Go back to a time before Prius-sized sluggers and their three-run homers hijacked the game, before hitters became more selective at the plate than a master chef in a supermarket, before a Red Sox--Yankees game plodded on longer than a PBS miniseries. There was a time when baseball moved at a different speed. It was fast—as fast as Cool Papa Bell running down a ball in the gap, as fast as the Mick going from home to first, as fast as burners like Rickey, Rock and Vince blazing around AstroTurf infields as if they were the autobahn.
Perhaps if he'd arrived in the game at a different time, Rich Thompson, a 33-year-old rookie outfielder for the Rays, would have gotten his chance earlier. He came along in the wrong era, when the one above-average asset he possessed—speed—was of little value to major league teams. Thompson was 24 when he made his big league debut, with the Royals in 2004, and in his only at bat before being sent back to the minors, he grounded into a double play. Eight years passed without another call-up. He and his wife, Teresa, had three kids and spent his off-seasons selling mortgages over the phone and caddying at golf courses for $100 a day. When he told people that he'd keep playing until he had enough money to buy a car, he wasn't kidding. He stuck around the minors like a modern-day Moonlight Graham, and he kept running: In 2011, his 12th season in the minors, he stole 48 bases for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies' Triple A team.
In May, Thompson was still an IronPig and on his way to read to students at an elementary school when he got a call from his manager: He'd been traded to the Rays and—945 minor league games and 3,711 plate appearances after his first major league game—was headed to the Show to fill the roster spot vacated by injured Tampa Bay outfielder Brandon Guyer. Within 24 hours Thompson was in a game as a pinch runner; taking a lead off second base, he distracted the pitcher enough to balk. The following day he stole two bases. Now he is in the middle of a white-knuckle pennant race, an unlikely weapon for a team fighting for the postseason.
"He's a guy who can come right off the bench and steal a base, and those guys are hard to find," says Rays bench coach Dave Martinez. Suddenly Thompson is a valuable major leaguer, even though he is more or less the same player he was as a young prospect: a below replacement-level hitter who can steal second base in 3.2 seconds, as fast as the game's top speedsters. The game has changed, and now it has a place for players like Thompson.
Speed is cool again, from Tampa Bay, where the Rays have an offense built around such burners as Thompson and outfielders B.J. Upton (30 steals) and Desmond Jennings (27), to Oakland, where the once anti-small-ball A's are running wild. In between, in minor league hamlets around the country, a generation of fast and athletic players has been changing the way the game is played. Reds prospect Billy Hamilton's obliteration of baseball's professional record for steals in a season—he had 155 in the minors this year—was one of the best stories of 2012. His legend seemed to grow every day: the phenom who steals bases on pitchouts, scores from second on sacrifice flies and catches fly balls on the warning track. (He's a shortstop.)
Hamilton looks like a throwback—he wears his uniform old-school baggy and his nickname, Blazin' Billy, rolls off the tongue like Cool Papa Bell's, baseball's original burner, but he is the future of the game, a major player in baseball's speed revolution. "These guys are swinging the game back to what it was—they're reminding people of Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and Vince Coleman," says former infielder Delino DeShields, who managed Hamilton in the minors in 2010 and '11 and whose son, Delino Jr., a 20-year-old Astros minor leaguer, stole 101 bases this year. "Baseball is coming back to its natural state. It was always meant to be about speed. It was always meant to be played fast."
There's a moment in Michael Lewis's 2003 book Moneyball when A's third base coach Ron Washington, now the manager of the Rangers, explains to second baseman Ray Durham why (to Washington's chagrin) the team didn't turn Durham loose on the bases. "Somebody gets his ass thrown out," huffs Washington, "and you got all kinds of gurus who tell you that you just took yourself out of an inning." It has long been a sabermetric tenet that the value of a stolen base was outweighed by the risk of getting caught. You do not give away outs. But in recent years something unexpected happened: Players stopped hitting home runs as if the game were slow-pitch softball, and the calculus of the game began to change.
This is baseball in 2012: The run environment remains as depressed as the housing market (scoring this season is near its lowest level since 1992), and hitters are having a harder time getting on base (the major league on-base percentage at week's end was .319) than in any season since 1988. With power on the wane and runs scarce, the value of speed and the stolen base is rising. Rabbits like Thompson, the Braves' Michael Bourn (the NL steals leader with 39), the Blue Jays' Rajai Davis (44, second in the AL) and, above all, Angels MVP candidate Mike Trout (a major-league-leading 45 stolen bases) have become more valuable than at any time in the last 20 years. With fewer hitters who can drive in runs with an extra-base hit, players who can steal or take an extra base to get into scoring position are vital weapons.
"You need to get a lot more creative in scoring runs against better pitching," says Joe Maddon, who spent 31 years in the Angels' organization before becoming the Rays' manager in 2006. "You need to steal bases; you need to take the extra base; you need to put pressure on opposing teams. It's true that speed kills. I remember as a scout in 1980, speed was a high commodity. I thought things would trend this way, based on better [drug] testing and the elimination of PEDs. I always thought things would swing back."
The Rays, who have stolen 127 bases this season, are on pace to become the first team since the Go-Go White Sox of the late 1950s to lead the AL in steals five straight years. But the rest of baseball is catching up. This season stolen bases and attempts are slightly below 2011 levels, when they were at their highest rates since '99 and '01, respectively. Last year 50 major leaguers finished with at least 20 steals; the last time more reached that plateau was 1989. This year 45 players are on pace to swipe 20.