What was that? A prayer? A yoga pose? Orlando Cabrera had never seen anything like it. As he sat in the Angels' dugout that afternoon in July 2006, Cabrera watched Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley, a rookie making his fourth start, set himself to start his windup, then pause and duck his head into his glove like someone having a conversation with his wristwatch. A runner lingered off third base, but Billingsley ignored him. "I get to third," Cabrera said to Vladimir Guerrero, sitting beside him, "I'm going home."
Had Guerrero heard him? Standing on third base now, Cabrera watched him step into the batter's box and wondered. With two out in the third inning Cabrera had lined a double to rightfield, then kept running when J.D. Drew misplayed the ball. The crowd was still buzzing, but nobody knew what was coming. Well, Cabrera hoped one person knew. Batting cleanup, the righthanded Guerrero had a reputation for swinging at just about anything thrown his way. He was a fearsome hitter but not a selective one. And in this instance, a line drive pulled toward third base or even a swing that missed could be perilous to Cabrera.
Cabrera had never stolen home before, never even thought about it. Cabrera's eyes met Guerrero's, and the runner nodded toward the plate, but he couldn't be certain that Guerrero understood. Cabrera forced himself to stay still, not inch down the line. "The adrenaline is pumping, and I'm counting every split second, but I don't want to give any indication that I'm going to do it," he remembers. "That's the hard part. To wait. To wait. To force yourself not to start going."
Then Cabrera went. "And all the way," he says, "I'm thinking, Don't swing! Don't swing!"
Billingsley never saw him. "The way I knew, I started hearing the fans," the pitcher says. "And then I just thought, Oh, gee." All Cabrera's worrying about Guerrero didn't matter. Transfixed by the idea that someone was actually stealing home on him—a play he'd never seen in person, much less participated in—Billingsley didn't let go of the ball.
With that steal Cabrera joined the select group of active big leaguers who have pulled off one of baseball's most exciting plays. In fact, it could be argued that the straight steal of home—not the back end of a double steal, not the steal off a botched suicide squeeze, but a premeditated dash down the third base line in a quixotic effort to beat a pitch to the plate—is the most electrifying act in sports. It combines the drama of a penalty shot, the intrigue of a flea-flicker and the rousing effect of a backboard-shattering dunk.
But actually witnessing one? With seven weeks left in the 2010 season, no major leaguer has stolen home on his own all year. It's not an official statistic, so nobody knows the last season that passed without a straight steal of home. But it was at least a decade ago, and probably far longer. Fewer pitchers than ever use full windups with runners on third these days, videos insure that any successful culprit will be studied around the league, and managers are more conservative than ever. It makes us wonder if we'll ever see another.
I. ANYONE CAN STEAL HOME (EVEN YOU, SWEENEY)
How do you steal home? You start with an inattentive pitcher, the sole constant in the equation. "If he's doing his job, [stealing home is] impossible," says Davey Lopes, who swiped 557 bases (including home off a double steal in 1982) in a 16-year big league career and is now the Phillies' first base coach. "I've never seen anyone yet who could outrun a baseball over 60 feet." It also helps if the pitcher is throwing from a full windup, which takes as much as two seconds longer than pitching from the stretch.
Beyond that, consensus wanes. Conventional wisdom insists that you try it only with two outs, since a sacrifice fly or even a grounder can get a runner home. Yet it's happened plenty of times with one out and none. Some say that having a righty at the plate is desirable because he'll block the catcher's view of the runner. Others prefer a lefty, especially a powerful pull hitter, because the third baseman will be shaded toward shortstop, allowing the runner a bigger lead. Some runners like to bluff down the line to see if the pitcher notices, while others prefer not to telegraph their intentions.