Tony C., Chaos, and the Ethics of Blame

“And then one night

The kid in right

Lies sprawling in the dirt.

The fastball struck him square—he’s down!

Is Tony badly hurt?”

Just about everyone who lived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1967 knows that bit of doggerel, an epic poem written to commemorate the Boston Red Sox miracle “Impossible Dream” pennant that year. Tony, “the kid in right,” was Tony Conigliaro, or Tony C. for short, the 22-year-old Italian stud from nearby Swampscott who was ticketed for the Hall of Fame. Tony had everything: looks, talent, an adoring hometown public and a flair for the dramatic—everything but luck. On August 19, 43 years ago today, an errant pitch from Angels starter Jack Hamilton struck him in the face, nearly killing him. The beaning began a series of events that turned “The Tony Conigliaro Story” from a feel-good romp to an epic tragedy. He was never quite the same after the beaning, though he bravely played three more seasons with a hole in his vision he never told anyone about. He quit, tried pitching, actually made a second comeback that was derailed by injuries, and quit again. He was about to become the Red Sox cable TV color man when he suffered an inexplicable heart attack that left him brain-damaged and an invalid until his death, at only 45, in 1990.

Since 1967, there has been a storyline connected with Tony C.’s beaning, and it resurfaces every year. Let’s have an enthusiastic Red Sox blogger tell the tale:

“Then came the fateful fourth inning. George Scott led off with a bloop to short left center field — he was thrown out at second base trying to stretch the hit into a double. But before the next pitch could be thrown, a fan in the leftfield grandstand tossed a smoke bomb onto the outfield grass — delaying play for several fateful and life-changing minutes. Instead of remaining on the mound and throwing to stay loose, Hamilton left the field and went into to the visitor’s dugout. Once play resumed, Reggie Smith lined his first pitch — a fastball — for a single. The next batter was Conigliaro. He figured Hamilton would throw him a breaking ball — since he hadn’t warmed up during the delay. Conig crowded the plate more than usual in anticipation of the off-speed pitch… but the pitch was an inside fastball. It fooled Tony C… he reacted late… he was unable to get out of the way….A potentially great career had been snuffed out — by an idiot with a smoke bomb!”

Somewhere, probably in the Boston area, is a sad man in his sixties, who sheds a few more tears on this date than the rest of us who mourn Tony C., because he has been made to feel that he is the one who turned a young superstar’s life to ashes by throwing a smoke bomb, as a silly prank, onto the Fenway Park field. Casting blame on him, whoever he is, exploits both human frailty and a classic logical fallacy. The fallacy is post hoc ergo propter hoc, the belief that because something occurs after an event, the event must have caused it. The frailty is our tendency, as human beings, to want to search for reasons why tragedies occur, to identify the crucial moment when a disaster could have been averted, or was indelibly printed in the book of fate, and then to make someone responsible for what actually happened.

The science of chaos, the behavior of complex systems, has indeed shown that minor, even imperceptible changes in the status quo can trigger chains of events that have unpredictable consequences. It also teaches us that every event has not one variable that led to it but thousands, even millions. To look back on a tragedy after the fact, and pick out one act that the individual responsible could not possibly have imagined would lead to the horrible consequences involved, is intellectually lazy, callously unfair and inexcusably cruel.

Is it possible that the smoke bomb led to Tony C.’s beaning? The event was in the chain, certainly, but there were dozens of intervening factors that had to align before it could have any effect on Conigliaro at all—if indeed it did. The pitcher could have chosen to keep warming up, for example. The catcher could have signaled for the fateful pitch to be a curveball. Hamilton might have thrown the pitch low and away. Conigliaro might have turned his head, or his body, or thrown up his hand, or his bat. Dick Williams, the Red Sox manager, made out the line-up card: if he had batted Conigliaro somewhere else in the line-up, he might never have been hit that night. Williams could have chosen not to play him at all, if fact: was he to blame for ruining Tony C.’s life?The Angels’s manager could have chosen another pitcher, too. Was he responsible?

Major League Baseball didn’t require protective helmets with an earflap until after the beaning. If  baseball’s leaders had been more responsible (safety advocates had been calling for the change for years), Tony might have gotten away with just a bad scare. Conigliaro’s own choices were also part of the scenario: his tendency to crowd the plate, and his odd inability to more quickly to avoid getting hit, had been a matter of debate since his rookie season. I remember an old player, in an interview the season before, expressing worry about Tony’s batting style. “I’m afraid some day he’s going to get killed,” he said. Shouldn’t a Red Sox coach have made it a priority to move Tony away from the plate? Should we blame him?

The urge to blame others or ourselves for  occurrences beyond anyone’s control is a destructive trait. There are always reasons and causes for tragedies, but sometimes no one really is at fault. A thousand or more unconnected factors aligned one August night and struck down a previously charmed young man. Removing any one of them may have altered the path of his life, or not; there is no way to know. What we do know, however, or should, is that placing the full burden of the calamity on an anonymous fan who did something dumb, but not dangerous, is wrong. Guilt and remorse are far too powerful and painful emotions to inflict on anyone without good cause.

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