"They pay these guys a lot of money to knock you in, so you just stay right here" is what Jackie Moore, then the Montreal third base coach, said to base runner Rex Hudler in a 1988 game. Hudler looked him in the eye and nodded, then immediately raced down the baseline and slid safely into Bruce Benedict's shin guards. The lure of finding out what it felt like was just too great. "I heard what he said," says Hudler, "but I had to go."
III. A RUNNER'S FEAR OF FAILURE—AND OF GETTING SMASHED IN THE HEAD
Robinson's 19 steals of home are part of baseball lore, but his 11 unsuccessful attempts are more obscure. Those who try and fail are often hit with a barrage of criticism from fans, reporters, managers, coaches and even teammates. Who does he think he is, trying to steal home? Doesn't he trust his hitters? He's putting himself before the team. And you're not immune merely because you happen to make it safely. Big RBI men tend to take a steal of home as a personal affront.
So your ordinary player can't be faulted for his reluctance to try it. "Nobody wants to be known as the guy who made the stupid play," says Blue Jays leftfielder Fred Lewis. "It might put you on the bench the next day."
Others aren't so much fearful of looking silly as just fearful. Stealing home is baseball's equivalent of a tight end running a pattern over the middle: an invitation to get whacked by a man wearing armor. "As a catcher, you almost never get the chance to give the blow," says Kansas City's Jason Kendall, a second-generation backstop who has been waiting for someone to try to steal home on him for 15 seasons. "When you do, you've got to go for it. My father taught me that."
Even worse would be the crunch of bat against bone or a line drive that meets a runner advancing at full speed. Says Kendall, "If it hits the runner, it's going through him." For that reason, each of the 17 times that Carew successfully stole home, he telegraphed his intentions by touching his belt, then waited for acknowledgment from the hitter before advancing.
But signs can get stolen, and suspicious activity detected. So if you want to preserve the surprise, you don't ask, don't tell, and hope the batter will figure it out. "You give a sign to the manager if you think you can do it," says Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. "But if you have enough balls, you just go and do it yourself."
Then there's Grady Sizemore, who clearly crossed the line from bold to foolish. In 2005 the Indians outfielder was a feckless rookie. When he reached third base with two outs in the first inning of a game in Toronto, he figured he could steal home off the inattentive Dustin McGowan. "I'd never tried it before, not on any level," he says. "But on the first couple of pitches, I was halfway down the line and he wasn't even looking at me. So I just said what the hell and took off."
Problem was, McGowan had already thrown two strikes past the batter, Travis Hafner. So as Sizemore turned a walking lead into a sprint toward the plate, McGowan began to deliver a pitch that Hafner might be obliged to swing at. "He could have killed me," Sizemore says now. "If it's a strike, he's swinging, and the ball is going in my teeth."
McGowan noticed him and rushed the pitch, which ended up high and away. "I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye, and it was just like, What the hell are you doing?" Hafner says. "But he slid in safe. I looked down and told him, 'If I end up with 99 RBIs this year, you're off my Christmas list.'"