There’s Nothing Like a Great Base Stealer

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About a year ago, I attended a game in Goodyear, Arizona. At one point, the medium-sized crowd suddenly became electric. No, the game didn’t count — it was just a spring training game. But Billy Hamilton had just beaten out a bunt single with an imitation of a sprint that I last saw on television while watching re-runs of one of Marvel’s The Flash.

Now, with Hamilton on first and no outs, the defense carefully adjusted themselves, expecting a steal attempt. Each of the infielders wanted to impress the front office personnel to make the 25-man MLB roster, so they took care to be exactly in a place where they could make a play. The Rangers first baseman, veteran Mike Napoli, put his right foot up solidly against the base. His glove was out towards Yu Darvish, his hurler, ready … ready … because, inevitably, Darvish made his move and threw the ball to first to keep Billy at bay. That got the crowd even more riled up. Hamilton just smiled after diving into first to get back in time despite Darvish’s good pickoff move.

Everyone held their breath. The thousands of fans in the crowd harbored no doubt that Billy was going to swipe second base. A guy with Hamilton’s speed always has the green light. After three throws back to first, he took off. The Rangers catcher, Brett Nicholas, fired a bullet down to his shortstop, who had perfect position over the keystone sack. But they had one problem –” Hamilton was already holding onto the base with his arm when the throw arrived. Safe! From my vantage point right behind the Reds dugout, I had a good view of the play at second base. I could see Mr. Hamilton flashing a smile. Even Darvish turned around and gave a look as if he was saying to himself, “There’s not much we can do about him.”

It wasn’t a minute later when Billy took off for third as his teammate swung and missed. Was it a hit-and-run, or was Jose Peraza simply trying to give Hamilton some cover for what became yet another stolen base? Either way, Billy stood up at third base. Nicholas didn’t get a throw off for a number of reasons, and it was probably a good decision. The crowd was on its feet, entertained to the fullest. We all knew we had witnessed an athletic work of art. Billy Hamilton was on the loose that afternoon, and every single fan at the game loved the action.

Billy Hamilton had 184 career stolen bases at that point, and he added 59 more in 2017. He has many more to go. The potential he has to cause excitement over the rest of his career due to his skill is enormous.

During my lifetime, I have been blessed to see Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Willie Wilson, Bert Campaneris, Ozzie Smith, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Joe Morgan, Kenny Lofton, and Rickey Henderson play in person. Of course you recognize that these are some of the top base-stealers in the history of baseball. As a boy, when I listened to Minnesota Twins games on the radio (my favorite team), I dreaded if Campaneris ever reached base. I knew what was coming next. I later learned that my anecdotal memory was correct — Campaneris stole 79 career bases against the Twins, second only to the 84 he stole against the Chicago White Sox.

The one time that I met Buck O’Neil, the immortal Negro Leagues player, he assured me that Cool Papa Bell was the most talented base-stealer ever. But that was before my time! Witnessing Wills in his prime at Chavez Ravine was so similar to watching Hamilton at this past Cactus League. I was just 10 years old, but I will never forget the incredible jumps that Wills got on the pitcher, how he ran with confidence and put the pitching staff on edge. Wills swiped three bases that day, and the crowd was simply riveted each time he reached base. Even the opposing players came to the edge of the dugout to see what the fleet Wills was going to do. Needless to say, the Dodgers won that game, sparked by the thefts of Maury Wills.

July 16, 1969: Rod Carew slides in safely for his record-tying seventh steal of home that season.

I can never forget 1969, when I heard the radio call as Twins Hall of Famer Rod Carew stole home for the seventh time that same season. Carew did not hit balls as far as his teammates Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva routinely did, but when it came to swiping home plate, a daring feat under the best of conditions, no one did it like him. What an exciting moment this was for all fans of baseball. Somehow his base stealing feats cemented my love for the strategy and intricacies of the game. And just think — Carew “only” stole 353 bases during his career!

The stolen base loomed large in the 2014 Wild Card game, as the Kansas City Royals swiped seven bags en route to the win. The game ended, 9-8, in extra innings, and the Royals would not have won had it not been for their success at stealing. Each team had over a dozen hits (15 to 13), so clearly the difference in the score was provided by the thefts (seven for the Royals, zero for the losing A’s). More stolen bases doesn’t always guarantee a win — I remember the Twins losing a game to the Tigers in 1969 even though Carew and Cesar Tovar combined for five stolen bases for the Twins (including both players stealing home in the same inning) — but a successful running game can really make an impact.

How do the top base stealers impact the game of baseball? Granted, they may not drive in three or four runs with one swing of their bat, like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Mark McGwire, Albert Pujols, and Sammy Sosa could do. But my experience is that for providing spark to a team, for creating an electric atmosphere for the fan, and for firing up their teammates, nothing beats the active base robber. He creates havoc for a defense, upsets pitchers and catchers, and keeps middle infielders hopping during every pitch. This has been true at all levels of baseball that I have witnessed, from youth baseball to the majors.

Probably all of us have known a Zach Boyle. Zach was my son’s high school teammate in Phoenix, Arizona. Their team made it two years running into the state tournament. An auxiliary weapon that the team had was Zach. He was not a starter. Baseball was not even his top sport. He was a track star, and if my memory serves me, he held a state record in one of the sprinting events. When the team needed a run and had a runner on first, inevitably Zach would be inserted as a pinch runner. Every player, every coach, every fan, and even the umpires knew what was coming next. Zach’s head coach was a former NCAA D-I player who had taught Zach some good base stealing mechanics. Boyle went something like 17 for 17 that year in stolen bases. Every time he came in, he stole a base, sometimes two, and with the preponderance of passed balls, wild pitches, and batted balls, he scored the great majority of those times. Due to track events, he couldn’t even make some of the games, but when he was on the bases, the anticipation and excitement that he created, even at the high school level, was enormous. The team had an all-state player and two big power hitters. The pitching staff had a team ERA of around 4.00, which is tremendous for high school. But it was Zach who provided the base stealing spark and was always a fan favorite. The noise of the fans would rise every time he entered a game, even in away venues. “Go Zach, go!” would mix with “Watch out for that guy at first — he’s going!”

At the major league level, base stealing is somewhat of an ignored art and skill. We all know the mantra that the singles and doubles hitters set the table for the power hitters who hit the home runs and drive in the runs. This is a given as the ideal for a batting lineup. The majority of fans come to see sluggers like Bryce Harper, or aces like Clayton Kershaw. Many of us would particularly attend a game when Harper or Mike Trout are in town, or if Kershaw or Johnny Cueto are scheduled to pitch, just to be able to see the “best of the best” play. And why not? Babe Ruth filled stadiums, as did Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Why shouldn’t the best hitters and pitchers of today do the same? Attending a game to focus on a leading base-stealer is not so popular. Yet, in my mind, it is an exciting part of the game that we too often do not fully appreciate –” both for what it creates, and for what it can mean in the run and win columns.

From Billy Hamilton of the Reds to Zach Boyle of the Eagles, base stealers have provided spark to the game for well over 100 years. So, be proud Ty Cobb, and hold your head high, Billy Hamilton — not the Reds’ Hamilton, but Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton of the Phillies, who stole 914 bases during his career. Perhaps the reader has not heard of the second Hamilton, but I guarantee you that every pitcher, catcher, coach, and middle infielder in the 1880s and 1890s had to adjust their game plan to limit the damage that the two-time National League batting champion caused. Those 914 stolen bases on the fields from back in his era is pretty impressive, windups notwithstanding.

Stealing successfully is part art, and part skill. The physics of it is understood, and can only make us appreciate even more the successful stolen base. Physicist David Kagan has worked out a formula that informs us what is needed to successfully steal on a consistent basis. There are the defensive factors such as the pitcher’s time to home plate (if it’s 1.5 seconds or more, the hurler is toast), the catcher’s transfer of the ball from the glove to the hand, and the quickness and accuracy of his throw. Lefties are more successful in holding stealers than righties (72 percent success at stealing vs. righties, versus 66 percent against lefties). Mix that with the offensive factors, such as the runner’s speed (3.15 seconds from first base to second base, in the case of the Reds’ Hamilton), the quality of the runner’s jump, and the efficiency of the method by which a runner comes into the base (sliding into the bag with feet, sliding with an extended arm, or sliding and grabbing the bag, etc.). Recent studies have preferred the slide-and-grab technique. You can see a summary of Kagan’s base-stealing statistics at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/breaking-down-science-stolen-base-180952920/

Science and art mix when it comes to base stealing, which is another reason why baseball is such a great game. So the next time you enjoy a baseball game at any level, enjoy the art of base stealing. It has been, is, and will continue to be a great part of our great game.

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