It’s a little early to be making baseball predictions, but here’s one anyway:
There won’t be a more exciting finish to a game this season than the brazen steal of home that enabled Arizona to beat Rice, 7-6, on Saturday afternoon. The bases were loaded with two out in the bottom of the ninth when the Wildcats’ Kevin Newman strolled off third and then broke for the plate.
At least I presume this is what happened. The director of the Pac-12 Network broadcast was focused on the confrontation between pitcher and batter. The possibility a base runner would break up the game with a mad dash from third never occurred to him.
More important, the possibility never occurred to Rice closer Matt Ditman, either.
“We’re taught that if the pitcher doesn’t look over, stomp your feet,” Newman said afterward. “He never peeked over, so I just took it.”
Upon watching Newman’s slide into home — it took the umpire, obviously as startled as everybody else, several seconds to rule the runner safe — my first thought was: What I just saw, uh, did I really see that?
My second thought was: How fun would it be if stealing home became the next cool trend? Copycats abound in baseball, as they do in all sports. When something proves successful — the Tampa Bay Rays’ defensive shift, for instance — it’s only a matter of time before the most stubborn of skeptics fall in line.
A straight steal of home is what’s known as a lost art, so lost that many of us can’t remember the last time it was effectively executed. I can recall the St. Louis Cardinals’ Lonnie Smith breaking for home in Game 6 of the 1982 World Series. Smith was called out to end the third inning, but the Cards fans’ reaction that night still resonates.
They went wild. Despite denying his team a chance to score in a must-win game, he electrified the place. St. Louis went on to a 10-0 victory and popped Champagne the following night.
A common belief about stealing home is that it was a dead-ball era tactic phased out by Babe Ruth and the wave of sluggers who followed him. Not really.
While Ty Cobb holds the career record at 50, Ruth did it 10 times. In 1969, a half-century after Cobb was in his prime, the Minnesota Twins’ Rod Carew, liberated by manager Billy Martin’s green-light aggressiveness, scored seven runs on steals of home.
So where did it go? Why is the art lost?
Pitchers converted from elaborate windups with men on base to more efficient deliveries released from the stand-still stretch, for one. The world’s fastest man will be challenged to race 90 feet a split-second faster than it takes a ball to be thrown 60 feet and 6 inches.
But the culture also changed. Running into an out at third base is a no-no. Running into an unforced out at home plate, depriving a hitter of an RBI opportunity, will permanently stigmatize the unsuccessful base thief as a bonehead.
And, too, managers got more passive.
During the 12th inning of a 1982 game between St. Louis and the San Francisco Giants, with the bases loaded and the score tied 4-4, the Cardinals’ Whitey Herzog sent backup catcher Glenn Brummer home.
Herzog’s reasoning? Giants reliever Gary Lavelle was left-handed — Brummer took his lead off third facing the pitcher’s blind side — and, more diabolically, who’d anticipate that a backup catcher would have the legs (among other body parts) to steal home?
Brummer scored. Herzog’s plaque at the Hall of Fame should read: “Riverboat gambler won 1,281 regular-season games, one of which was decided when he put a home-plate steal sign on for backup catcher Glenn Brummer.”
I have reviewed the video of Kevin Newman’s stolen base over and over — can’t get enough of it — and I find myself wondering about last season’s World Series finale, when Alex Gordon stood on third base, representing the tying run for the Kansas City Royals with two out in the ninth inning.
Gordon had reached third on a single the San Francisco Giants outfield bungled, putting the last-ditch scoring threat in the hands of Salvador Perez. It wasn’t a fair fight. Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner, thrust into a rare relief role that assumed adrenaline could compensate for his empty tank, toyed with Perez. A terrific Series concluded with an anticlimactic pop-up foul ball.
Afterward, there was some second-guessing about the Royals holding Gordon at third on the botched outfield play. Was sending him home not a better option than Perez flailing at pitches well out of the strike zone?
I didn’t participate in the second-guessing. I suppose I was waiting for the third-guessing, which began with Newman’s stolen base Saturday.
Work with me here: Gordon is not slow. Bumgarner is a lefty. Perez is looking at a 2-2 count. A .285 career hitter, Perez’s batting average on 2-2 counts is .219.
And oh, by the way, he’s nursing a 2-2 count against Bumgarner.
Is sending Gordon home any kind of option for Royals manager Ned Yost?
Of course not. It never crossed Yost’s mind that the tying run could be stolen. It never crossed anybody’s mind.
But it crossed my mind Saturday, when Kevin Newman stomped his feet, saw no corresponding reaction from the pitcher and scored a run by trusting in an art that doesn’t need to be lost.