Sometime this weekend, an unlucky soul will commit the 500,000th error in baseball history. It has taken the sport 136 years to accumulate enough bobbles, bungles, kicks, trips, flips, flops, flings and altogether awful things to reach half a million. And whether it's a bad hop, a worse throw or any of the hundreds of other ways to work yourself onto the scorecard, someone will earn a historic Scarlet E.
Should he so desire, the culprit can deny No. 500,000. Record-keeping was shoddy until about 40 years ago. Surely an error in 1892 slipped through the cracks when a drunken scorer was nipping at a flask. Some data-entry monkey could have mistaken a K for an E. Even Baseball-Reference.com, the website keeping track of the march to 500,000, notes that if you include National Association games played from 1871-75 the number is over 515,000 already. And the current tally, 499,965, doesn't include playoff games.
Forget that. Five hundred thousand is a big, round number, and it needs an owner, someone who can laugh at himself like the perpetrator of the worst error ever does these days.
Bill Buckner lives in Idaho. He blends in fine until he furnishes a credit card, driver's license or any form of identification that triggers an immediate response: "You're that guy who let the ball go … " And they stop. They realize he's heard it a million times, and there's no sense in picking at someone else's scab. It'll always be fresh anyway.
Because even though Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series isn't one of the 500,000, it's more resonant than all the others combined. It is a seminal moment in the game's history, the only one of ignominy alongside the Shot Heard 'Round the World, Babe Ruth's called shot and Willie Mays' catch.
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Last year, Buckner received a phone call from Boston Red Sox owner John Henry asking for a favor. Henry is friendly with Larry David, the genius behind "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and David wrote an episode in which during a softball championship game he allowed a ball to roll between his legs at first base. He wanted Buckner to guest star.
"I was a little leery," Buckner told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday. "But I had a hunch that it would work out all right with Larry David."
It took the humble error, and the humble man who committed it, and celebrated both. Which is exactly what should happen this weekend.
"I was playing shortstop for the Indians. … I made an error that cost us the game. Before the game was over, some fool had actually made a sign. It said: 'To err is human. To error is Ron Washington.' " – Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington
There is no harsher record kept in team sports than the error. The equivalent in football or basketball or hockey, the turnover, can be forced by an opponent. Penalties and fouls are often drawn. The error is lonely. It is a man and his screw-up, tied together by a capital E and his positional number, burned in permanence on the scoreboard, which considers errors every bit as important as runs and hits.
The funny thing about errors is that so many things that should be aren't. Merkle's Boner? Not an error, as baserunning gaffes don't qualify. A fly ball lost in the sun? Official scorers rarely penalize players if they don't touch the ball. A ball bouncing off Jose Canseco's head and over the fence? A home run, actually, even though it bounced off his head and over the fence.
Even better, the assignment of errors is completely subjective. At every game, an official scorer – often a lapsed sportswriter – plays judge, jury and executioner. What's an error to one is a hit to another. And the clamoring among players is endless. Batters want hits instead of errors to boost their averages. Pitchers want errors instead of hits to lower their ERAs. Players with good gloves want as few errors as possible for Gold Glove-voting time. Complaints go to New York, where Tony La Russa chooses the final verdict. He is the error's Chief Justice.
On most, he need not render judgment. The majority of errors are clear-cut enough that the soundtrack of groaning crescendos in their immediate aftermath. There are few things more frustrating than a shortstop booting a ground ball or an outfielder airmailing a throw. Errors are versatile little worms. They amuse (see your weekly lowlights), they infuriate (ever been to a game lost on an error?), they fascinate (no two are the same).
Most of all, they remind us just how difficult this game is. Defensive brilliance so pervades baseball that the error is the finger-snap that awakens you from the hypnosis of excellence. They can come from sloth and distraction and incompetence, sure, but the error is a delicious reminder that the pursuit of perfection is fraught with little pebbles glad to deflect a ball a quarter-inch and ruin a night.
"I remember Damon Hollins one time threw the ball in the crowd that wasn't the third out. [Baltimore's David Newhan] advanced from second to third when he caught it, and when the ball went into the stands, he got to go home. He was the game-winning run. We lost by one. That was the most Rays loss ever." – Oakland A's outfielder Jonny Gomes
More than half the errors in baseball history came before 1929. The game was different then, particularly before the turn of the century, when they played a particularly awful brand of baseball. This is a fact, as provided by Baseball-Reference.com: In 1876, the National League's first season, the eight teams averaged more than six errors per team per game. Over 260 games, they committed 3,123 errors. It didn't get any better by 1884, during which fielders made 14,555 errors in 1,544 games.
Hundred-error seasons were commonplace. Philadelphia A's shortstop Billy Shindle, somehow considered a good fielder, co-owns the single-season record with 122. Another shortstop, Herman Long, joined Shindle with 122 as a rookie and finished his career 15 years later with a record 1,096 errors. Four other players cracked quadruple digits.
It's not like errors were reserved for the mediocre, either. Hall of Famer Cap Anson retired with 976. King Kelly and Honus Wagner each topped 800. Dan Brouthers, the great slugger of the 1800s, finished with 531 errors. He was a first baseman.
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Fielding truly has trod an evolutionary path, moving slowly toward something better. One hundred years ago, teams committed 1.81 errors per game. Seventy-five years ago, it improved to 1.13. At 50 years, it was .92. And at a quarter-century, .78. Today, teams commit .61 errors per game.
"It's a product of the fields themselves being in better shape," Washington said. "They're impeccable stadiums today. The ground don't break up. You don't play on sandy fields. You get out there long enough, and it'd get chopped up. You couldn't fix it."
He's right. Major league baseball fields look like lessons in botany. The grass is painstakingly manicured, mowed in pattern and frighteningly green. The meticulousness of groundskeeping crews almost ensures the infield dirt is flat and the hops true as artificial turf. Between that and the superior gloves, it's no wonder players are willing to dive and sprawl and do whatever necessary to reach a ball. They figure it's going to be there.
The fielding today is exquisite. Unless a ball gets hit to a pitcher or Mark Reynolds, chances are the player stuck with No. 500,000 will have made a highlight's reel worth of spectacular plays this season. Starlin Castro's 24 errors, a major league-leading mixture of laziness and bad luck, are the yang to his yin of a National League-leading 74 successful plays outside of a shortstop's designated zone.
It's not like Castro is Jose Offerman, whose 42-error 1992 season leaves him the last major leaguer with 40-plus in a year. Should he steady himself over the season's final three weeks, Castro would make 2012 the fifth time in 10 seasons the king of botch finished with fewer than 30.
It's different today. The active all-time error leader: Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal, with 250 errors. That ties him for 368th all time and places him one error behind 19th-century infielder Joe Werrick, who made 251 errors in 392 games.
The occasional modern anomaly exists. Pitcher Tommy John committed three errors on one play in 1988. Catcher Bob Brenly, forced into emergency third-base duty, butchered four balls in one game in 1986. And just a week ago, in a game with great implications on their postseason aspirations, the Pittsburgh Pirates committed seven errors, seven ugly, awful embarrassing moments.
"Throw home with the bases loaded. I thought I had my foot on the plate. The guy was out by probably 10 feet. I caught the ball and I backed up because I had no [other] play. The umpire was John Kibler, God rest his soul. The guy slid in. I'm waiting for an out call. He goes, "Safe!" I look, and I'm literally 4 feet from the plate. Just standing there like some jackass. … John looks at me and goes, 'What are you doing?' I go, 'I have no idea, John.' " – Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia
John Kibler spent 25 years umpiring in the major leagues. He happened to be umpiring first base during Game 6 of the World Series in 1986. His right arm is the one you see in still photographs and video pointing Mookie Wilson's dribbler fair. Only the man who committed it had a better view than Kibler of the most famous error in history.
"They don't call it an error anywhere else," Bill Buckner said with a chuckle. "It should be called a miscalculation."
He can talk about his error these days without getting mad or sad or frustrated or any of the other emotions that plagued him for decades. For so long, it ate at Buckner that nobody remembered his 22 major league seasons and 2,715 hits and 1,000-plus runs and RBIs and everything he did well.
A trip back to Boston in 2008 to throw out the first pitch the day the Red Sox unveiled their championship banner started the healing process. "Curb" helped. Now Buckner is hitting coach for Class A Boise, the Cubs' Northwest League affiliate, and he's happy to point out he helmed the best offense in the league.
Granted, none of this will make him whole again. To survive all those years, Buckner needed to rationalize, to make up a truth about what his error really was.
"I'm not just saying this," he said. "In reality, it was really blown out of proportion. Hey, errors are errors. Some of 'em are more important. I mean, the reality of it is, people in baseball know that error did not specifically cost us the Series. It wasn't the seventh game."
None of what he says is wrong. Errors are malleable like that, stretched by circumstance. He didn't do his job. Others could've done theirs better, too, to ensure his was forgotten.
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The magnitude of the error this weekend, on the other hand, will pale. Chances are it'll be some disappointing, lackluster throw from shortstop that bounces and doesn't get scooped by the first baseman or a groundball that eats up an infielder. Those are the yeoman's errors.
When it happens – and chances are it'll happen Saturday, seeing as a full slate of games averages about 18.3 errors, both Friday and Saturday are jammed schedules and we're 35 away – the announcers probably won't say anything because they neither know about nor have checked Baseball-Reference's countdown.
And that's fine. To those in the know – to those who appreciate something good – the error is a secret gem. We know that a few feet away from Castro most games stands Darwin Barney, whose errorless streak at second base has run 127 games. We know that Pedro Alvarez is a great candidate for No. 500,000 and that Aramis Ramirez has only six errors because he's too decrepit to get to tough balls and that maybe a pitcher is the best bet for half a million, considering just 25 of the 94 qualified starters are errorless.
Most of all, we know the guy at the stadium in Cleveland back in 1988 was mistaken. Yes, Ron Washington did commit 16 errors in 54 games at shortstop that season, but he didn't deserve that sign. The fan had the last line all wrong.
To err is human.
To error is baseball.
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