would put that whole series of events — the fact that the Red Sox held on Wong in the first place, the fact that Uehara actually threw over there, the fact that Wong would do the one thing he was out there not to do — as being an even weirder series of events than the Saturday night craziness.

In percentage form, I would put it like this:

Game 3 ending:

Percent chance that Salty would throw the ball (and throw it away): 2%
Percent chance that Middlebrooks and Craig would tangle up: 1%
Percent chance that umpire would call interference: 60%

Total percentage: .012% (1 in 8,333)

Game 4 ending:
Percent chance that the Red Sox would hold on Wong: 5%
Percent chance that Uehara would throw over: 20%
Percent chance that Wong would get picked off: 1%

Total percentage: .01% (1 in 10,000).

So the Game 4 ending was inarguably weirder.*

*These percentages have been verified by the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers or someone like them and therefore cannot be argued with, rescinded, not even questioned. Also, the Pacific Ocean is better than the Atlantic.

Alan Trammell’s Hall of Fame election validates a child’s baseball memories

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla — My great uncle Harry was a boat salesman in Detroit. He had some Tigers front office types as clients so he got a lot of free tickets to Tigers games. and he’d use them to take my brother and me to Tiger Stadium several times a year. We were always right behind home plate.

My parents tell me that I went to my first game in Tiger Stadium on the Fourth of July, 1978. I was too young to remember a thing about that one. The first one I do remember was June 17, 1979. A few years ago I tracked down the box score for that game on Baseball-Reference.com to get all of the details, but before I knew all of the specifics I remembered the important details: it was a day game against the California Angels and Alan Trammell hit a home run. He instantly became my favorite player. I was not quite six years old.

Like any other kid who has a favorite player, I obsessed over him. I collected every one of his baseball cards. I looked for his name in every box score. When I played Little League I begged the coach to let me play shortstop even though I had no business playing shortstop (the coach did let me wear number 3 at least). I made sure that, when a Tigers game was on TV, no one turned it off until Trammell had come to bat at least once.

On one occasion I even sort of stalked him.

My grandparents lived in Detroit and rumor had it that Trammell rented a house just down the street from them during the season. Once, when we were visiting my grandmother, my brother and I walked to the house and knocked on the door. A woman in her 20s answered it. We presumed it to be his wife or girlfriend. We asked if Alan Trammell was there. She said no and shut the door on us. At the time we assumed that, darn our luck, he had already left to go to the ballpark that day. In hindsight I realized that it probably wasn’t his house, and that the woman, while taciturn to the point of being misleading, was technically telling the truth. The point here is that back then I just liked to assume that Alan Trammell lived two doors down from my grandparents. A kid will believe a lot about his hero ballplayer in order to be closer to him.

My thing for Trammell continued for a good decade or so. By the end of that decade it seemed plain to me that was the greatest shortstop in the history of baseball and anyone else who didn’t recognize that was simply irrational. With nearly 40 years of hindsight, I now know that Trammell wasn’t the greatest shortstop in baseball history. Probably. He was damn good, though.

After I moved away from Michigan and Trammell’s career began to wind down, Greg Maddux became my favorite player. It was a different thing with him — I was too old for a baseball player to be my hero, exactly — but it’s the case that I thought less about Trammell than I had in the 80s. That probably would’ve happened naturally, but there were other factors which worked to make me think of Trammell less than I did when I was younger.

It’s easy to get jaded if you spend enough time writing about baseball. I’ve never stopped loving or enjoying the game, but if you focus most of your life on it, you end up seeing so many amazing things that you forget some of the other amazing stuff you’ve seen. In my case, I’ve pushed out a lot of the stuff I enjoyed when I was a kid. I didn’t do it on purpose. It just happened. There is only so much baseball you can hold in your head at once and I have a lot of baseball in my head.

Part of me pushing Trammell out of my head was defensive, though. He first made the Hall of Fame ballot in 2002. He didn’t get even 20% of the vote until his ninth year. He never got as much as 37% of the vote. It pained me to see the Hall of Fame voters — many of whom would eventually become my friends and colleagues — fail to recognize him year after year. I get why that happened. Trammell was a bit of an odd duck for his era. After decades of being used to heavy leather, light bat shortstops, Hall of Fame voters weren’t ready for a guy at that position who could play gold glove defense, hit for both average and power and take an occasional walk. At the very least they weren’t ready to process several of them at once. Cal Ripken and Robin Yount, understandably, filled up that space in their heads while Ozzie Smith impressed upon them that the traditional shortstop archetype remained strong. There just wasn’t room for Tram their minds.

But even if his being overlooked was somewhat understandable, it was still painful. It seemed like a rebuke of my childhood memories. I’m not a sentimental guy. I don’t believe in that whole fathers-and-sons-passing-baseball-down-from-generation-to-generation thing. But I did wonder why I’d bother taking my kids to the Hall of Fame if I could not go into the plaque room and see my Hall of Fame-worthy boyhood idol. Why should I care about the Hall of Fame if, as far as it was concerned, Alan Trammell was an invisible man? Alan Trammell happened. I saw it. I saw him do all of those great things and, because of the manner in which baseball history is chronicled and remembered, he was forgotten in some important way. It pissed me off.

I never thought Trammell would make the Hall of Fame. Not for a moment. I knew a couple of years in that the BBWAA wouldn’t vote him in and I had no confidence, until the moment I heard the news of his election last night, that the Veteran’s Committee would ever give him his due. But they did.

It was a shock and a surprise. When I heard he made it I stopped what I was doing and just sat back dumbfounded. Happy. Flooded with memories of watching Trammell play when I was a kid and he was my favorite player. Happy that, after years and years of almost wondering if I was the only person alive who watched him play, my childhood memories were validated. Validated in a way that I never thought was really necessary but, now that it has happened, makes me feel better than I did before. Better about baseball. Better about baseball history. Better about the memories I had that, for a while, I began to even question since no one else seemed to remember Trammell like I did.

This old man’s memories of Alan Trammell aren’t all that important. Baseball memories of old men have had more than their fair share of validation over the years to the point where baseball history is almost distorted as a result. But what of the baseball memories of younger generations?

The Baseball Hall of Fame and its voters have seen fit to shun the baseball greats of the 1990s and 2000s. A host of them — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez and others — are now and likely forever will be kept out of the Hall of Fame. We certainly have not forgotten those players, but we’re not honoring them.

The Hall and its voters will eagerly explain to you why that is. It’s about ethics and morality and authenticity and all of that, they say. I’m not sure, however, why that would matter to a person who, when they were six-year-old, was amazed by their feats and exploits. I’m not sure how an entire generation of people who became baseball fans as a result of those players should be made to feel that their memories are somehow not worth memorializing. Why they should be expected to go to the Hall of Fame with their children if they can’t walk into the plaque room and say “there’s the greatest player I ever saw.”

Until last night I discounted that feeling. I don’t think I’ll discount it anymore.