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State of Mind: A Goat’s Tale

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“GOAT,” meaning “Greatest Of All Time,” has become a popular acronym lately. You often hear it in association with the name Tom Brady, who seems to be a unanimous choice for the GOAT at the quarterback position in NFL football. 

But it’s baseball season, and when it comes to Major League Baseball, people have differing and strongly held opinions on who is the GOAT, throwing about such names as DiMaggio, Aaron, Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Gehrig, Williams, and Musial before acting like adults and throwing chairs at one another.

The term “goat,” when in lower case, has another meaning altogether, being short for “scapegoat.” To be a GOAT is good; to be a goat is bad; and to be the GOAT goat is as bad as it gets. 

Who can forget the 1986 World Series and the greatest goat in Red Sox history, Bill Buckner? His fielding error in Game 6 allowed the Mets to come back and win the game in extra innings and then go on to win the Series. Buckner received death threats because of his error. But then, Major League Baseball is more than just beer and hotdogs — there are large quantities of money involved.

I’ve known other goats over the years, one in particular while I was pursuing my second career choice in life, which was to replace Hall of Famer Nellie Fox at second base for the Chicago White Sox. 

Fox was a hero to us Chicago-born kids because in 1959 Chicago was still proudly the “Second City” in the nation and Fox helped the White Sox outpace the despised “First City” New York Yankees by 16 games to win the American League pennant and go on to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Now I know what you’re thinking, “But Lare, the White Sox lost to the Dodgers in six games.” Yes, I remember! Don’t rub it in!

Being a kid, I could never understand how a few years later the management of the White Sox could trade Fox to the Houston Colt-45s (now the Astros) before I was old enough to try out for the majors. Nevertheless, I continued to practice endlessly in games of catch with my brother and a few friends trying to turn double play relays just like Fox and his shortstop Luis Aparicio.

Then along came Little League. The second-base position on my team was already filled by a really good player, so I was forced to don what former major leaguer “Muddy” Ruel once called “the tools of ignorance” — mask, shin guards, chest protector, and a mitt about the size and shape of a Barcalounger — and became a catcher, and a pretty bad one at that. Having spent all my time practicing double play relays, I was not used to catching the ball in a squatting position. And my knowledge of the rules was somewhat vague. Who knew that a runner on first could steal second base once the pitch left the hand of the pitcher and it was up to the catcher to pick off the runner with a perfectly aimed throw to second? And the infield fly rule? Forget it. 

No smart kid wanted to be a catcher. It was dirty, and you got hit with things — baseballs, bats, bubble gum and spit from batters, the bodies and spikes of runners sliding into home plate. No. Glory awaited those playing out in the field, not behind home plate. But if you really wanted to pursue glory in baseball, the batter’s box was the place to be.

“Blow-out” games, in which one team scores a tremendous number of runs in a game, are common in Little League. Final scores often resemble those in pro basketball; think of scores like 122 to 89. Such was the case in one game in which my team, the Columbus Manor “Bears,” was involved.

The opposing team was so bad the Bears went through the batting order three times in the top of the first inning, resulting in 21 runs. The Bears probably would have scored more runs in that inning had it not been for one unfortunate kid. 

Back in those days, there was no such thing as tee-ball in Little League, where batters are allowed to hit a stationary ball from a rubber tee placed on home plate. Pitchers really pitched, and some of them were pretty good. Still, if this kid had had patience as a batter, he probably could have drawn a walk at each at-bat. Instead, he swung at anything that came near him and even ones that didn’t — inside, outside, high, low, fast, slow, in the dirt. He fanned on three trips to the plate, making all three outs in the inning. He never laid the bat on the ball. 

As is appropriate in baseball, the kid became the team’s goat and was shunned in the dugout, even though the Bears went on to easily win the game by an NBA-like score. 

The hole in this kid’s training was obvious: He should have practiced batting along with double play relays. 

So when I think of Buckner, I am sympathetic. At least I didn’t get any death threats — but then, there’s no big money in Little League.