Stealing home

April 01, 1996|By James H. Bready

BASEBALL . . . The game of throwing, hitting, catching, running -- of counting. The game of thinking ahead on the diamond, of reliving afterward in the mind. Of all the moments in baseball, out of those many, many possibilities, what's your favorite play?

Blam! says the kid in the upper deck: the game-winning grand slam. Guile, says the old-timer marking a scorecard, guile and enemy disgust: winning on a bases-loaded walk.

These are fairly common situations. As one more season begins, what sight during it would be, for you, the maximum thrill -- a triple play? A no-hitter? One could happen at any point from this afternoon on. Note well: from this afternoon against Kansas City on.

In Baltimore, a supernova could happen on the first pitch. Or not in 1996 any more than in 1995, 1994, 1993 or 1992. When, ultimately, the first box-score homer does hit Camden Warehouse on the fly -- there are those of us hoping the batter's name'll be Harvey. The batter who hits that wallbanger.

Ostentation goes with many of the rarities. A power surge indeed, to be there for an inside-the-park homer. But for the many-games fan, the watcher-reader-rememberer, a baseball splendor needn't be obvious, or frequent. When it happens (the most recent instance was in 1987), the triple steal is sublime, with its on-field confusion. The unassisted triple play is a treasure to review and re-review.

What wine does the vintner drink? Washington, D.C. may not have a baseball franchise, but it does have L. Robert Davids -- Iowan, federal government retiree, baseball scholar. In 1971, at Cooperstown, New York, 16 men assembled at Bob Davids' call and founded the American Society for Baseball Research (by now, 6,000 strong). Come August 9 and 10, at Cooperstown, survivors will mark 25 years of SABR scrutinies and publishing.

So, what play particularly delights Bob Davids? The SOH -- a steal of home.

Most of the fans sitting there are caught unaware by this tingling moment. (Baseball encyclopedias and media guides overlook it. All thanks to Mr. Davids and SABR for inspecting the innings of a century-plus, and for these data.) Last year, it seems, Jon Nunnally stole home four times, the highest total by anyone since 1969. Jon Nunnally plays outfield for Kansas City.

Spikes high and sharpened

No surprise, that the all-time SOH mark should have been set by Ty Cobb. Think of him, sliding into home, feet aimed at the catcher's knee, then when cleats were still metallic, and sharpened. ''Cobb scores!'', 54 times. Jackie Robinson excelled at it; Lou Gehrig, too.

It's exciting when a home run wins a 1-0 game, but after the majors' 530 such outcomes so far, it's not extraordinary. Fifteen times, a steal of home has won a 1-0 game.

This is not the squeeze -- where the runner goes with the pitch, hoping for a bunt. On a steal, the batter just gets out of the way, as the off-balance pitcher scrambles to throw, not pitch, home. SOH comes in two forms: solo, and (seven times in ten) as part of a double or triple steal. Cobb was on his own, 24 of those 54.

The SOH goes back a long way. John McGraw, third-baseman for the Other-'90s Orioles, included the SOH in his bag of tricks, perhaps also reaching for the umpire's shoelaces as he slid by. Since April 15, 1954, the Orioles have pulled off a successful SOH about 20 times. On May 31, 1982, Cal Ripken stole home; Brooks Robinson stole home twice. So did Don Buford. On August 15, 1979, against the White Sox, Eddie Murray stole home in the 12th inning, winning the game.

Is the SOH in Manager Davey Johnson's armamentarium? Years ago, as Oriole second-baseman, he personally stole home twice.

The SOH that comes up at SABR meetings, though, was by the outfielder Amos Otis. He had been standing on third, that day in 1977; suddenly, there he was coming down the line solo. His manager hadn't signaled for it; the third-base coach was equally startled; the whole idea was news to the batter, tense over a three-and-two count. And the pitcher was Nolan Ryan, no less. But Otis scored.

He was playing, that day, for Kansas City.

James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer, was the first Marylander to join the Society for American Baseball Research.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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