The Dozen Most Awesome Plays In Baseball: A Semi-Unscientific Look (Part 1)

Dee Gordon's inside the park home run on June 30 was the first of his career. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Dee Gordon’s inside the park home run on June 30 was the first of his career. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

It is said that a baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings. It is also said, or should be, that a baseball game between fifth-place teams in late August is simply a restless siesta occasionally interrupted, if there should be such luck, by plays so impressive and relatively rare that we, as fans, ought to regard them only as “awesome.”

What follows is an exploration of the most awesome of those awesome plays.

In it, I have disqualified from consideration any play that relies on an unequivocally thrilling game state—e.g., tie score, bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth—as well as any play that rates as an outlier, one so fluky or infrequent—e.g., the triple play or the theft of home—that its shock value might immediately rob it of the necessary suspense.

I have also removed—for the most part—the element of a rooting interest. Indeed, so awesome are some plays that they distinguish fans of baseball from fans of just one team.

The Triple

First there is the contact. You hear the crack and see the ball and make a quick calculation of angle and trajectory, turning the last trace of 10th-grade trigonometry into the awareness that “this has a chance,” as they say, not to soar over the wall so much as to bounce theatrically off it. At the instant when reality confirms your hunch, the scene is developing in simultaneous acts: the ball and its pursuers, the runner and his pursuit.

Nature gave you two eyes but stereoscopic vision: You can’t look at both, so you focus on one. If you are reliant on the screen, the producers have made the decision for you. Focused, you watch what they demand and what you desire: the ball splitting the gap and the outfielders converging as if it’s a rolling pot of gold. You keep watching, then, as concurrence is turned into sequence. Scrambling, the outfielder scoops the ball and initiates the latest state of suspension: the path of the throw before it finds soft leather.

Suspension is now introduction. In midair the ball gives way to the player who put it in play, a batter-turned-runner who mans a role in prophecy while inhabiting the Platonic form—the pattern in nature—of what has thrust itself into substance so many times before: a runner rounding second en route to a coveted third. Given the weight of past achievements, possibility animates the play-by-play. “He’s thinking three!” the announcer announces, confirming what you know and what you want to believe. As the runner cuts the corner, the words seem to linger—“He’s thinking three!”—in the broadcast air, forming a wedge between an unshaped future and the locked-away past.

Retreat is not an option. We know it and he knows it. To retreat is to find refuge from unresolved adventure, sanctuary in a world of danger that rewards its heroes with pelts and skulls while punishing its cowards with sleepless nights of what-might-have-been. He is our avatar now, gone from security and headlong into hazard—the embodiment of the bold pioneer. The baseline is his frontier, untamed, you could say, wild and undone from the civilized world, and the fielders his enemies, the soldiers of a cause not his own.

The duel, from here, seems unfair yet somehow balanced: the outfielder, the relay man and the third baseman in a conspiracy against a lone figure in transit between twin safeties – twin, yes, but one so much more valuable than the other, a reward for which he’ll eat dirt and treat his pain with adrenaline and fist pumps. There is nothing, in his eyes, but the bag.

Existence is down to this: a dude and a ball in a race for a square.

The dimensions were made for this unfolded moment, yes? An outfielder, after sprinting 20 mph to a wall some 400 feet from the point of contact, throws a ball 90 mph to a man who in turn throws it another 90 mph to the target, and somehow, another man running 20 mph will reach the same target at roughly the same instant. It is choreography from architecture and speed, a dance from the solidity of space and the passage of feet and time.

The paired suspensions—a ball between players, a player between bags—are now a shared suspension, and we wait for the merger of opposing pieces. The duel is a fair one, its equal hungers rationed to three guts against the one. You watch. The effort is etched in a face and carried on two legs, flesh in a contest with cowhide. Each is nearly at the endpoint. Fate, destiny, self-determinism—call it what you want, but whatever its name it waits for the runner to dispatch it to the belief you choose. You listen. The volume is up, though you haven’t touched a thing. The crescendo of the crowd has matched the surge of the voice.

An instant more and he is there, safe, with a triple. Dirt is his badge, the bag his honor.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It has ended as it started, with contact.

The (Potential) Sacrifice Fly And Play At The Plate

First, as ever, there is the contact, but what has given it the gloss of importance is a preexisting condition, the pressure just prior to the Big Bang: a runner on third and fewer than two outs. It is an arrangement, like a third-and-goal at the 1, whose familiar history and simple drama have fed our expectations, arranging visions of what may come.

Certainly we might have visions, and often do, of a monster home run. And yet a monster home run requires no specific circumstances to set it in motion, no earlier passages in the developing narrative. It just happens, irrespective of a runner’s place on the base paths, and only the achievement itself might then inform our claims to some sort of premonition.

“Yep, I knew he was gonna go deep!”

“Oh, yeah?” our pals reply. “Tell me tomorrow’s lottery numbers.”

The sacrifice fly, by contrast, is the fulfillment of what’s been waiting to happen, what’s been taking shape in a manner that suggests the scriptwriter’s touch, however trite his contribution might be. An instant after contact, the arc of the ball has delivered its message: It is headed toward an outfielder’s glove. Though moments away, the play at the plate is being authored already; baseball is dipping its old quill in fresh ink. The pause is the thing. It is not rife with possibilities, as if circus elephants and a Neil Diamond concert might reward the short wait. It is instead an interlude to the inevitable: a cloud of dust, a tangle of limbs, a swipe of a hand, a grasp of the ball, a rolling slowly away.

Even as the ball drops toward leather you see some new future, same as the old futures, in the mind’s eye: the dust as a second interlude, this one to the call of safe or out. Drama is in the deferral. The outcome might not be fated, but there will be a call at the plate. Here and now, in an inverse relationship with the ball, the crowd noise is rising as the thing is falling—because it is falling. Gravity has given rise to shared expectation, an escalation.

The roar of the crowd is what connects the simultaneous acts. In the other half of the interaction, the runner is tagging at third. His expectation is ours: a catch, a quick departure and then—oh, lord—a meeting of separate imperatives at one vital place.

The catch is made, a familiar thing, prologue to a transfer that we will judge as either clumsy or quick, forgetting for a moment that while we watch it in successive replays—“whoa, terrible;” “wow, amazing!”—the fielder must do it but once, and well, and now.

The foot leaves the bag, a departure as expected as it is bold. Its place as only the latest such departure is no guarantee against a calamity that might position the attempt as history’s ugliest: a cracking of bone, a slicing of skin, all in pursuit of a single run that at other times will come more easily in the form of a runner trotting home ahead of a triple.

The runner is gone toward the plate now, his foot having nudged the sequential so near the concurrent that a verdict might render it void. The effect, the ump might rule, cannot precede the cause. The possibility is parcel to this relation. Timing is essential. Part of the thrill is that no matter what happens at the plate, it might not count. It is the yellow flag in the midst of a punt return. The mystery of what will happen is heightened by the mystery of what already happened. Did he leave to soon? Jung’s synchronicity is not at work here. This is not a coincidence of acts. This is causal, and causal relationships have rules.

Accelerating as if prison dogs are behind him, the runner has fulfilled the definition of “runner” at the moment the transfer is made. The ball has gone from leather to skin. Fingers are finding seams even as spikes churn orange dirt. A moment later, after a crow hop that’s drawn intrigue into its passage, the ball is en route to the plate, tracing an arc through compliant air that would have hosted, just as it has hosted, any number of arcs.

This is the one that matters, and what has given it the stuff of theater is that the outfielder can’t bring it back. He can’t try again. The ball is launched unto entropy. He has surrendered control to his history, a now-empty hand, and then to the paired variables beyond his command: the runner and the catcher. We watch as he watches, invested.

Every sport is a race made of races, and this one, like so many others in baseball, is waged between a ball and a human being. The ball is faster but the man has a shorter trip. Born apart, the two are now converging. Once again you try to watch both. If attention is given to one or the other, you know it will be made whole again, and quickly.

As affirmation, the catcher is crouching. The racers are coming, and fast.

The Catch Above The Wall

There is the contact, yes, of course there is. Without it the outfielder is just adjusting his cup. But first there must be the wall. The wall is what separates the spectacular from its dull sibling, the ordinary. Built to give the field a specific set of dimensions and the stadium its signature look, the wall functions primarily to allow a dinger to define itself, but what it also does is give the outfielder a stage prop for his one-man act, his audition for the highlight reel, and in this context not even Pink Floyd or Ronald Reagan, with an assist from Mr. Gorbachev, could lend a greater magnitude to that wall. Somewhere in the space above it the outfielder thrusts his glove to a place of air and ambition, and there the leather waits, as much as any moving thing can wait, to deny a man his rightful prize.

In this brief interval the glove has honored the instant that summoned its use: “There’s a deeeeeeeeeeeeeep drive,” the announcer announced, giving voice to the patently obvious. Not so obvious was it, however, that its outcome seemed preordained. The ball did not appear destined, as if spawned by Statcast itself, to dismiss all mystery but for offhand estimates of a launch angle that would send it 28 rows deep. Instead it seemed drawn to a pending resolution—its intensity as yet undetermined—in the space that enfolds the wall.

Your first confirmation: the outfielder’s reaction. Upon contact he did not drop his hands to his knees while refusing to watch the ball, nor did he give the perfunctory jog that suggests, “Yes, if given the chance, I’d prefer to make a catch that’s replayed so often that you forget I’m human, but look, I’m running and the ball is way over my head, okay?”

Instead, primed by tracking skills and fungo drills, he turned and began sprinting toward the wall, his eyes feeding information to a brain that converted its calculus into a route the outcome might sanction. This time, in contrast to that of the sacrifice fly, the meeting of a fielder and a ball would mark the end, not just the latest phase, of the action. And with the end so near its beginning, suspense had come quickly to the time between them, moments metered by a conclusion—whatever its content—that the wall appeared to stand for.

Would the glove meet the ball there? Or would it turn out that an outfielder had made like Spider-Man only to return to Earth a mere mortal, frustrated, angry, kicking dirt and pounding his glove in the aftermath of a miss so painfully near that visions of an alternate and far more heroic timeline—got it!—would animate his late-night dreams?

You couldn’t predict that outcome. You could only watch it take shape.

You watched as the fielder watched … watched both the ball and the wall.

You watched as the batter watched … watched both the wall and the ball.

If only it were a little farther…

If only it were a little closer…

The prize would be his to keep.

Though not wholly knowable to the human mind—especially one with its machinery inside a headlong body – the ball’s endpoint had been predetermined by impact. Only a few variables, like wind and humidity if not the dubious influence of prayer, could affect it now. By contrast, the outfielder would need to finish his route on the run, turning this into a contest between the fixed and the improvised, the inevitable and the uncertain. And when at last the fielder leapt high at the wall, you had little choice but to keep watching, curious, as always, about this negotiation of human artistry and the inexorable course of a thing.

Now you keep watching, still curious as to which man will come away happy and which will go away sad, cheated in the worst way by the position of that infuriating wall. It now stands waiting, as much as any immobile thing can wait, to deny a man his rightful prize.

The Third Baseman Charging The Slow Roller And Gunning Out The Runner

On contact we know “hot corner” has become a misnomer. For the next few moments the third baseman will disown all ties to the scalded one-hoppers and scorched low liners that have historically menaced his manhood by instead dashing headlong to the so-called “swinging bunt,” that unexpected roller whose middle distance will settle the difference between a cheap base hit—cheap, unless you are the batter—and a play of such balletic grace that it should qualify the third baseman as the principal dancer in a work titled Ce Qui Autrefois Etait Chaud Est Maintenant Trés Cool: What Was Hot Is Now Very Cool.

Bravo!

That the collision of a 90 mph pitch and a piece of swung lumber could produce such a measly li’l nubber is a mystery for physics to decide, but the more pertinent consideration is that at the moment the ball leaves the bat, the race, as is so often the case, is on. The batter knows—he knows—that this is his chance to redeem all those blistered lineouts and red-hot shots to the wall by securing in the box score a lone digit that looks, as they say, like a line drive. In the batter’s box he becomes a cartoon of naked ambition, the Roadrunner, indeed, his feet scrambling for less loose dirt but more hard ground to propel his body and baseball card to a better time to come. The third baseman, prepared just a moment ago to protect the integrity of his maleness, now comes scampering toward the place the batter just abandoned, with a chance to protect the integrity of the base hit itself.

Two aims are united here, in a strip of grass between home plate and third. Before us, the play is developing as if choreographed, just as it has a kajillion times before, yet in front of each man it is playing out in singular fashion, the most important thing in the world.

The runner’s goal is a clear one and simple to achieve. He just needs to run fast, and in something resembling a straight line, and the outcome can be his to celebrate—fist bumps with the first-base coach! By contrast, the third baseman must make of his direct path merely the overture of a larger, more complicated work. Even as the ball begs his best Usain Bolt impression, he initiates a quick forecast by determining the precise instant he must chop his steps in order to field the ball with his left foot forward, in addition to determining the instant he must bend to pick the thing up. No, Usain Bolt has never had to pluck a rolling cricket ball and then fire it at a distant wicket before crossing the line.

Now, while positioning his feet and bending at the waist, he must also execute a downward-facing peace sign. To throw the ball with four fingers (and a thumb) is to risk a changeup where it should never be thrown—that is, to first base, or, worse, down the first-base line. Control is an outcome of two fingers on four seams, and even as he leans and scoops he must also find a moment for the necessary delicacy, fingertips on thread.

With his fingers in a tenuous bond with the ball now, he must defy athletic orthodoxy by stepping with his right foot to make the throw. No practice shuffle is allowed, though, no short rehearsal. In a quick transition he cocks his elbow while shifting his weight and visually locating first base, even as he turns his hips and torques his back in advance of a strangely angled throw. Yes, the third baseman and the runner are united in an objective – specifically, first base – but disunited in the degrees of difficulty needed to achieve it.

Were the play to stop at this point, the Russian judge – well, maybe not the Russian judge – would still give the infielder a 9.5 for artistry and a 10.0 for compulsory figures, should those figures still be taken into account. To illustrate: During an Easter egg hunt, are kids ever required to pick up an egg that is bouncing or rolling through well-trampled grass, and with two fingers, no less? Short answer: Of course not, man. The fact remains, however, that like the shortstop play in the 5.5 hole, this play, despite whatever elegance has attended its development, simply will not register if the throw is not a winning one.

Without the out, it is Citizen Kane without the ending.*

*If the metaphors seemed mixed here, it’s because they are. This is a multifaceted, many-splendored play, and to critique it without reference to multiple disciplines and their special requirements is to listen to a Phish concert from the porta-potty. See?

Finally, with his weight forced sideward but his arm thrust forward, he launches a nearly underhand throw to first base, adjusting for its tailing action with nuanced corrections at the final fingertip. It’s all in front of him now, just beyond his control. How cool will he be when he goes back to the hot corner? Well, now, that is what we are here to witness.

The Throw From Right Field To Nail The Runner At Third

Most plays unfold in separate directions at once. The runner dashes to first while the third baseman sprints toward home (see above). Or maybe the runner circles the bases like a Little Leaguer while the outfielder, arms outstretched and palms up, darts hither and yon to retrieve the object of his torment (see below). Sure, the ball and the runner have a meeting point—that’s the whole point—but in its prelude there is often a scattering, each to his own end before a call of safe or out confers value on his path.

Then there is this: The Throw From Right Field To Nail The Runner At Third.

With an urgency born of circumstance, and with a circumstance that invites the swaggering exhibitionism of a long-drive competition, the right fielder charges the ball, be it airborne or ground-bound, and with every inch and ounce of momentum directed along an invisible line he unleashes the throw toward an imminent cloud of dust. It is his pageant now, and he gets to show off the beauty of that big arm, whip-like and precise.

The runner, meanwhile, is sprinting toward the same cloud of dust, greedy for the feeling of beating the throw. The result? That’s right: No longer must we, as spectators, endeavor the independent eye movement of the chameleon, our right eye tracking the outfielder and our left the runner. It is all there in front of us: the makings of a unidirectional race, with the slower competitor having gotten a big, though hardly determinant, head start.

Go!

What has made the midpoint so interesting is the buildup at either end. It is the dual distribution of anticipation, of a kind we have come to know. A charging right fielder is all coiled energy, a potency ready to explode, and as he approaches the ball we approach it with him, pumped up, adrenalized, our sinew organized in motivation and our motivation directed at a base. That base is where the second buildup has come. It is the place where all directions, all energies, all incentives will meet, and as it waits to attain its priority the runner has confirmed it with effort. His devotion is single and fierce.

We see what he sees: a little white square, stationary, seductive. No matter how fast he moves toward it, he knows that his eyes have not reeled it in—not fast enough, no, not nearly. The mind with its motivations has traveled so much faster than his feet, and in lagging behind ambition he finds that his legs are the enemies of imagined success. Marshaled in his aims, the muscles have freed him but also held him back. The labor is in his face, twisted by this insecurity. Ahead is the haven that will vindicate his decision to leave, but behind him—oh, man, behind him!—is an outfielder poised like a coiled-up, oiled-up weapon, prepared to unload with ferocity the thing that will gun the guy down.

From a hand that convened all energies while somehow mustering control, the ball is at last discharged. This is what you have been waiting for. History is a teacher, and you have watched this throw so often that you can close your eyes and see it still: hot, on a line, gaining space, swallowing time. Good grief, how does he do that? It looks like he skulled a 1 iron!

Bad for the runner is that he can’t see what we see, what is directly in front of us: the ball. It is speeding toward him, catching up, shrinking the distance between itself and his goal. Worse is that he knows it’s there. Like a teenager who just stepped from a midnight pond in an ’80s schlockfest, he can sense but not see the danger.

Futility now seems a conspicuous part of his venture. He is on a treadmill, it appears, struggling for no other reason but exercise as the ball speeds past what will soon become its victim. Pop! This is the instant you anticipated, born of an expectation you have had fulfilled. Doomed, the runner now surrenders, feet-first, to a meeting clearly foreseen.

The Inside-The-Park Home Run

Contact? Of course. Unless you trace the ball to the cow that supplied the cowhide and the rancher that fed the cow and the union that produced Abner Doubleday, it always starts with the contact. This time, though, the contact will yield an anomaly. While no two are the same, all inside-the-parkers have one thing in common: weirdness, as if each spent time on Dennis Rodman’s Bizarro Farm. And it is this weirdness, this one quirky event, that will violate the precision and predictability we expect of big league baseball by turning a would-be out or base hit into a moment when players fan their teammate with hand towels.

But hey, that’s what a guy gets, and maybe deserves, after a 360-foot sprint.

Let’s rewind: In the beginning, half a minute before the camera finds the out-of-breath dude in the dugout, the ball is launched like so many balls before it. Nothing about it appears distinct. Like all the others, though, and without anyone having acknowledged it, it is open to the beat of the butterfly’s wings. It is open—drumroll, please—to chaos.

“It’s a hiiiiigh fly to center,” says the announcer. “Should be an easy catch.”

Oh, really? This is a domed stadium, you see, and it seems the ceiling is made entirely of baseballs – and if not baseballs, then something baseball-colored, for sure. Who designed this thing? John Q. Camouflage? Or in a separate time and place it’s an open-air stadium whose architect ignored atmospheric science by building it beneath the dreaded “high sky.” Do meteorology classes address this phenomenon? You see where this is headed.

“I don’t think he sees it!”

The outfielder seems lost out there, a bit out of sorts, like he just stepped from the dentist’s chair after a three-hour procedure. He’s wobbling around and making odd little footfalls and appears an increasingly desperate man. His face is angled heavenward but his eyes see nothing divine—quite the opposite. What fresh hell? Next comes the glance at the other outfielder, and then, just as you expected, the arms-out-and-palms-up posture—a signal to teammates and fans that “this ain’t my fault, man, I don’t see the dadgum ball!”

The announcer confirms it as the ball is bouncing away.

“He never saw it! The ball is bouncing away!”

Now it’s a different kind of race, between a man running the bases and one giving chase to an uncooperative ball—the token of his blunder, a stigma, a scar. Their strides are equivalent but their emotions are radically clashed. The runner is a kid at Christmas, dashing toward his greatest joy, while the fielder is a long-distance runner, lonely, marooned in his remoteness, chasing his greatest mistake while thousands judge.

“He’s rounding second … and he’ll round third!

The runner is gripped in this new freedom, indentured to the headlong liberty of a rare pursuit. At the same time the fielder is scrambling to redeem a catastrophe, desperate to feed this blunder into a kind of Rube Goldberg device and see it emerge as a crazy out.

Though moving in different directions, they race to toward one goal—win this thing.

It might be close, but there will be no tie.

“He reaches for the ball! He turns and fires!

Is it happening? It’s happening.

They’re waving him home!

In some other instance the batted ball is a deep fly, a low line drive, a blooper. It is not unique … until it is. It caroms off the diving right fielder. It gets past the lunging center fielder. It bounces oddly off the wall as the left fielder attempts the highlight-reel catch. In each case the play leaves a casualty: a mortified outfielder or maybe a man down on the field, injured in his effort while his teammates scramble to deny a cheap home run.

Each play is unique. What is shared is the weirdness.

“Here’s the play at the plate!”

In moments they have deployed the hand towels.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
12 Comments
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Steven Scott
6 years ago

Very enjoyable read. Over fifty years ago, in my backyard at the tall wood fence with a ball and my Wilson glove, the radio announcer (Monte Moore) in my head would yell “There she goes, deep to left! It could be outtahere! Steve’s going back. He’s at the wall. He leaps. HE MAKES THE CATCH!!!!!” Thank you for sparking that memory.

Barney Coolio
6 years ago

That was excellent! I especially appreciate the Pink Floyd/Ronald Reagan reference re: The Wall.

That Pagan inside the park homer was amazing, especially since he won the game. To get thrown out on such a play must be so embarrassing. I think Aoki got thrown out last September for the Giants. Somehow I think that kind of thing wouldn’t go over well in Japan. Lol.

I have a newfound appreciation for the sacrifice fly. I now see the slowly unfolding drama. I can imagine a catcher gumping in apprehesion as a medium depth fly ball darts out with someone like Pete Rose on 3rd. I can see his hornery pitcher, maybe Steve Carlton, wagging his finger at the young catcher and saying, “Don’t F### this up!!!”

Barney Coolio
6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

That should say, “gulping” in apprehension.

Barney Coolio
6 years ago
Reply to  John Paschal

I wonder if any hitter has ever hit a ball which seems destined to result in a sacrifice fly with a play at the plate, and had the batter turn creepily toward the catcher and say, “Enjoy!” I could see Ty Cobb doing something like that. HAHA

Barney Coolio
6 years ago
Reply to  John Paschal

Yeah, use it! I could see Ty Cobb bragging about intentionally hitting sac flies just because he wants to see a trainwreck collision at home plate.

I could also see a good natured outfielder intentionally making an offline throw to spare a young catcher such a collision, much to the annoyance to the surly veteran pitcher. Gary Matthews Sr. might be a good candidate for the outfielder.

Ah, the sacrifice fly produces so much riveting drama.

Jayce
5 years ago
Reply to  John Paschal

pm | but if this Gulf Oil Spill is going around the world and affecting internationally, then what? ****I*****************************t takes a lot of faith to believe that. The vast oceans are so extensive that a relatively small portion of our Gulf itself would be simply a drop in a lake. Whoever is trying to make us believe that this is going around the world is pulling our leg. The question that we should be asking, “Why is this event in Pakistan being linked to our gulf?” Is this fear-mongering only, or are there other motives? Honestly, I cannot tell. But I do know it is utter nonsense.

Jeff M
6 years ago

Well, the runner thrown out at third is great, am I right it occurs less than it used to? The best I ever saw at doing it was Jesse Barfield, when he was with the Yankees. He had every angle down exactly, if the ball was going over his head, we went to the EXACT spot it caromed to, every time, turned, and made a perfect glove high throw to third. He would get people by 50 feet, even if they expected to go in standing up. I literally remember people stopping between second and third and throwing their hands in the air.