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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