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The clip of Robinson barreling down the third base line in the 1955 World Series, the one in which Yankees catcher Yogi Berra leaps from the plate in a paroxysm of anger, is probably the most famous steal of home in history. But the most prolonged spate of home stealing took place in near obscurity.
In 1980 the A's were coming off a year in which their total attendance barely topped 300,000. They didn't have a radio outlet until the season's third week. And with owner Charlie Finley preoccupied with peddling the team, Billy Martin was free to manage as idiosyncratically as he wished. "Billy just said, 'The hell with it, we're going for it,'" says broadcaster Ted Robinson, who began his baseball-calling career with the A's that season. Unlikely characters such as Gross and Mitchell Page choreographed double steals, purposely getting trapped in rundowns off first so the runner farther along could advance. And Martin, who'd taught Carew the art of the straight steal of home in Minnesota, boasted that any player could do it if conditions were right.
Morris was already a successful big league starter, coming off a 17--7 season, when he took the mound for the Tigers in Oakland one afternoon that May. Martin, who sent aides with stopwatches to time opposing pitchers' deliveries as they warmed up before games, knew that Morris made his way through his motion with the deliberation of a man savoring a good meal. Down 2--1 in the second, with Gross on third and Mario Guerrero at bat, Martin saw his chance. Gross—who had never stolen more than five bases in a season, and never would—suddenly sprinted home to tie the score. An inning later Murphy stole home, Page stole third and Gross stole second on the same play. When Morris came back to the dugout, Murphy recalls, he trashed the watercooler.
The late 1970s and early '80s were the last Golden Age for stealing home. Carew was still active, as were serial practitioners such as Freddie Patek and Cesar Cedeño. Paul Molitor, who would steal home 11 times in a 20-year career, was already on the run. But the 1990s brought the boom-ball era, and the stolen base had become almost anachronistic. When just about any hitter in the order can reach the fences, it hardly makes sense to risk an out to gain a base. A two-run homer doesn't care which base the runner is on.
But that's not so in Little Ball, the managerial craft of using all the skills and strategies at one's disposal to scratch out runs. The Little Ball practitioners, the Gene Mauchs and Whitey Herzogs, considered stealing home a weapon to be deployed infrequently but one that was devastatingly effective. And because it was in the conversation, it could effect untold changes, both physical and psychological: A third baseman plays a step closer to the bag to contain the runner, allowing that hard-hit grounder to get through. A pitcher's concentration is disrupted just enough for him to miss his spots.
Pitching has been so dominant this season that Little Ball is making a comeback. Teams such as the Padres and the Rays have succeeded with below-average offenses by resurrecting the bunt, the stolen base and other remnants of presteroid baseball. Stealing home "should probably be done more often," acknowledges Blue Jays skipper Cito Gaston. "But I think most managers would rather just see you stay there."
Comprehensive stats on attempted steals of home don't exist, but it's reasonable to expect that in an optimal situation—inattentive lefty on the mound, two outs—there's at least a 50-50 chance that something positive will happen, be that a wild pitch, a balk or a successful steal. Says Molitor, "You might have a .300 hitter up there, but if you've got a 50-50 chance, you've just picked up 20 percent."
But baseball managers, it's fair to say, rank with BCS administrators and Augusta National executives as the most conservative decision-makers in sports. Owning slot machines in casinos is the kind of risk with which they're comfortable. And while there's something to be said for aggressive baseball, letting players race around the bases at will is a good way to get yourself fired. "If somebody steals home and makes it, it was a good time to do it," says Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox. "If he doesn't make it, it was a very bad time."
Every so often a runner alights on third base and asks a coach for permission to steal home. When he does, he discovers that if there's anyone even more cautious than a manager, it's an aspiring manager. "As a third base coach, it's extremely hard to say, 'Yeah, go,'" says Boston's Demarlo Hale, who was coaching third when Ellsbury stole home. "You find a way to talk them out of it."
"It's funny," says Flannery. "With two outs, you're not afraid to steal second to put a guy in scoring position. Even with a slow runner, sometimes we'll just send him. So what's the difference if you get thrown out at second or at home? And at home you're actually scoring a run. Yet it's not something that we ever talk about doing. It's just not in our mind-set."