STEALING HOME : BASEBALL'S PERFECT CRIME
It's a rare burst of optimism when a runner breaks for the plate in the middle of an at-bat. Last week it happened twice. The straight steal. That takes supreme confidence. The bold cat-and-mouse larceny of a runner on third breaking for the plate 9 feet away, knowing that all the pitcher has to do is throw the ball to the catcher. On Sunday, April 15, in Montreal, Preston Wilson, of the Florida Marlins, strolled casually away from third base down the line until the Montreal Expos catcher, Randy Knorr, lobs an eephus back to the pitcher, Tony Armas Jr. At this point Wilson charged towards homeplate. Armas, stunned, panics and never catches the ball. Wilson rears across the plate for the steal of home. "I haven't seen that play," said Felipe Alou, "since I made it myself."
Florida Marlins Bull Pen coach Tony Taylor admits to feeling a tug of nostalgia, maybe even a jolt of adrenaline, last week when he watched two players steal home within two days of each other. Taylor was the first player to steal home at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in 1966, the year the Braves moved there from Milwaukee and he knows a thing or two about stealing home. In 13 full seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies and parts of two others, he did it six times, second most in franchise history. "All natural steals," he says. "It's the most beautiful play in baseball. It's so exciting because it's something you never see. How many people steal home ?" Not many. Since 1997, home plate has been stolen about 20 times each season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They did not, however, provide the breakdown of natural steals vs back-end steals. To put this all into perspective, of the 2,923 bases stolen in the majors last year, 18 were of home plate.
When talking with the few players who have done it they all describe it the sameway. "Oh, it's an adrenaline rush, especially right at the end because you anticipate bang-bang and possibly a collision," stated Andre Dawson, who is 3-for-3 in steal attempts of home in his career which spanned from 1976-1996. Two were straight and one a throw over to first. "About two-thirds of the way down it seems like the rest of the way takes forever. It seems like you've got a lot of area to cover." It can be dangerous, too, especially if the batter isn't in the know and decides to swing. "A lot of teams really don't endorse it," said Tim Raines, who stands fifth all-time in base stealing. However, only one was of home plate - on the back end of a double steal. "I never tried it straight up. The thing is there's no guarantee you're going to make it. Good if you do, bad if you don't."
Evan Maury Wills, who pioneered base stealing in the modern era, once said he never tried to steal home because he was afraid of failing. That's why the key is to steal only when the situation is right, when the runner can exploit everything from the rookie on the mound to the catcher lobbing the ball back to the pitcher. Taylor started out taking walking leads off third. If the pitcher never looked over, he says he never stopped moving until he emerged from the cloud of dust around home plate. "You've got to really study what the pitcher is doing," said Dawson, "what the catcher is doing, whether they're paying attention to you or not, how much room they're giving you, what the count is on the hitter. It's almost like the situation has to be perfect." Wilson's edge came from third-base coach Fredi Gonzalez, who knew that Knorr had a tendency to lob the ball back to the pitcher. As soon as Knorr cocked his arm, Wilson broke. He exploited the surprise factor by running with two outs and two strikes on the batter, John Mabry. It wasn't even close. Sometimes you get those pitchers who think, 'It's never going to happen to me,'" stated Wilson. "I only did it because everything was in my favour. That's my one for the next five or six years." When asked about Wilson's steal, Raines spoke with the authority of a fine art critic. "It was a perfect situation, but it wasn't like that was a straight steal," he said, referring to how Wilson broke as Knorr tossed the ball back to Armas.
Then, on Tuesday, April 17, Raul Mondesi and third-base coach Terry Bevington noticed that New York Yankees pitcher Randy Keisler was seemingly spacing out between pitches and taking too much time getting reset. Mondesi whispered, "They won't get me." Three pitches later, Keisler dropped his glove and Mondesi took off. So, as Mondesi suddenly broke for the plate, he became the first Toronto Blue Jays player ever to successfully pull off a straight steal of home. "Cookie Rojas gave me a sign that as soon as he drops his glove, I should go," explained Mondesi later on. "I didn't think we had a sign for that," joked Carlos Delgado. The manager of the Blue Jays, Buck Martinez, also couldn't help but laugh at the image. "Just the visual of Raul standing at third, so big, so strong. Well, he wouldn't remind you of Otis Nixon out there running the bases. But he is a great instinctive base runner and his speed is outstanding." Motivation is another element. Mondesi went because he was antsy after being stranded at third in two previous at-bats. "I just saw a big old bull coming to my left," said the batter Jose Cruz Jr. "I said, 'I better get out of the way.' Believe me, it was not rehearsed. That shocked everybody, that element of surprise." Dawson did it once with the Expos after he was hit by a pitch playing the Cardinals in St. Louis. "I was mad. I was angry," he said. "I stole second, third and home." It is something in the back of every runner's mind once he arrives at third base. Now that it has happened twice in the same week, it will be on every pitcher'sand catcher's mind, too.
FAMOUS STEALS OF HOME
JULY 15, 1969
MOST STEALS OF HOME PER LEAGUE SINCE 1996 (INCLUDES DOUBLE-STEALS)
Special to CANADIAN BASEBALL NEWS 21 April 2001