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Stealing home

The most exciting play

Jackie Robinson Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You got a beat up glove, a homemade bat

And a brand new pair of shoes

You know I think it’s time to give this game a ride

Just to hit the ball an’ touch ‘em all a moment in the sun

It’s-a gone and you can tell that one goodbye

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were watching a Northwoods League game, a collegiate summer league in the upper Midwest. In the fourth inning, I noticed the runner on third break for home. I tapped my wife on the leg and said, “look, look, look!” the pitch beat the runner to the plate and the catcher tagged him out, but it was easily the most exciting play I’ve seen all summer, at any level of baseball.

When I was younger and still playing ball, I was never much of a hitter. I had absolutely no power. I was an average fielder. But my one strength was baserunning. Even though I was never the fastest guy on our team, I could always steal bases. If I were lucky enough to get a hit, almost always a single, a walk or hit by a pitch, I’d invariably steal second and third. I scored a lot of runs because of my ability to move up on the basepaths. Despite all that, I never stole home and I regret not trying.

One year, we were winning comfortably and in the late innings I found myself on third base. The pitcher was not paying any attention to me at all, and the third baseman was camped in short left field. I was getting an enormous lead off third. I asked my coach, Brad Griffith, if it were okay with him if I stole home. Griff, who was the best sports coach I ever had, said to go for it. We weren’t able to get the attention of my teammate at the plate, and not wanting to lose my teeth to an ill-timed swing, I passed on the steal. No guts, no glory. I’d like to have that one back.

The straight steal of home is the most exciting and ballsy play in baseball. I’m not talking about the watered-down, double steal version where a teammate at first breaks for second and draws a throw. I’m talking about a straight up steal of home where the runner, the pitcher and the catcher are the only three players involved. The Georgia Peach, Ty Cobb, is the career leader with 54 steals of home. In 1912, he set the season record with eight steals of the plate. Pete Reiser, of Brooklyn, not someone known for having great speed, set the National League record in 1946 when he stole home seven times. Reiser only had 87 career steals in a ten-year career, though he did lead the National League in steals twice. Cobb, on the other hand, was a running fool. He ended his 24-year career with 897 steals and lead the league in steals six times.

Jackie Robinson thrilled a generation of fans with his full-tilt style of play. Jackie stole home 19 times in his career (out of 30 career attempts) and his steal of home in the 1955 World Series remains one of the signature plays in World Series history. I’ve watched the video dozens of times, and I have to agree with Yogi Berra. It looks to me like Jackie was out. It’s still fun to watch Yogi lose his mind over the call.

Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who allowed six swipes of home in his career, used to throw at the batter whenever he saw a runner break from third, in hopes of hitting him and creating a dead ball.

More recently, Jon Berti of the Florida Marlins, drew a walk, stole second, third and home against the New York Mets, a base-stealing trifecta! He was aided by the Mets getting lazy and inattentive, or as a Mets fan would say, totally a Met thing. He even fell down on his steal of home, had to bear crawl partway and still made it. The victimized pitcher was old Royal whipping boy Jeurys Familia and the catcher was rookie Ali Sanchez.

One of the Royals’ earliest steals of home came on July 31st, 1972, when Amos Otis victimized Nolan Ryan. Baserunners stole home eight times against the Ryan Express over his brilliant 27-year career, but none hurt worse than this one. The game was played at Anaheim Stadium in front of only 10,344 fans and featured a magnificent pitching duel between Ryan and Roger Nelson of the Royals. In the fourth, Otis led off with a walk, one of six issued by Ryan that evening. Otis took a big lead and Ryan sailed a throw past first baseman Bob Oliver. The fleet Otis moved to third on the error, one of three errors credited to Ryan that night. After striking out Ed Kirkpatrick and getting Lou Piniella on a comebacker to the mound, Ryan looked like he might escape the inning unscathed. With John Mayberry at the plate, Otis did the unthinkable and broke for home, sliding under the tag of catcher John Stephenson.

The run was huge. Ryan only gave up one hit in eight innings of work, a single by Steve Hovley leading off the eighth inning. The Royals picked up two doubles in the ninth off reliever Eddie Fisher, but in the most Royal fashion, were unable to score. Nelson, meanwhile, was just as effective, going the distance and only allowing three Angel hits. Nelson walked one and struck out nine batters in a game that scored an 89. Nelson was spectacular in 1972. He didn’t even break into the rotation until July 4th and only started 19 games but threw ten complete games and six shutouts. Over 173 innings he put up a stellar 2.08 ERA. He struck out 120 batters while only walking 31 in what remains one of the top individual pitching seasons in club history.

Those three errors by Ryan? All three were wild throws to first, trying to pick off runners. Otis drew two of the throws (in the first and the fourth) while Freddie Patek, a base-stealing mavin in his own right, drew one in the fifth.

The game marked only the second time since World War II that a steal of home accounted for the only run of the game. After the game, Ryan said “I can’t think of anything more humiliating than losing a ball game to a guy who steals home on you. I had a 2-2 count on Mayberry when Otis broke from third. The pitch was a ball and he slid in safe. I felt like a nickel.”

George Brett stole home three times in his career. Two of those steals were of the delayed variety, but one on August 17th, 1976, was one of the most exciting plays in Royal’s history. 1976 was a magical summer. The country was celebrating bicentennial and the Royals were steaming towards their first American League West crown. The Royals came into the game with a 71-45 record. The 1976 season was also the summer that Royals fans realized that George Brett was something special. He came into this game with a .341 batting average. He was on his way towards winning his first batting title as well as leading the league in hits, triples, and total bases. Somehow Thurman Munson won the MVP award with Brett taking second, even though Brett outpaced the Yankee star in every category save for home runs and RBI.

This game took place at Royals Stadium on a Tuesday evening. Doug Bird got the start for KC and gave them 8 13 innings, scattering six hits. The Royals went into the ninth nursing a 3-1 lead before Steve Mingori and Mark Littell coughed up two runs to tie the score. The Royals didn’t score in the ninthand Littell pitched a clean tenth. Brett hit a one-out single in the tenth to get things started. Rick Cerone, in only his tenth professional game, had come in to catch the ninth. Brett, already a wily veteran at the age of 23, immediately tested the rookie by stealing second. Cerone’s throw sailed into center, which allowed Brett to move to third. With two outs and Dave Nelson at the plate, Brett broke for home. The pitch from Dave LaRoche and the tag from Cerone were late and Brett had one of the rarest occurrences: a walk-off steal of home.

I met Cerone a few years ago and wish I would have known about this play at that time. Cerone was one of the most genial and humble baseball players I’ve ever spoken to.

The 2002 Royals were a dumpster fire, finishing at 62-100. Despite that, you will rarely find a prettier play than the one Mike Sweeney pulled off on August 14th against Andy Pettitte and the damn Yankees.

With the Yanks leading 1-to-0 going into the bottom of the sixth, Sweeney laced a double to right scoring Carlos Beltran. Manager Tony Pena elected to play small ball and had Joe Randa bunt Sweeney to third. Why?? There was no one out and Randa was a solid hitter. Let the Joker swing the bat. After Kit Pellow struck out, Sweeney was still standing on third. Two outs and Aaron Guiel at the plate. Thankfully, Sweeney decided to take matters into his own hands. With the count on Guiel at one ball, two strikes, Pettitte spent a long time pondering his next pitch. Or maybe he was thinking about where he was going to eat after the game.

Sweeney gestured to Rich Dauer, the third base coach. Dauer burst out laughing. “Sween Dog,” he said, “if you make it, you’ll be on SportsCenter tonight.” Sweeney headed up the chain of command. His eyes found manager Tony Pena’s in the dugout. “I motion in, I point down,” Sweeney says, “like, this pitch I’m going to steal. And Tony looks at me, and he does it back. We didn’t have a sign for it. Just baseball language.” Pettitte came to the stretch and closed his eyes to visualize. Sweeney started running. From shortstop, Derek Jeter yelled, “Step off!” But it was too late. “Forty thousand people at the K, just going crazy (26,383 actually, but we’ll give Sweeney a break),” Sweeney recalls. “We’d just taken a 2-1 lead against the Yankees. I went into the dugout, and Tony gives me a hug, and then he says, ‘That was awesome, Mikey, but what the hell were you doing?’ “ Shocked, Sweeney responded that he’d flashed the sign, and Pena had flashed it back. “No, Mikey,” Pena said, “that meant, ball in the dirt, you be ready to run.”

The play was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen but it all went for naught. Paul Byrd allowed a run to score in the seventh and like so many other Yankees-Royals games of that era, the Yanks pushed a run across in the fourteenth to take a 3-2 lead. Mariano Rivera allowed a leadoff single to Brent Mayne in the bottom of the fourteenth, but Pena once again took the bats out of the Royals’ hands by having Luis Ordaz bunt into an out. Chuck Knoblach struck out and Rivera got RoyalsReview favorite Neifi Perez on a liner to Derek Jeter and that was that.

The 2018 Royals didn’t give us much to cheer about, what with their 58-104 record, but on July 4th, Alex Gordon put one over on Trevor Bauer and the Indians. In the game at Kauffman, in front of a decent Independence Day crowd of 22,001, Bauer hit Gordon with a pitch in the second. Hunter Dozier dorked an infield single and a long fly ball to right by Alcides Escobar moved Gordon to third. With Drew Butera at the plate, with two outs and down 0 and 2 in the count, Dozier broke for second base. Instead of letting him have the base and letting Bauer finish off Butera, catcher Roberto Perez threw to second. Dozier stopped about halfway and extended the play while Gordon broke for home. Jason Kipnis threw a one-hopper which knocked down Indian third baseman Jose Ramirez. Ramirez still made a nice throw sitting on his keister, but it wasn’t enough to get Gordon, who was sporting a wicked lumberjack beard. The Royals added another run in the fifth, but it wasn’t enough as the Tribe prevailed by the score of 3-2.