Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Brooks Conrad moving past errors
By Jayson Stark
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It's five months now since the baseballs stopped hopping under Brooks Conrad's glove or zigging when he zagged or finding him when he most wanted to hide.
It's five months now since Conrad's October nightmare. And the welcoming palm trees and warming sunbeams of spring training have never looked better.
"I'm very excited to get back here," said a man who last fall made the kind of postseason history no one wants to make -- yet somehow found a way to turn that nightmare into a life lesson for players everywhere.
It's five months now since the Braves' favorite super-utility dervish lit the dreaded "E" light on the Turner Field scoreboard three times in one postseason game against the Giants -- with the third of those errors coming at the worst possible time:
Ninth inning. Winning run scores. A ball game, a Division Series, maybe the entire postseason, turning on one bounce of the baseball under Brooks Conrad's glove.
But that's not all. Only three other second basemen in history, and only 10 other players at any position, had ever committed three errors in one postseason game. None of the others, though, had ever had that third error untie a game in the ninth inning or later.
So of all the postseason baseball games ever played and of all the men who had ever played in them, you could make a case that nobody has ever had to endure a personal horror show quite like Conrad's.
That word, again, was "nobody."
You find out a lot about human beings at times like that. It isn't easy, you know, to step forward to meet those kinds of moments.
It isn't easy to accept responsibility for the awful things that sometimes happen to good people on a baseball field -- without looking for some bad hop or some gust of wind or some diabolical divot in the infield dirt to explain it all away.
Understand, then, how difficult it was for a 30-year-old bench player -- who had been forced to slog his way through nine minor league seasons and nearly 5,000 minor league trips to the plate, just to get his chance -- to stand at his locker afterward and say this:
"I felt like I let everybody down."
It's five months now since those words came tumbling out of Conrad's mouth. And the man who uttered them is still standing as tall now as he stood then.
"You can't put the blame on anyone else," he said, of a moment the world may never allow him to forget. "You've got to stand up and take the heat. Stuff like that happens. And there's no reason to blame anyone else."
He's wrong about that, though. There is a reason. It's easier on the soul, easier on the conscience, to find something, anything, to blame at times like that. Blinding sun. Acid reflux. Government spending. Unrest in the Middle East.
There's always something to blame.
Conrad just chose not to look for it.
He was taught early on in life, he said, that when something goes wrong it's nobody else's fault. So all he was doing that day was "what felt natural."
"That's how I was brought up," Conrad said. "I was always taught that way by my parents, to never take things for granted, to take responsibility for your actions. There are always consequences for your actions in all things in life, not just in sports. You make a lot more decisions off the field than on the field.
"So the life-lesson part of this is you've just got to realize there are consequences for all your actions. Just off the field, you've got more time to think about what you do. On the field, things happen a lot quicker. So I guess you could come up with a lot more excuses when things don't go your way on the field. You could always say, 'This happened' or 'that happened' or 'it happened a lot faster.' But the bottom line is you've still got to realize you're out there. You've got to hold yourself accountable."
|The snapshot of Brooks Conrad's NLDS meltdown won't go away any time soon.|
The fact is, though, you don't have to do anything at those moments. Many players run. Many players hide. Many players think the rest of the planet is out to get them, just because the folks holding the microphones assemble afterward to ask what the heck happened.
"So I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy what happened to him that day, on that stage," said Conrad's highest-profile teammate, Chipper Jones, "much less on the person that Brooks Conrad is, because there's not a more well-liked or well-respected guy in that clubhouse."
There's a voice in Jones' head that still reminds him that if he hadn't blown out his knee last August then-manager Bobby Cox never would have had to send Conrad out there to play that day. But once Jones' knee ligaments turned to fettuccini and once his replacement, Martin Prado, went down with a torn oblique muscle and a hip pointer, there was no choice.
"Brooks is a role-player on this club," Jones said. "Unfortunately, he was forced into playing every day because of injuries. He still went out, worked his tail off and tried to do the best job he could. He just had an unfortunate day -- on an unfortunate stage."
And when a guy climbs onto that stage, he knows the stakes. If he turns into Cody Ross or Scott Spiezio or Bucky Dent, he can be a hero for life. But if the planet spins the other way and he winds up as, say, Bill Buckner -- the last man before Conrad, by the way, to commit a fielding error that allowed the winning run to score that late in a postseason game -- you know what happens then.
That becomes the frozen moment attached to a guy's name and career. And it's amazing how fast the rest of civilization contracts a serious case of amnesia when it comes time to recall all the good stuff he's done.
The toughest part of what happened that day for Conrad's teammates was that it seemed to wipe away all memory of the great stuff this man had done all season to keep the Braves' magic carpet flying.
As the ESPN's Stats & Info crew reminded us last fall, he was a fellow who arose from minor league obscurity to hit .378 with runners in scoring position last year and hit four go-ahead home runs in the seventh inning or later. And he pounded one of the most unforgettable homers of any team's season -- a pinch walk-off slam to finish off an amazing seven-run, ninth-inning comeback against the Reds.
Without all of those gigantic hits, the Braves never would have been playing baseball last October. And every player in their clubhouse was well aware of that. So once the media hordes had put down their pens, turned off their cameras and moved onward, Conrad's teammates rose up to rally around him.
"After that game, I walked through our locker room and I saw that eight or nine of our veteran players had taken their chairs and basically wrapped them around [Conrad's] locker," GM Frank Wren said. "It was their way of saying, 'We've all been there. We've all made mistakes. We've all made errors. We wish something different had happened, but it didn't. So you've got to move on.'"
You've got to stand up and take the heat. Stuff like that happens. And there's no reason to blame anyone else.
-- Braves utility man Brooks Conrad
Let's just say that was a gesture not lost on a man who was overwhelmed by that much-needed support.
"It was a tribute to what type of team we have and the type of guys we have on our team," Conrad said. "Everybody's got everybody's back. And everybody was behind me, saying nice things. & You know, I go out there and give my best every single time I'm out there. And when I don't get things done, I can be a little bit hard on myself about it. And they were just there to reassure me and say, 'Hey, you're a good player. And we're going to need you going forward. And don't forget about everything you did to get us here.'"
But there was something more Conrad's teammates took note of that day. They saw a player who had just lived through the worst game of his baseball career but refused to run away from his sense of responsibility for what had just happened. They watched him march right out to his locker, answer every question and direct all the heat squarely at himself.
What made doing that even harder was that his defensive nightmare had been going on for over a week. Three days earlier, there had been another painful, nationally televised error in Game 1 of the Giants' series. And that one followed a messy streak of errors in four straight games to end the regular season, as the Braves were staggering to the champagne party.
So by the time that third E-4 appeared on the scoreboard in Game 3, his buddies knew how much Conrad wished he could have waved some kind of magic wand to make himself disappear.
But the lesson he taught players everywhere that day is that disappearing isn't what true professionals do. They stand there and say, "That was my fault."
"You learn a lot about a guy when the going gets tough," Jones said. "And the whole country saw why Brooks Conrad is so loved in our clubhouse after that game. You saw raw emotion. Obviously, you had a guy who was on the brink of breakdown. But he handled it with class. He stood up like a man and took responsibility. And because of that, there's not a guy in here right now who's thinking about that last game of the year."
But five months later, Conrad knows he can't stop other people from thinking about that last game of the year.
He's had a therapeutic offseason, basking in his family's warmth and support, to help wash away the stain of last October. And he's been able to have about as normal a spring training as a guy can have after starring in a disaster flick like that.
Every once in a while, though, some media buzzkill comes heading his way, to talk about "You Know What." And still, he makes no attempt to escape.
"That game's always going to be there," he said. "It's never going to go away. It's something that happened, something you can't erase. So obviously, a lot of people are going to ask about it. And it's not something where I can say, 'I'm not going to talk about it,' because it's something that did happen. So you have to let that music play at all times. And you have to face it. You have to continue to live with it."
But somewhere out there over the horizon is a better day, a better time, a happier story. And that thought helps him through every day. Conrad will always be a man who accepts the past. But he can't wait for a new, more upbeat plot line from the future to arrive on his doorstep.
"Yeah, I'm looking forward," said the soft-spoken man, still teaching us that there's life after all unfortunate YouTube moments, "starting right now."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
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|Brooks Conrad is back on the field and not hiding from the costly errors he made last season.|