Stupid is as stupid does

Watching high school baseball for a living allows me to see some plays that are … frowned on by coaches, to put it politely. I’ve also seen coaches make mistakes that hurt their teams, which they’ll often own up to after the game if they’re worth their salt.

At the major league level, mistakes are not always admitted after the fact. Even when it’s obviously not the smart play, everyone will leap to the defense of the offender in question.

That seems to be exactly what happened Tuesday after Texas Rangers third-base coach Dave Anderson sent Josh Hamilton from third on a foul pop-up near the Detroit dugout because no one covered home on the play. Hamilton charged for the plate and was met by Tigers catcher Victor Martinez returning from foul territory to take a throw and tag him out to end the inning.

That was far from the end of the issue. The problem was that Hamilton slid head-first into home and suffered a “small non-displaced fracture of the humerus bone just below his right shoulder,” according to MLB.com. He won’t even swing a bat for a month, and is expected to miss six to eight weeks.

Texas Rangers star and reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton will miss up to two months after breaking his arm Tuesday on a questionable play trying to tag and score from third on a foul pop-up near the third-base dugout.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to baseball fans, or Rangers fans in particular. Hamilton is in his fifth major league season and has played at least 100 games in a year just twice. One of those was last year’s MVP campaign in which he played 133 games but basically missed September with two broken ribs.

Anderson said he was following the team’s mantra of being aggressive, trying to put pressure on the defense. But it was the top of the first inning. Hamilton had just given the Rangers  a 1-0 lead with an RBI triple … one that ended with him sliding head-first into third. Nelson Cruz was on deck and would have come to the plate with two out, the Cruz who’s hitting .273 with five homers and 10 RBIs after Tuesday’s game.

While Martinez and third baseman Brandon Inge went to make a play on the pop-up and pitcher Brad Penny forgot to cover home (big surprise), the foul territory around the infield isn’t all that deep. Martinez may have been out of position, but he wasn’t that far from home.

It would be one thing if Hamilton was on the move when rounding third, but tagging up he’s not nearly as fast and an alert Martinez headed for the plate as soon as Inge caught the ball and Hamilton moved from third. Inge easily fed him as he ran toward home, and Martinez made a nice diving play as Hamilton dove for home.

“As soon as the ball went up, I saw the catcher leave home plate and saw the pitcher was not covering home,” Anderson said. “I was telling Josh there was nobody at home plate. I thought we could try and steal a run. It was a tough play for the catcher, running away and catching a shuttle pass like that.

“I thought it was an opportunity — two outs, try to take advantage of it. That’s what we do, try to take advantage of things. When the ball is in the air and nobody is covering, go to home plate and see what happens.”

“I have absolutely no issue with Dave sending him,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “That’s a big tenet with Wash (manager Ron Washington) and what he teaches. We play aggressive baseball and take extra bases. The chance for him to get hurt on that play is minimal. I don’t think that had anything to do with it.

“I would encourage Dave to continue to be aggressive.”

But this team knows Hamilton’s injury history, and knows how hard it can be to get along without him. You know, the reigning AL MVP. By the way, Hamilton himself called the play “stupid” (both tagging up in the first place and sliding head first when he did, though he felt the head-first slide was the only way he could be safe). He didn’t want to do it, but listened to his coach.

It’s one thing to be aggressive, but you can easily be too aggressive, especially with a player as important as Hamilton. You don’t want to change the way you play when you’re off to a stunning 9-1 start like the Rangers were. But how much more can things change when your best hitter is taken out of the lineup for two months for an injury on a questionable play that was completely avoidable?

David Murphy was plenty serviceable as a fourth outfielder for the Rangers last season (.291, 26 2B, 12 HR, 65 RBI, 14 SB), and he’ll have to be at least that again in Hamilton’s absence if Texas wants to stay hot and keep the pressure on the rest of the AL West.

The Rangers went 19-10 without Hamilton last year, but I wouldn’t want to roll those dice again. In the end, if anyone knows a thing or two about bad decisions it’s Hamilton. I’m with him on this one. It was a stupid play, and the Rangers have to hope they don’t pay the price.

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Busting on 21 — and winning

Golf is not a sport that tolerates poor on-course behavior as a general rule. Even as Tiger Woods began his latest revitalization with a fourth-place finish at the Masters, new reports of him spitting on the course have him under the microscope for the wrong reasons again.

But with what happened to Rory McIlroy on the back nine Sunday at Augusta, I’m sure he would have been allowed a hat toss, broken club or some choice words uttered at the golfing gods or himself.

When McIlroy knocked his tee shot on No. 13 into a creek, he knew his shot to win was finally over and quietly let it show.

Holding a one-shot lead heading to No. 10 after spending the tournament at the top of the leaderboard — including a four-shot lead to start the day — the 21-year-old McIlroy proceeded to shoot plus-seven over the final nine holes to go from perhaps imagining Phil Mickelson slipping the jacket onto him to just wishing for it to be over before it got any worse.

A triple bogey at 10 after his drive hit a tree — the first of two McIlroy shots on the hole to hit a tree — and wound up between cabins far from the fairway. A three-putt bogey on 11; a four-putt double bogey on 12. Suddenly he went from being in control to needing a miracle and almost perfect play just to stay in contention.

His next shot was a drive that ensured  his demise was complete. By then, the tournament had gotten so interesting for so many other golfers that on the television broadcast his cut-ins were more purely for information than for gawkery. Yes, McIlroy’s still out of it. Now here are seven or eight other golfers who aren’t.

Being in the final group, he finished up his final round of 80 with all eyes back on him, and then came what he had to have been dreading most — the post-match greenside interview. What would he say? How would he react? He had shown emotion, reacted to shots by burying his face in his arm, and in many ways held it together through the end of the round.

But now it was over, he’d signed the odious scorecard, and all there was left to do was reflect on one of the biggest meltdowns in sports in front of a live national audience of about 10 million viewers.

What happened next was perhaps the ultimate irony, one which could signify that there were indeed lessons to be learned from this disaster. Sure, McIlroy had had something similar happen in last year’s British Open with an 80 after an opening-round 63. But that was the second round. This was the final round, the final nine holes of a major.

Despite having just had one of the most embarrassing moments of his brief career on one of the biggest stages, McIlroy handled the aftermath in a way which seems to indicate that hell be back … and on the right side of things.

And just as he had fallen apart on the course, he kept his composure off of it. He handled the questions like a veteran, answered them with wisdom beyond his years and insisted he’d learn from this and get better, be more prepared the next time he was in that situation.

That’s exactly why he very likely will be in that situation again, and I for one hope so. I remember hearing people around the office talking about his early Augusta rounds and how unimpressed they were with what they considered an almost cocky demeanor. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but he basically had to be anything but cocky after he came off the course Sunday.

He drew an ovation from those fans on the veranda at the clubhouse as he returned, people appreciating the poise he’d shown in closing out the round and conducting himself after that he hadn’t been able to translate to his golf game during the day. It was well-earned all around, and what earned it could eventually earn him a winner’s ovation down the road.