I am 34 years old. I started playing tee-ball at age four and continued playing every year until I was 27. I began my coaching career at age 22, which, required me to scout high school and summer team games for potential players. Conservatively, I estimate that I have coached or scouted well over 2,500 baseball games at all different levels of competition. This does not include the countless games I’ve watched on TV or purchased a ticket to attend.
Baseball is a game of startlingly few scenarios. Only three ‘out’ states. Just eight ‘baserunning’ states.
The ball always starts at the exact same spot. There are strict regulations about how the ball is able to leave that spot to initiate action. Once action is initiated, the options are binary: strike or ball, swing or no swing, hit or not hit, out or safe. Compared to other sports, like football or soccer or basketball, where the permutations for attack are endless – baseball is very rigidly structured with a very finite set of variables.
And yet…no matter how many baseball games I’ve seen, I frequently find myself witnessing something I’ve never seen before. It doesn’t make any sense.
To my knowledge, the play described below has only happened once in the history of baseball. I have never seen anything like it before or since. I believe it to be the single worst play ever to take place on a baseball diamond. You decide.
The scenario: Bottom of the 9th, the home team (we’ll call them the Fenix U) trails by one. With one out, the Fenix DH, Craig, smacks a double. Most players would have had a triple, but Craig is approximately 5’10”, 330 lbs. An agile 330, but 330 nonetheless. As he waddles his way towards 2nd, his supple bosom bounds back and forth from chest to chin. Fenix U is in business.
And boy, does Fenix U need this win. No, it’s not a championship series. Or a playoff game. Or a crucial conference foe. It’s a chance. A legitimate chance at a victory. See, Fenix U is 28 games into their season and is still seeking its 5th victory. When winning is that elusive, trailing by only one run in the 9th inning is a special occasion.
Something changes in the psyche of a terrible team when they find themselves actually in a game. The opportunity is treated like a solar eclipse – a planetary alignment so rare that it feels like the baseball gods themselves punched a pinhole into a cardboard box for you to enjoy it. “Surely the baseball gods would not have gone to such trouble only to let us lose again,” rationalizes members of terrible teams.
“If they wanted us to lose, they could have just let us get blown out by 13 like every other game. No, this game is ours! It belongs to us. The gods have taken pity on us and granted us this victory.”
Such was the sentiment in the Fenix U dugout when the tying run reached scoring position. “See, the gods have not forsaken us. This is our divine providence!” Fenix U’s coach calls upon a pinch runner, Daniel, to take over for Craig. Daniel is a freshman, long and slender. Wiry. He looks like he could steal 3rd and then swipe home on the next two pitches and tie the game all by himself. He can’t.
See, there’s a reason Daniel is available to pinch run in the 9th inning of a close game for a team that is 4-23. Daniel is awful. He is an awful hitter – all but guaranteed to strike out in four pitches or fewer. He is an awful fielder – his hands are like cinder blocks and his arm is flaccid as fresh squeezed toothpaste.
He is an awful baserunner – lacking any semblance of speed or instincts. He only looks fast because he has no muscle whatsoever. Plus, he is an ethnic minority. The preceding should be read not as any type of racist stereotyping on my part, but rather as a statement of fact. When playing against overwhelmingly white bread private colleges in the northeastern corner of the U.S., any skinny kid with a tinge of melanin is assumed to be the second coming of Lou Brock. Inserting a pinch runner like that is a ten minute delay – two minutes for the kid to check into the game and get stretched out and eight minutes of pickoffs before the pitcher feels comfortable throwing a pitch. That being said, Daniel is still a full step or two faster than morbidly obese Craig. So in he goes.
Once the obligatory pickoffs conclude, the opposing pitcher finally turns his attention to Fenix U’s next hitter: Luther. In true Fenix U fashion, Luther swings over-aggressively at the first offering – a pitch by his eyebrows – and pops it up into shallow left-centerfield. The shortstop races back while the left fielder and center fielder charge in. With all three fielders closing in on the ball, it is difficult to tell if it would be caught or not. Whether frozen by fear, indecision, or simply a momentary mental lapse that he is actually playing and no longer a spectator on the bench, Daniel remarkably does the correct thing.
He waits and watches.
He watches as the shortstop corrals the ball in his glove. He watches as the left fielder collides with the shortstop. He watches as they both crash to the ground. He watches as the centerfielder trips over the shortstop’s leg and tumbles awkwardly on the grass. He watches as the ball rolls free into centerfield, violently ejected by the force of the impact.
What do you think he does next?
A) Continue to stand there slack-jawed
B) Tags up, just in case it was ruled a catch, then advance to 3rd
C) Take off immediately once the ball is down and score the tying run
Hopefully, you’ve already pieced together that he answer is D, none of the above.
Recall that my impromptu scouting report on Daniel was that he is a terrible baseball player through and through. However, that should not be read that Daniel is terrible person. Because Daniel – kind, sweet, compassionate, Daniel – is a humanitarian. And there, writhing in visible pain before him is not one, not two, but three people in need of physical and emotional support. So Daniel dropped all pretense of a baseball game and instead jogs out to the pileup in left centerfield to check on them.
At least, he starts to. He only gets about 20 feet off the infield apron before he notices that the second baseman has retrieved the ball and is headed his way. He immediately snaps out of his Good Samaritan trance and pivots 180 degrees in an attempt to at least make it back to 2nd safely. He takes one step and collapses in a heap, clutching at his left leg. The second baseman walks over to him and tags him lightly on the shoulder for the second out of the inning. Luther stands on first base, apoplectic. He stares at his fallen teammate with the look that says, “What the fuck are you doing? I did my job! You should have scored,” all the while forgetting that his only contribution had been putting a bad swing on a worse pitch.
The shortstop and outfielders collect themselves and return to their positions. Daniel does not move.
He remains splayed out on the grass, holding his left leg. Fenix U’s athletic trainer grabs her kit and begins to exit the dugout before being grabbed by the arm. Fenix U’s head coach holds her firmly as he seethes.
Coach: You’re not going out there!
Trainer: I have to. He’s hurt.
Coach: He’s embarrassed, not hurt. You’re not going out there. He’s fine. Let him walk off the field by himself. He’s fine!
It feels like hours pass before Daniel is able to successfully hobble off the field. He props himself on the dugout bench so the trainer can inspect his leg. After a ground out a few pitches later, the game is over. Fenix U has squandered their chance. The Fenix U coach leaves the dugout without so much as a word said to anyone.
Epilogue: X-rays later revealed that Daniel had a broken leg. He spent the remainder of the season in a cast and never played baseball again.Next post: The Forgotten Pitchers: Part 1 of 2
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