Conrad feels wrath of fair-weather fans

Atlanta Braves second-baseman Brooks Conrad in dugout after Sunday's three-error game.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

-- Theodore Roosevelt

ATLANTA --- Those of us residing in the "gray twilight" out of the spotlight need to read that quote above.

Then when we feel compelled to condemn Brooks Conrad, read it again. And again. And again.

Braves fans felt sick after seeing the National League Division Series slip through Conrad's legs Sunday. Not half as sick as the second baseman feels himself.

"I wish I could dig a hole and go sleep in there," Conrad said as he faced the boos and the music after the worst night of his professional life.

Of course, many Braves fans wished they could bury Conrad in it after his nightmare helped scuttle Atlanta's postseason in a 3-1 series loss to the Giants. Three errors by the rookie forced into defensive service because of injuries was apparently enough to undo everything else Conrad had done over the preceding months to endear himself to fans.

Disappointed yahoos at Turner Field quickly turned on Conrad on Sunday night. Forget the fact that he played a vital role in the Braves reaching the playoffs in the first place. Minutes after his final error gave the Giants the lead, footage of his unforgettable walk-off grand slam that capped a six-run rally in the ninth inning to defeat the Reds in May prompted a chorus of boos from the home crowd that once loved the gritty rookie.

When a reporter mentioned Monday that everybody in the stadium was feeling for Conrad, injured closer Billy Wagner was quick to rebut: "There were about 43,000 people not feeling for him."

The dark side of fanaticism brings out the worst sometimes in fans. They expect their heroes to be infallible, when in fact they're just as human as we are.

Bobby Cox, whose managerial finale was hastened by Conrad's mistakes, was quick to come to his player's defense even as he gave him "the day off" from playing second base to heal his psyche. The Braves lost 3-2 on Monday to end the 2010 season and Cox's career.

"He's the darling of the fans here all season long, and this shouldn't happen to anybody in the game of baseball," Cox said. "The fans have really had his back all season long. I'd like to see them continue that. He needs that help right now."

Conrad's treatment illustrates an element of competition that has always fascinated me. Everyone gets into sports for the fun and glory. Every kid dreams of making The Catch or hitting The Homer or draining The Shot or sinking The Putt or whatever the pinnacle of achievement is in any chosen game.

But the flip side is always lurking. You can build an entire career on heroic moments and have it all come crashing down with one untimely lapse.

The worst thing that can happen to an athlete is to become a descriptive noun, verb or adjective. A Buckner-esque gaffe. A Van de Veldian meltdown. To Norman (choke) or pull a Norwood (miss a game-winner).

What do Georgia fans think of when they hear the name Terrence Edwards, his career receptions and yardage records or the drop against Florida?

What is the lasting impression of the 16-year NFL service of Jackie Smith, his nearly 8,000 career receiving yards or the end-zone whiff in the Super Bowl?

The unforgiving nature of armchair critics makes you wonder why any athlete would crave the adulation that can turn to ridicule on a dime. It's their lowest moments and how they handle it that I find the most admirable.

Just last week, talented young American golfer Hunter Mahan was reduced to tears after chunking a chip with all the pressure of the Ryder Cup on his shoulders. Before any critics could start carving Mahan up, his teammates jumped to his defense.

"If you go up-and-down the line of the tour players in Europe and U.S. and asked them if you would like to be the last guy to decide the Ryder Cup, probably less than half would say they would like to be that guy and probably less than 10 percent of them would mean it," Stewart Cink said. "Hunter Mahan put himself in that position today. He was a man on our team to put himself in that position."

Athletes from Little League to the professional ranks put themselves in that position every game. It's a gauntlet they choose to run even though the risks of failure often outweigh the considerable rewards.

Fans have every right to be upset and to expect better from the highly paid gladiators they support in fair weather. They should expect a major-league second baseman to be able to field a routine ground ball in the heat of postseason pressure.

But they have no right to be so cruel. And cruelty is a nasty human trait that turns "timid souls" into bullies. They have no reservation in unleashing hurt on other humans whose biggest mistake was putting themselves out there and failing everyone's expectations.

Pitcher Donnie Moore never recovered from being the guy who gave up the homer to Boston's Dave Henderson with the Angels one out away from clinching the 1986 ALCS. Moore committed suicide after his career ended three years later.

Bill Buckner -- whose single started the Red Sox rally that ultimately destroyed Moore -- became the subject of derision and death threats two weeks later in the World Series when he let a ground ball through his legs that helped cost the Red Sox Game 6 and eventually the championship. It took a decade for Buckner to bury his bitterness and forgive the media and fans their treatment of him.

Let's hope Conrad doesn't have to wait so long. He received some encouraging comments from more thoughtful fans during batting practice before Tuesday's Game 4. He said how much he appreciated the long conversation he had with Cox and the support of his teammates.

But his hurt was still evident in his face.

"I'm feeling as good as I can," he said. "I didn't sleep a whole lot, but the sun came up this morning. I'm anxious to get in there and contribute to the team any way I can."

After the fans had the chance to sleep on it, Conrad got a rousing reception as he led off the ninth as a pinch hitter, popping out to center field.

He has known victory and defeat and has the courage to put himself back out there and try again. That's a man Teddy Roosevelt would respect.

The rest of us timid souls should respect the man and the effort as well even if we hate the result of his humanity.

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