Game 3 of the Oakland-Boston Division Series was eerily reminiscent of the 2001 Series against the Yankees. In both games, glaring baserunning errors cost Oakland a chance to score early, in a close, low-scoring game ultimately decided by a home run. In 2001, the A's lost in nine innings; in 2003, it wasn't until the 11th that the A's went down. Even with to the egregiousness of the mistakes, it is my contention that the errors of this Game Three will not be remembered as severely as that of 2001's. In that game, with the A's holding a 2-0 series lead, and returning home to Oakland, Terence Long hit a double with a man on first. Shane Spencer made an errant throw home, but Derek Jeter cut off the throw, scooped to the catcher, and when runner Jeremy Giambi failed to slide, he was out at the plate. The A's went on to lose Game Three 1-0, as well as Games Four and Five, with Giambi's non-slide being blamed for the defeat.
It has become one of those legendary post-season gaffes that take on much greater stature in memory than their actual game significance. Bill Buckner's notorious error in Game Six of the 1986 World Series came after the game was already tied, and on a play where the speedy Mookie Wilson may well have reached even had he fielded the ball cleanly. A wild pitch tied the game before Wilson hit the grounder. If Buckner had come up with the ball, at best the Red Sox would have gone to extra innings tied at five-all, on the road. Even so, the Red Sox had a chance to win Game Seven the next night. Bill Buckner is no more responsible than Bob Stanley for blowing the game, and much less so than Calvin Schiraldi, yet he's the eternal goat because his gaffe was so memorable.
What people don't remember about Game Three of the 2001 Series is that, at the time, the score was Yankees 1, A's 0. Giambi's run would only have tied the game, not won it. But, the combination of brilliant defense (Jeter) and glaring fundamental error (Giambi) is what makes the Giambi play stand out. No one talks about the bizarre decision to begin hitting Miguel Tejada second in the postseason. No one mentions the errors by Jason Giambi or Eric Chavez in Game Five, each costing the A's one run in a game they lost by two. The most memorable play will always be seen as the most important play, regardless of the true significance.
Jeremy Giambi may rest a little easier, because in Game Three of this year's American League Division Series, two different A's in one inning made baserunning lapses that dwarf Giambi's failure to slide (on a play where he was out by inches, if that). In the sixth inning, Eric Byrnes collided with Boston catcher Jason Varitek on a play at the plate, while the throw went past Varitek to the backstop. Byrnes never touched home, not on his initial crashing of the plate, and not afterward, as the ball bounced around behind home and he busied himself with grabbing his knee and shoving Varitek. The runners all moved up two bases, but Byrnes was tagged out where he stood, inches away from home.
Two batters later, Ramon Hernandez grounded a ball under the glove of shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Miguel Tejada, running from second, bumped into third baseman Bill Mueller as he rounded third. The umpire raised his hand and called obstruction, at which point Tejada simply stopped running. He stood there, arguing and pointing at Mueller, until he too was tagged out, within spitting distance of home. Later, the umpires said that they were prepared to award Tejada home plate on any reasonably close play, but when he made no attempt at all to score, they had no choice but to call him out. The two plays cost the A's at least two runs, possibly more - two putouts at home have a way of killing a rally. This wasn't Jeremy Giambi making a bad judgment call on a close play. This was two players in one inning choosing to fight and argue rather than simply touch home plate. Giambi is an oaf and Giambi should have slid, but at least he tried to touch home.
Will this nightmarish sixth inning of baserunning go into the annals of postseason embarrassments, along with Tony Fernandez's misplayed grounder in 1997, Lonnie Smith's baserunning in 1991, and Fred Snodgrass' muffed fly in 1912? There are a few reasons why I don't think it will. First of all, there were two guys who screwed up. Multiple goats means that the blame is diffused by its distribution over two people. There's also a decent chance that Tejada or Byrnes will make a great play later in the series, earning them a pass from later criticism. Second, these mistakes were complicated and difficult to understand upon fisrt viewing. There's no single moment that can be shown in a blooper reel. It's easy to say that the A's would have gone all the way in 2001 "if only Jeremy had slid." It's a lot harder to say, "The A's would have won it all in 2003, if only Byrnes hadn't thrown a temper tantrum, and Tejada had had a clearer understanding of the subtleties of Major League Baseball's obstruction rule." Thirdly, the Red Sox still aren't going to win this series, so the point will be moot. And Jeremy Giambi, out for the year but still part of the Red Sox team, will retain his legendary goat status.