The art of stealing home: Studying baseball's most exciting play
There have been four straight steals of home this season, including two on Sunday
Red Sox CF Jacoby Ellsbury: "The biggest thing is getting the courage to go"
Jackie Robinson had the most famous steal of home, but Yogi claims he was out
Earlier this season, Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury was standing on third base at Fenway Park in the fifth inning of a nationally televised game against the Yankees. It was a relatively common occurrence in an otherwise common game, but the idea that entered the mind of the 25-year-old Ellsbury was a very uncommon one. It was a decidedly mischievous idea, one so rare and so daring Ellsbury had never seriously contemplated it before, and had certainly never acted on it. But in that moment, he resolved to do something dangerous. He would steal home.
In that instant, the glory belonged to Ellsbury. He had not yet broke for the plate, startling a sold-out crowd and flummoxing normally unflappable Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte on the mound, not yet stumbled as he got closer to home and not yet slid triumphantly, face-first across the dish, but he had already done the hard part. "The biggest thing," he said later, "is getting the courage to go."
Ellsbury hit on one of the many elements that makes stealing home -- especially the straight steal, which is the Great Train Robbery of the game for its sheer courageousness -- the most exciting play in baseball, and perhaps, all of sports. It is a thrilling accomplishment that both Gary Matthews Jr. of the Angels and Chris Getz and of the White Sox duplicated Sunday. In addition to being the rarest, fastest and most surprising play in the game, it is also the one most apt to render a major league baseball player, that most confident of athletes (a confidence bred by facing down heat-seeking fastballs from a mere 60 feet, 6 inches away night after night), a nervous wreck.
It's been enough to dissuade some of the game's most willing and prolific base stealers. Florida's Hanley Ramirez, who has stolen 148 bases in the past four years, gave a flat "No" when asked if he had ever thought of stealing home and repeated it when asked if he ever would want to. The Mets' Jose Reyes, who has more steals and attempts than any player in the game over the past five seasons, has said he would like to do it but has yet to put his reputation where his mouth is, having never attempted even one straight steal of home. Toronto's Aaron Hill, who actually did steal home in 2007 (also against Pettitte) said of the range of emotions before he broke for the plate, "I've never experienced anything like it."
That may be because while stealing second is commonplace (major league players are 1221-for-1662 this season) and stealing third is more like a petty crime (222-for-284), attempting to steal home and risking giving away a run, the game's most precious commodity, is the only truly larcenous act in the game. Only four of the 1,406 steals by career leader Rickey Henderson were straight steals of home, and that's four more than Lou Brock (938), the man whose record Henderson broke, had in his Hall of Fame career.
Yet this season there have been four straight steals of home and amazingly, it happened twice on Sunday: Getz did it on a combined botched suicide squeeze and wild pitch that was ruled a stolen base against the Cubs, and Matthews Jr. swiped home on a straight steal against the Diamondbacks after getting the green light from manager Mike Scioscia. "I figured I could give it a shot," said Matthews Jr.
Trying it is one thing. Pulling it off, as Ellsbury can attest, is something else. "You have to know you're going to make it," he says. "I knew. It was something I'll never forget."
The same can be said for just about everyone who saw him do it. News of his steal whipped across the baseball world like a tornado, and like a crime wave sweeping the nation, it has, unintentionally or not, led to a rash of imitators. There have already been eight steals of home in various varieties this year, on a pace for the most in any season this decade, according to STATS Inc., which does not distinguish steals of home in their many forms. (The single-season record for the stat, which has been tracked going back to 1974, is 38, set in 1996.)
Ellsbury's steal quickly became the signature play of the season to date and especially in this year's installment of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. For the Red Sox, it was an early indication of their season-long dominance over their archrivals, demonstrating the triumph of youth and of resourcefulness that have been the biggest reasons the Red Sox have surpassed the older and richer Yankees in recent years in the game's hierarchy.
But more than anything, it was a monument to Ellsbury's speed and cunning and owed nothing to anyone else's input. "I guess this is the point where I sit up here and tell you I got here at 11 o'clock this morning, and pored over reports, and I'm a very smart manager,'' Red Sox skipper Terry Francona said after that game. "What we have is a very fast player with some guts.''
Ellsbury was rewarded with a standing ovation and a curtain call from the Fenway faithful. A caricature of him running from the cops with home plate under his arm (the caption read: "ALERT! Jacoby Ellsbury wanted for stealing home in sweep of Yanks!") was taped above his locker for several weeks afterward. He says he got more text messages about that than anything that's happened to him since he won the World Series in 2007. But that was a team accomplishment. This was a solo act.
It was made all the more remarkable by its pure shock value. Ellsbury led the American League with 50 stolen bases a year ago -- he is second this season with 31 -- giving him a well-earned reputation as a force to be reckoned with on the bases. Even though Yankees catcher Jorge Posada had warned Pettitte to be mindful of the possibility that Ellsbury might go just moments before it happened, almost no one else in the ballpark or watching at home thought it was a legitimate possibility. From now on, however, Ellsbury will be tracked like a paroled convict whenever he reaches third. "I'm sure the whole league will be careful with him [on third]," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "You have to keep it from working."
The biggest deterrent to the play comes not from the opponent but from the perpetrators themselves. "If it were that easy, teams would be doing it a lot," adds Gaston. "There's more risk than there is reward, so I don't see teams doing it a lot."
The first risk is to the player. "It was fun, but dangerous," said Rod Carew -- who piled up seven steals of home in 1969 with the Twins (Ty Cobb holds the single-season record with eight and the career record with 50) -- on his Web site. Carew would often take off with fearsome right-handed slugger Harmon Killebrew at the plate, a frightening proposition with a man nicknamed "The Killer" at the dish. The Twins PR representative even immortalized the danger in a one-line poem that might have served as Carew's epitaph: "Here lies Rod Carew, lined to left by Killebrew."
Ellsbury didn't communicate to J.D. Drew that he was going to steal. Asked later what would have happened had Drew swung, Ellsbury said. "He probably would have knocked me out. But at least I would have scored."
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