"I work at it," says Jeter. "You have to know who's playing where, know fielders' tendencies, and that comes from paying attention to scouting reports and observing."
Most good base runners have a solid understanding of the game, but there are exceptions. Take Walker, who when healthy may be the best in the National League. A native of Maple Ridge, B.C., he insists he "knew nothing about this sport" when the Montreal Expos signed him in 1984. In rookie ball Walker once tried to avoid being doubled off first base by doing what any good geometry student would do: Having advanced almost to third on a ball deep to the outfield that he didn't expect would be caught, he returned to first by cutting across the infield. After he was called out, Walker had to be separated from the umpire by one of his coaches, who calmly explained that Walker had to retouch second base on his way back to first. "I beat the throw," Walker says. "I thought the ump lost his marbles."
Walker was blessed with the athleticism all good base runners have, and he has developed techniques that allow him to take advantage of it. For example, he knows how to turn his head to find the ball without breaking stride, and he'll sometimes slow down to bait outfielders into throwing behind him. He has also learned a lot through observation. Which outfielders have dangerous arms? Where's the ball going when it leaves the bat? How is the defense shaded? Every team has a baserunning instructor, but teachers can't do much if the students don't pay attention. "It's difficult to simulate situations on the bases," says Donnelly. "Players who don't watch other runners, read scouting reports and watch the defense usually have no idea what to do when the ball is hit."
A team's personality on the base paths is generally a reflection of its manager. Some skippers make baserunning a priority, some don't. The Arizona Diamondbacks, managed by Buck Showalter for the past three seasons, were very aggressive, and last year Buddy Bell made going from first to third the trademark in his first season as Rockies skipper. Phil Garner, now managing the Detroit Tigers, has a reputation for fielding hard-running teams. Since Felipe Alou took over in 1992, the Expos have been one of the most aggressive teams on the bases, especially when it comes to advancing on pitches in the dirt. " Montreal's first base coaches have always told runners to look for that," says a National League scout. "As soon as the ball hits the dirt, they're gone."
The value of little things like that is hard to quantify. Some teams, like Colorado, keep track of how often their players advance on the bases, and one statistics service, Stats, Inc., logs the extra bases each major leaguer takes, but you won't find that info in your newspaper box score. What can be measured are runs, wins and losses. Says Walker, "Running the bases well, maybe getting to third base when most guys would stop at second, is as good as making a defensive play or hitting a home run to win a game."
As long as he's the only runner on third.
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