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ATLANTA – They booed Brooks Conrad’s(notes) stinkin’ highlight video, the one where he hit the grand slam and won a ballgame, back when he was the gritty lifer who played so hard and earned another big league shot after almost 5,000 plate appearances in the minor leagues.
They booed his record-tying three errors Sunday and they booed his trip to the on-deck circle and they booed his at-bats and then I’m guessing they booed the thought of him on their drives home.
There’s a pretty good chance they’ll boo him when they come back for Game 4, too, considering all the stuff that’s happened in the past 10 days, all the dropped balls and bad throws and the runs and frightening moments they’ve allowed and the general feeling the young man can no longer rely on his motor skills.
He’d torn out their little, tomahawk-swinging hearts at Turner Field and in the expanses of what they call Braves Country by letting a ground ball scoot between his legs in the ninth inning that gave the the San Francisco Giants a 3-2 victory in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
[Photos: See more of a dejected Brooks Conrad]
And they’ll pound their fists and demand that manager Bobby Cox bench him, and they’ll be right, it’s probably time to find an option at second base that’s not Brooks Conrad, for everybody’s sake.
But Aunt Linda in Spring Valley, Calif. down San Diego way doesn’t care what they think or what they say, because they don’t know her Brooks. She’s been listening to what the men on television have been saying and can’t understand how it’s all gotten so personal, harping on Brooks can’t do this and Brooks can’t do that, and oh it was so awful she could barely look by the end.
She sat in the house with “the Grammies,” Mimi and Nora, and they watched and rooted and tried not to give up hope that maybe Brooks would come up in the ninth inning and show all those people what he could do. At 30, Brooks still comes home with his own kids – Jaxon is 3 and Reese is 1½ – and he sits in Grandma Mimi’s lap, like he did as a boy, just for fun and laughs and because Grandma Mimi gets such a huge kick out of it.
So when the ball went through Brooks’ legs and the boos were so loud it hurt, Aunt Linda looked at the television. She looked into the red and watery eyes of Brooks, her nephew, her brother’s son, the kid she only knows as loyal and kind and hard-working. Brooks was standing there as sturdy as he could, feeling a season and a team of brothers come crashing down around him, wishing he could change any of it.
“It was just so sad,” Aunt Linda said. “Our hearts are aching.”
But, seeing Brooks hold it together, trying so hard to keep his head up and put one foot in front of the other, Aunt Linda couldn’t help but think of a boy she knows named Ben. Ben lives up in Coarsegold, Calif., in the mountains near Yosemite National Park. He’s Brooks’ nephew, and a good boy with some baseball talent. Ben, too, she knew, must have been watching Uncle Brooks play ball, make those mistakes, lose that game.
“Yet he didn’t give up,” Aunt Linda said. “Maybe this is Brooks’ lesson to his nephew, who adores him. Maybe that’s what this is.”
It’s hard to say what this is, exactly, other than to consider this young man is in over his head, and that this is what happens to an organization when Chipper Jones(notes) and Martin Prado(notes) are injured and can’t play, and when Glaus runs out of knees, and it believes too much in a player who believes so much in himself.
Conrad himself stood before his locker Sunday night and had no real explanation for the last 10 days, the eight errors in seven games, how the baseball keeps finding him and he keeps missing it. The sun was high and the infield gets hard and the shadows get long, and yet he’s made plays like this forever, at Monte Vista High School and Arizona State and all those God-forsaken minor league stops.
When Conrad got to Atlanta last summer, Cox had considered this determined dirt-dog of a player and announced, “Fans will love this kid,” and they did. And then they didn’t.
Surrounded by cameras and microphones, Conrad couldn’t mend the damage. He’d bobbled a first-inning grounder that made everyone nervous, but led to no runs. He’d dropped a second-inning popup that gave the Giants their first run. Then he’d stood in front of a ninth-inning bouncer, put his glove down and missed that, too, the baseball and the game spinning right through his legs.
“It was coming right at me,” he said, “Then it seemed to go right through me.”
“It’s completely embarrassing,” Conrad said. “I feel like I let everybody down. It’s a whole lot to swallow, but I’ll do my best to get over it. I probably won’t for a long time, if ever. I wish I could dig a hole and sleep in there.”
By then, most of the Braves had come along and given him their go-get-‘em-tomorrows, their sympathies. It was a terrible day for the Braves, who’d appeared to have won the game with Eric Hinske’s(notes) home run in the eighth, only to head into Monday with elimination hanging over their heads. It was a terrible day for Conrad. And it was a terrible day to be a Braves fan, what with all their dreams for the refreshed organization and Cox’s sendoff.
Conrad wore every bit of it.
“I gotta play better than I’ve shown out there,” he said. “Like I said, I’m embarrassed.”
It wasn’t a great day in Spring Valley either, truth be told. But, Brooks will be OK. Aunt Linda is sure of it.
He’d called the house just a few days ago, matter of fact, just to say hey to Aunt Linda and the Grammies, to say he was holding up just fine and not to worry about him, that he’d see them soon, maybe, he said with a laugh, after the World Series.
“We’re really proud of you,” Aunt Linda shouted into the phone. “You’re really special to all of us.”
And then he hung up and went back to playing baseball, sure it would get better, sure he could make those plays and carry his weight and help them all win ballgames.
When he left the ballpark, he stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, jangled a ring of keys in one of them, and promised to be back tomorrow. Whether he plays or not, they’ll be watching in Spring Valley.
“He’ll be OK because he’s strong,” Aunt Linda said. “He’s a strong person. I know that it hurt and he’s sensitive, too. I’m sure he’s down. But we’ll just keep praying for him.”