Don’t Drop the Darn Ball

I could’ve done that!” we say when we see professional athletes perform spectacular athletic feats on TV. We say this after developing vicarious attachments to athletes after watching sports for decades. We do no not make the same I could’ve done that attachments when they mess up just as spectacularly? Being a fan allows us free movement along the spectrum of our associations with athletes. We identify with them when they succeed, and we distance ourselves from the stink of their failure. 

I got a small taste of I could’ve done that when I dropped a routine fly ball in front of about thirty people in total. I doubt any of them remember that. Check that. One does. One person will never forget it. It wasn’t just a drop. It was the way I dropped it that might haunt me for the rest of my life. You don’t care about that, and no one else does either, because no one cares about me, my softball team, or that game. We do care about professional sports, its athletes, and the outcomes. We care so much that our association them becomes an integral part of our identity. So, when one of our favorite players, from our favorite team, drops the ball we regard it as a personal embarrassment, and if they do it in a deciding game of the World Series, they’ll never forget it, because we won’t let them. 

“Hardly a day in my life, hardly an hour, that in some manner or other the dropping of that fly doesn’t come up, even after 30 years,” Fred Snodgrass said in a 1940 interview. “On the street, in my store, at my home . . . it’s all the same. They might choke up before they ask me and they hesitate — but they always ask.”

Imagine the life of Fred Snodgrass. He made one relatively small mistake as a young twenty something, and for the rest of his life, he’s so embarrassed by it that he probably does everything he can to avoid telling strangers his name. He probably considered legally changing his name at some points, and if he wasn’t so proud of his heritage, and that which he passed along to his children and grandchildren, he probably would’ve, just so he doesn’t have to answer any more questions about the one mistake he made in life. No matter what Fred did for the rest of that game [Snodgrass later made what many call an incredible catch later in that game], that season, for the rest of his baseball career, and beyond, when people heard his name, they’d probably snicker, ask him about that drop, and never let him move on in life because he dropped a ball. 

“I yelled that I’ll take it, and waved [the other outfielder] Murray off,” Snodgrass later told author Lawrence Ritter, author of the 1966 book The Glory of Their Times, “and, well, I dropped the darn thing.”

Can you hear the pain in his words? Even reading him recount a couple seconds of his life, 30 years prior, we hear how painful it was to him. We’ve heard that time heals all wounds, but some of the times it doesn’t. No one would let him forget “Dropping that darn thing” for thirty years, and he lived for another 34 years beyond that. We can assume that some people forgot as the 1912 “Snodgrass Muff” dropped further back into the rearview mirror and future generations forgot or never knew about it, but a 1974 obituary in the New York Times stated, “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.” They (we) wouldn’t even allow the man to have a peaceful death. We can only imagine how his friends and family probably talked about it at the funeral. “Most people don’t know this, but Fred actually lived a happy life, and we’re sad that he died, sure, but at least he doesn’t have to answer another question about that fly ball. At least he can have some peace now.” 

Fred Snodgrass wasn’t the best player on the New York Giants team that won three straight pennants between 1911 and 1914, but he was a solid contributor. He was a young talent that the man some consider the greatest manager of all time, John McGraw, spotted, signed, and kept in his starting lineup for seven years. After his relatively successful career in baseball, Fred Snodgrass became a successful banker, an appliance merchant, and a rancher who grew lemons and walnuts. He was also elected mayor of Oxnard California, and he served on the City Council for three terms. For all of his successes, on and off the field, Fred Snodgrass would never forget dropping an “easy” flyball in the deciding 8th game of 1912 the World Series (the 7th was game called due to darkness), because they (we) would never let him forget it.  

Bill Buckner played Major League Baseball for twenty-two years, spanning four different decades. He had over 10,00 plate appearances, 2,715 hits, won a batting title, and received MVP votes in five different seasons, but all anyone remembers him for is the Mookie-ball that rolled between his legs in game 6 of the 1986 World Series. 

2003 shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, might’ve suffered a fate similar to Snodgrass and Buckner, were it not for a man named Steve Bartman. Gonzalez muffed a routine groundball that could’ve and should’ve gotten the Cubs out of the “Bartman inning” with a double play, so routine that Gonzalez probably executed to perfection a hundred thousand times throughout his life. He muffed the most important one of his life, but few casual fans put him on any lists, like this one, thanks to Bartman. For the record, Bartman’s relatively innocent attempt to catch a foul ball for a souvenir led to a walk, and Gonzalez error led to five unearned runs. Steve Bartman’s life was ruined in a way few fans have ever experienced, and Alex Gonzalez’s name remains unknown to everyone except writers who write columns based on a theme that the Chicago Cubs lost that National League Championship Series, not a fan named Steve Bartman. 

Most people, young and old, know the name Babe Ruth. “The Babe”, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. He was, arguably, the first national sports celebrity, and some say he saved the game of baseball from the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Long, soaring home runs, are still called Ruthian, 100 years later. He appeared in ten different World Series, and he helped his teams win seven of them, but some contend that Ruth’s ill-advised attempt to steal with two outs in the bottom of the 9thinning of Game 7, cost the Yankee’s a World Series ring. The truth is that the hitter behind Ruth called for a hit and run, but the hitter, a Bob Meusel, signaled to Ruth that a hit-and-run was on. Ruth ran, but Meusel didn’t get the hit. Ruth was then left out to dry as Rogers Hornsby tagged him out and the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1926 World Series. History goes to the winners of course, and some writers have attempted to besmirch Ruth’s name by saying, “He might have been the home run king for decades, and he might have been a World Series hero many times over, but did you know…?     

We all dream of becoming a professional sports athlete. They live the lives that only royalty knew in the past. They have more money than any of us could dream of making, and they have all spoils their culture has to offer, and we live vicariously through their successes. If you’ve ever dropped the ball in a spectacularly humiliating fashion, you received some taste of how awful it feels. They call these plays routine for a reason, because we’ve practiced for such moments hundreds to thousands of times, and professional athletes have performed the routine perhaps hundreds of thousands of times. Some of the times, routine becomes so routine that we accidentally take our eye off the ball for less than a second, and we’re already throwing the ball before we catch it, or whatever the reason might be. When we play sports, we make mistakes that take a fraction of a second. Every athlete has makes so many humiliating and embarrassing mistakes that contests often come down to who makes the least amount of them. Athletes are so used to making mistakes that the best ones just move on, but we never do, and we take it as a personal insult when someone from our team tries to move on from one. In Fred Snodgrass’s case, a fraction of a second ruined his life for about sixty years.    

We don’t think about how awful it would feel for an athlete to make a crucial mistake that decides a championship, because we’re fans, and being a fan allows us to move wherever we want in our relationship with them. We want to move closer when they succeed, but we distance ourselves from the stink of their failure. It also gives us a certain joy to mock and scorn them for the rest of their lives, so that they never live the worst moment in their life down. Anyone who has ever dropped the ball, even in a meaningless softball game, has empathy for those who commit errors. We think everyone who was there that worst day of our lives remembers. They don’t, because they don’t care about us, and nobody cares about an insignificant softball game. Those of us on the outside looking in have no idea what it feels like to have someone associate their lives with us. Some of us would give up everything that makes us happy now to know just one day of their life, but as many have said in so many ways, fame has so many downsides that we should be careful what they wish for. Imagine being a grandparent, and a relatively successful business man, living a quiet, happy life, and every third person you encounter says something like this in front of your beloved grandchildren, “Aren’t you Fred Snodgrass? Didn’t you drop the ball in the World Series? Yeah, kids, that play is so famous they gave your grandpa’s play a name, the Snodgrass muff.” Most people would never say such a thing, especially in front of adoring children, but some do, and they think it’s okay, because they were fans, and he let them down. 


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