What was that? A prayer? A yoga pose? Orlando Cabrera had never seen anything like it. As he sat in the Angels' dugout that afternoon in July 2006, Cabrera watched Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley, a rookie making his fourth start, set himself to start his windup, then pause and duck his head into his glove like someone having a conversation with his wristwatch. A runner lingered off third base, but Billingsley ignored him. "I get to third," Cabrera said to Vladimir Guerrero, sitting beside him, "I'm going home."
This is an article from the Aug. 16, 2010 issue
Had Guerrero heard him? Standing on third base now, Cabrera watched him step into the batter's box and wondered. With two out in the third inning Cabrera had lined a double to rightfield, then kept running when J.D. Drew misplayed the ball. The crowd was still buzzing, but nobody knew what was coming. Well, Cabrera hoped one person knew. Batting cleanup, the righthanded Guerrero had a reputation for swinging at just about anything thrown his way. He was a fearsome hitter but not a selective one. And in this instance, a line drive pulled toward third base or even a swing that missed could be perilous to Cabrera.
Cabrera had never stolen home before, never even thought about it. Cabrera's eyes met Guerrero's, and the runner nodded toward the plate, but he couldn't be certain that Guerrero understood. Cabrera forced himself to stay still, not inch down the line. "The adrenaline is pumping, and I'm counting every split second, but I don't want to give any indication that I'm going to do it," he remembers. "That's the hard part. To wait. To wait. To force yourself not to start going."
Then Cabrera went. "And all the way," he says, "I'm thinking, Don't swing! Don't swing!"
Billingsley never saw him. "The way I knew, I started hearing the fans," the pitcher says. "And then I just thought, Oh, gee." All Cabrera's worrying about Guerrero didn't matter. Transfixed by the idea that someone was actually stealing home on him—a play he'd never seen in person, much less participated in—Billingsley didn't let go of the ball.
With that steal Cabrera joined the select group of active big leaguers who have pulled off one of baseball's most exciting plays. In fact, it could be argued that the straight steal of home—not the back end of a double steal, not the steal off a botched suicide squeeze, but a premeditated dash down the third base line in a quixotic effort to beat a pitch to the plate—is the most electrifying act in sports. It combines the drama of a penalty shot, the intrigue of a flea-flicker and the rousing effect of a backboard-shattering dunk.
But actually witnessing one? With seven weeks left in the 2010 season, no major leaguer has stolen home on his own all year. It's not an official statistic, so nobody knows the last season that passed without a straight steal of home. But it was at least a decade ago, and probably far longer. Fewer pitchers than ever use full windups with runners on third these days, videos insure that any successful culprit will be studied around the league, and managers are more conservative than ever. It makes us wonder if we'll ever see another.
I. ANYONE CAN STEAL HOME (EVEN YOU, SWEENEY)
How do you steal home? You start with an inattentive pitcher, the sole constant in the equation. "If he's doing his job, [stealing home is] impossible," says Davey Lopes, who swiped 557 bases (including home off a double steal in 1982) in a 16-year big league career and is now the Phillies' first base coach. "I've never seen anyone yet who could outrun a baseball over 60 feet." It also helps if the pitcher is throwing from a full windup, which takes as much as two seconds longer than pitching from the stretch.
Beyond that, consensus wanes. Conventional wisdom insists that you try it only with two outs, since a sacrifice fly or even a grounder can get a runner home. Yet it's happened plenty of times with one out and none. Some say that having a righty at the plate is desirable because he'll block the catcher's view of the runner. Others prefer a lefty, especially a powerful pull hitter, because the third baseman will be shaded toward shortstop, allowing the runner a bigger lead. Some runners like to bluff down the line to see if the pitcher notices, while others prefer not to telegraph their intentions.
The players who've stolen home aren't necessarily those you'd expect. "On paper, you wouldn't think I'd be the guy to do it," says Phillies first baseman Mike Sweeney, who stole home while playing for the Royals in 2002. "I'm an ex-catcher," he explains. "I run about a 4.7 40. I have a bad back." Yet speedsters such as Jose Reyes and Curtis Granderson haven't done it. "Not even in high school," concedes Granderson. Toronto's Aaron Hill is a member of the club but not Ichiro Suzuki. Corky Miller, the lumbering Reds catcher, has exactly one steal in his decade-long career. It was of home, on a failed squeeze. "I'm one for one," he says. "I think I'll stop there."
Sure, stolen-base leaders are more likely to attract attention on third. "I'm exactly the kind of guy they're watching," says Juan Pierre, the White Sox' outfielder, who has 500 career steals but only one (on a double steal) over those last 90 feet. "I'll never get the chance." Jackie Robinson, whose brazen dashes to the plate live on in the memories of anyone old enough to have seen him play, had a sprinter's speed, but those who have emulated him in recent years will tell you that other attributes are even more important. "You actually don't need to be that fast," claims Pierre's teammate Omar Vizquel, who isn't—yet has stolen home three times.
What's vital is timing and guile (Sweeney describes the mind-set as "hide-and-seek meets cowboys-and-Indians"), the nerve to attempt it and the confidence that you'll be safe. It helps, too, to have a certain extravagance of personality, a wild or imaginative spirit that is willing to risk disparagement in order to create something transcendent. "It's pure," says Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth, who did it off a distracted catcher's looping throw. "There's something mystical about it. The stars, the moon, the wind, the sun, they all have to align. It's not comparable to anything else I've ever done."
Other than the home run, the steal of home is the only play in baseball on which one player single-handedly changes the score. Yet Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, who has done it twice, considers it primarily a selfish undertaking. "It's an individual thing, ego, pride," Hunter says. "It's, I can take this guy. If you want to show up a team, steal home. If you want to show everybody that you've got speed or you're the man or you know how to play the game, steal home. Jackie Robinson was being called all kinds of names. He showed 'em up by stealing home. [Rod] Carew wanted to show people he was an athlete. Boom! Showed 'em up. And when you do it, people are like, What the hell was that? It's not like hitting a grand slam. It's a totally different vibe."
Whatever the motivation, something about stealing home is so stirring that the circumstances are often remembered as being more dramatic than they were. "I did it once to win a playoff game against the Red Sox," proclaims Vizquel, except that the steal occurred with two weeks left in the 2000 season.
"I'd never seen it done in the first inning until Gary Matthews Jr. did it for us last year," says Hunter. He still hasn't: Matthews's heist took place in the fourth.
"Wayne Gross and I once did it off Jack Morris in consecutive at bats," says Oakland coach Dwayne Murphy, who played on Billy Martin's mad-dashing 1980 A's. In reality it wasn't even the same inning.
For those who achieve it, a true steal of home can be the play of a lifetime. "I've hit inside-the-park homers and triples; I've scored from second on a passed ball," says Jacoby Ellsbury, who stole home against the Yankees on national TV in April 2009. "But there is nothing like it." Even witnesses feel the rush. Those fortunate enough to have the perspective to watch the tableau unfold—the ball and the runner, setting out from different places and racing at unequal velocity toward the plate—know that a TV replay can never do it justice. "It's unforgettable, a beautiful few moments," says Tim Flannery, the Giants' third base coach, who has had an unimpeded view of two steals of home. "When it's over, you're hit with this adrenaline surge even if you weren't involved in it."
In the record keeping, doing it from a set play that coaxes a throw to another base counts the same as doing it alone. Players see it differently. They're loathe to even call it stealing home if a second runner is involved. Asked about his successful attempt last year, Giants centerfielder Aaron Rowand wrinkled his brow, straining to remember. "Oh, yeah," he said finally. "Off a double steal. It wasn't a Jackie Robinson."
II. THEY WERE DARING IN THOSE DAYS
The clip of Robinson barreling down the third base line in the 1955 World Series, the one in which Yankees catcher Yogi Berra leaps from the plate in a paroxysm of anger, is probably the most famous steal of home in history. But the most prolonged spate of home stealing took place in near obscurity.
In 1980 the A's were coming off a year in which their total attendance barely topped 300,000. They didn't have a radio outlet until the season's third week. And with owner Charlie Finley preoccupied with peddling the team, Billy Martin was free to manage as idiosyncratically as he wished. "Billy just said, 'The hell with it, we're going for it,'" says broadcaster Ted Robinson, who began his baseball-calling career with the A's that season. Unlikely characters such as Gross and Mitchell Page choreographed double steals, purposely getting trapped in rundowns off first so the runner farther along could advance. And Martin, who'd taught Carew the art of the straight steal of home in Minnesota, boasted that any player could do it if conditions were right.
Morris was already a successful big league starter, coming off a 17--7 season, when he took the mound for the Tigers in Oakland one afternoon that May. Martin, who sent aides with stopwatches to time opposing pitchers' deliveries as they warmed up before games, knew that Morris made his way through his motion with the deliberation of a man savoring a good meal. Down 2--1 in the second, with Gross on third and Mario Guerrero at bat, Martin saw his chance. Gross—who had never stolen more than five bases in a season, and never would—suddenly sprinted home to tie the score. An inning later Murphy stole home, Page stole third and Gross stole second on the same play. When Morris came back to the dugout, Murphy recalls, he trashed the watercooler.
The late 1970s and early '80s were the last Golden Age for stealing home. Carew was still active, as were serial practitioners such as Freddie Patek and Cesar Cede√±o. Paul Molitor, who would steal home 11 times in a 20-year career, was already on the run. But the 1990s brought the boom-ball era, and the stolen base had become almost anachronistic. When just about any hitter in the order can reach the fences, it hardly makes sense to risk an out to gain a base. A two-run homer doesn't care which base the runner is on.
But that's not so in Little Ball, the managerial craft of using all the skills and strategies at one's disposal to scratch out runs. The Little Ball practitioners, the Gene Mauchs and Whitey Herzogs, considered stealing home a weapon to be deployed infrequently but one that was devastatingly effective. And because it was in the conversation, it could effect untold changes, both physical and psychological: A third baseman plays a step closer to the bag to contain the runner, allowing that hard-hit grounder to get through. A pitcher's concentration is disrupted just enough for him to miss his spots.
Pitching has been so dominant this season that Little Ball is making a comeback. Teams such as the Padres and the Rays have succeeded with below-average offenses by resurrecting the bunt, the stolen base and other remnants of presteroid baseball. Stealing home "should probably be done more often," acknowledges Blue Jays skipper Cito Gaston. "But I think most managers would rather just see you stay there."
Comprehensive stats on attempted steals of home don't exist, but it's reasonable to expect that in an optimal situation—inattentive lefty on the mound, two outs—there's at least a 50-50 chance that something positive will happen, be that a wild pitch, a balk or a successful steal. Says Molitor, "You might have a .300 hitter up there, but if you've got a 50-50 chance, you've just picked up 20 percent."
But baseball managers, it's fair to say, rank with BCS administrators and Augusta National executives as the most conservative decision-makers in sports. Owning slot machines in casinos is the kind of risk with which they're comfortable. And while there's something to be said for aggressive baseball, letting players race around the bases at will is a good way to get yourself fired. "If somebody steals home and makes it, it was a good time to do it," says Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox. "If he doesn't make it, it was a very bad time."
Every so often a runner alights on third base and asks a coach for permission to steal home. When he does, he discovers that if there's anyone even more cautious than a manager, it's an aspiring manager. "As a third base coach, it's extremely hard to say, 'Yeah, go,'" says Boston's Demarlo Hale, who was coaching third when Ellsbury stole home. "You find a way to talk them out of it."
"It's funny," says Flannery. "With two outs, you're not afraid to steal second to put a guy in scoring position. Even with a slow runner, sometimes we'll just send him. So what's the difference if you get thrown out at second or at home? And at home you're actually scoring a run. Yet it's not something that we ever talk about doing. It's just not in our mind-set."
"They pay these guys a lot of money to knock you in, so you just stay right here" is what Jackie Moore, then the Montreal third base coach, said to base runner Rex Hudler in a 1988 game. Hudler looked him in the eye and nodded, then immediately raced down the baseline and slid safely into Bruce Benedict's shin guards. The lure of finding out what it felt like was just too great. "I heard what he said," says Hudler, "but I had to go."
III. A RUNNER'S FEAR OF FAILURE—AND OF GETTING SMASHED IN THE HEAD
Robinson's 19 steals of home are part of baseball lore, but his 11 unsuccessful attempts are more obscure. Those who try and fail are often hit with a barrage of criticism from fans, reporters, managers, coaches and even teammates. Who does he think he is, trying to steal home? Doesn't he trust his hitters? He's putting himself before the team. And you're not immune merely because you happen to make it safely. Big RBI men tend to take a steal of home as a personal affront.
So your ordinary player can't be faulted for his reluctance to try it. "Nobody wants to be known as the guy who made the stupid play," says Blue Jays leftfielder Fred Lewis. "It might put you on the bench the next day."
Others aren't so much fearful of looking silly as just fearful. Stealing home is baseball's equivalent of a tight end running a pattern over the middle: an invitation to get whacked by a man wearing armor. "As a catcher, you almost never get the chance to give the blow," says Kansas City's Jason Kendall, a second-generation backstop who has been waiting for someone to try to steal home on him for 15 seasons. "When you do, you've got to go for it. My father taught me that."
Even worse would be the crunch of bat against bone or a line drive that meets a runner advancing at full speed. Says Kendall, "If it hits the runner, it's going through him." For that reason, each of the 17 times that Carew successfully stole home, he telegraphed his intentions by touching his belt, then waited for acknowledgment from the hitter before advancing.
But signs can get stolen, and suspicious activity detected. So if you want to preserve the surprise, you don't ask, don't tell, and hope the batter will figure it out. "You give a sign to the manager if you think you can do it," says Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. "But if you have enough balls, you just go and do it yourself."
Then there's Grady Sizemore, who clearly crossed the line from bold to foolish. In 2005 the Indians outfielder was a feckless rookie. When he reached third base with two outs in the first inning of a game in Toronto, he figured he could steal home off the inattentive Dustin McGowan. "I'd never tried it before, not on any level," he says. "But on the first couple of pitches, I was halfway down the line and he wasn't even looking at me. So I just said what the hell and took off."
Problem was, McGowan had already thrown two strikes past the batter, Travis Hafner. So as Sizemore turned a walking lead into a sprint toward the plate, McGowan began to deliver a pitch that Hafner might be obliged to swing at. "He could have killed me," Sizemore says now. "If it's a strike, he's swinging, and the ball is going in my teeth."
McGowan noticed him and rushed the pitch, which ended up high and away. "I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye, and it was just like, What the hell are you doing?" Hafner says. "But he slid in safe. I looked down and told him, 'If I end up with 99 RBIs this year, you're off my Christmas list.'"
Sizemore went into the dugout on a cloud. "I'll never forget it," he says. "It was a rush." But the crowd's roar brought his attention back to the field. As befits a true work of art, Sizemore's theft proved to be of aesthetic value only. Two pitches later, Hafner had homered.
IV. YOU CAN WAIT FOR LIGHTNING TO STRIKE, OR YOU CAN RUN ON ANDY PETTITTE
"One look," says Pettitte. He's standing at his locker, demonstrating what it would take to get runners to stop trying to steal home on him. "You look them back; they're not going to go. It's not very difficult."
Pettitte is one of the top pitchers of his generation. He has won 240 games and never had a losing season. He also has one of the best moves to first base. Yet he has the distinction of having allowed three steals of home during his career, two more than any other active pitcher. (The bar for ignominy was set far higher in previous eras. Nolan Ryan allowed eight steals of home, including one by Amos Otis in 1972 that was the only run of the game. Gaylord Perry, also a Hall of Famer, allowed six, despite adopting the pragmatic strategy of throwing at the batter whenever he saw a runner break from third, in hopes of hitting him and creating a dead ball.)
Why Pettitte? On the mound he has formidable powers of concentration. He visualizes the pitch that he's about to throw, sees it cross the plate and land in the catcher's mitt. "I get so locked in, trying to pitch out of a serious jam and get that third out, I let my guard down," he says.
So imagine you're Mike Sweeney. You're watching Pettitte mow down your Royals into the sixth, allowing only an occasional scratch hit. You belt a double to tie the game, get to third, then realize this: Pettitte has no idea you're even in the ballpark. "It was like a light went on," Sweeney says.
Sweeney gestured to Rich Dauer, the third base coach. Dauer burst out laughing. "Sween Dog," he said, "if you make it, you'll be on SportsCenter tonight." Sweeney headed up the chain of command. His eyes found manager Tony Pe√±a's in the dugout. "I motion in, I point down," Sweeney says, "like, This pitch I'm going to steal. And Tony looks at me, and he does it back. We didn't have a sign for it. Just baseball language."
Pettitte came to the stretch and closed his eyes to visualize. Sweeney started running. From shortstop, Derek Jeter yelled, "Step off!" But it was too late. "Forty thousand people at the K, just going crazy," Sweeney recalls. "We'd just taken a 2--1 lead against the Yankees. I went into the dugout, and Tony gives me a hug, and then he says, 'That was awesome, Mikey, but what the hell were you doing?' " Shocked, Sweeney responded that he'd flashed the sign, and Pe√±a had flashed it back. "No, Mikey," Pe√±a said, "that meant, Ball in the dirt, you be ready to run."
Toronto coach Brian Butterfield knew about the pitcher's tendency to lapse into a virtual fugue state on the mound. When he heard about Sweeney's swipe, he filed it away for future use, in the way that baseball lifers do. And when Blue Jays hitters gathered before the Yankees in May 2007, Butterfield mentioned that Pettitte might be had. He was sitting in the coaches' room when second baseman Aaron Hill walked past. Butterfield called out, "You have your cues in case you get to third base with two out?" Hill looked befuddled, then remembered. "I got it," he said.
Hill doesn't have the personality of someone who would steal home on his own. He's the paratrooper who doesn't so much jump out of the airplane as get pushed. "First and third with one out, ball one, and Brian comes up and says, 'If the count gets to 1 and 1, you're hot,'" Hill says. "I was almost thinking, Oh, please, don't throw a strike. I was starting to breathe heavy. Next pitch is strike one. So there I go."
This time, a Yankee started yelling, "Home! Home!" Hill remembers that as the sound track to the longest and fastest run of his life. "The adrenaline rush just took over," he says. "It was amazing. Probably one of the best moments of my career."
So when Ellsbury stole off Pettitte at the start of last season, it wasn't much of a surprise. Except that a steal of home is always a surprise. "Furthest thing from my mind," says ESPN's Jon Miller, who was broadcasting the game. In the past Ellsbury had occasionally arrived at third with the notion of swiping home in his head. Each time, Hale had dissuaded him. "It's Pedroia up, Ortiz up, someone who could drive in runs," Hale explains. This time, in the fifth inning of a 2--1 game with the lefthanded Drew batting, Ellsbury didn't ask. "I saw him go to the windup and figured if he did it again, I'd go," he says. "As a base stealer, you have that internal clock in your head from years of doing it. I knew I'd be safe. But the easy part is knowing you can go. The hard part is actually doing it, especially in a situation like that. Bases loaded. Against the Yankees."
"When he took off, it was like the play started happening in slow motion," says Hale. "The four seconds felt like maybe 12. My mind was like, 'There he goes. Andy Pettitte hasn't started his windup. Now he's started it. Jacoby is halfway there. He's got a chance.' That's how it went. Each second felt like forever." Drew heard the commotion and figured something was amiss. "Then I saw Pettitte speed up at the end," he says. "I figured I could give up a strike, whatever was going on." As Ellsbury approached the plate, Drew showed no indication of having seen him. It flashed through Ellsbury's mind that Drew might swing, so instead of sliding feet first, he went in on his chest, arms extended, to get his head under the plane of the bat.
The run didn't end up mattering in the 4--1 Red Sox victory, but the play was the talk of baseball for weeks. For some reason—the national telecast, or the Yankees--Red Sox rivalry—fans and commentators who'd overlooked recent steals by Hill and Sizemore, Vizquel and Sweeney, Cabrera and Hunter rediscovered baseball's most exciting play. It was as if nobody had done it in years.
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