Baseball's Stolen Base Narrative
Baseball's Exciting and Sneaky Play
Baseball is a game where a player's ability sometimes perfectly matches the aspect of the game they have chosen to focus their skills on. The stolen base, a base runner's skill of swiping a base against the opposing team, is an art that few have mastered. It takes more than just raw physical ability to steal a base in baseball.
Whether you're a big baseball fan, or just the casual, now-and-then observer, the game of baseball is designed so that no two plays are ever the same. Even the lowly grounder to second base is a unique event in this major league contest. This is significant, and one has to wonder who in the world was able to develop such a simple game and have the resulting games played always different from the one before? However it happened, the game developed as it grew in popularity, and new objectives within the game appeared.
It was in the 1860s that organized baseball's first stolen base was recorded. It's been a part of the game for a long, long time. Before that, a runner advanced on a batted ball only. Perhaps the first base stealer got annoyed with a pitcher taking too much time to throw the next pitch, and he took off for second base. Whatever the case, runners were soon waiting for the pitcher to release the pitch, so they could make their bold, ninety-foot dashes.
For fans of the game, a base hit from a speedy player meant one thing; he would have the fans sitting on the edges of their seats. Their eyes would be glued on the runner at first, knowing full well he was plotting in his head how to best steal second base.
How a Fan Sees the Stolen Base Play in Baseball
Ron LeFlore, a Detroit Tigers player of my youth, was fast, strong, and clever. Billy Martin, the Tigers manager at the time, worked to get LeFlore out of prison and onto the Tigers. His story was amazing and inspirational, but I was just a young kid watching a baseball game.
He was one of my favorite players because he was exciting to watch, especially from old Tiger Stadium's seats. He was a good hitter, he had a powerful swing and could drive the ball well, but he also could beat out slow grounders. It seemed to me that every time he came up he'd end up standing confidently on first base.
And when he was, the rest of the baseball field ceased to matter to the fans. A few cheers would start among the people as the pitcher toed the rubber on the mound. LeFlore would take a couple paces off first base and get into his powerful crouch. The first baseman stood to his left, near the first base bag.
Before widening his lead, LeFlore fixed his eyes on the pitcher. He'd watch his entire body, watching for movement, trying to determine if and when the pitcher was going to turn and throw the ball to the first baseman. The crowd leaned forward in their seats and began to cheer him on.
LeFlore shuffled his feet down the base path, until he was ten feet away from first base. The lead always looked too big to the spectators, and anxious fathers told their sons that "it's too much, he's going to get caught".
The pitcher on the mound glanced over his shoulder at the base runner. The game came to a complete halt this way, time stopping in that bizarre way only baseball can make it do. The tension in the stadium intensified as pitcher, first baseman, and base runner dominated the viewer's attention.
A Base Stealer in Action is a Beautiful Thing
And then it happened, what everyone in the stadium expected. The pitcher caught LeFlore leaning slightly to his right, toward second base. This slight balance shift caused a split second delay before he could turn and dive back to first base. The pitcher turned and fired the ball toward the first baseman. All this happened in an instant.
The crowd drew in anxious breath as the would-be base stealer finally got his momentum going in the right direction. His powerful legs pushed hard against the dirt, and he dove for the first base bag. The first baseman was right there, his glove open near LeFlore's head, ready to tag him any moment. LeFlore's hand reached out for the white bag, the crowd saw there was no way he'd make it back, he was going to be out, but the throw from the pitcher went high, and LeFlore got his hand on the bag safely, under the first baseman's tag.
The baserunner got up and nonchalantly dusted himself off. The entire front of his white uniform was covered in light brown earth. He stood on the square base and said something to the first base coach. The crowd settled back in their seats, relieved.
And then the whole thing started over again. The pitcher got up on the mound, LeFlore took his daring lead off first base, and the crowd again began to cheer him on. For them, it was just a matter of time before LeFlore was standing victorious on second base.
The pitcher went into his stretch. LeFlore leaned hard in his crouch toward second base. The pitcher brought his left leg up high and LeFlore took off for second. He dug in hard as he started off running, the dirt behind a darker brown where his mighty thrusts disturbed it. His running was compact and disciplined, and his legs and arms pumped with the effectiveness of well-oiled machinery. He had his helmeted head down, all his thought bent on the distance between him and his objective.
The pitcher was making his delivery to home plate now. His focus shifted from LeFlore to the job of getting the hitter out. When he released the ball, the pitcher was no longer a player in LeFlore's clever game. The pitch was a fastball, and the hitter let it go by. It settled into the catcher's mitt with a muffled pop, and the catcher was up on his feet and throwing the ball to second base, all seemingly at the same time.
LeFlore went across the dirt like a whirlwind on a desert plain. The speed at which he could propel his considerable frame forward was astounding. When he neared second base, he went into his slide. For an experienced base stealer like LeFlore, it wasn't something he had to focus on, it came naturally.
What he did focus on was where he wanted his lead foot to touch second base. The shortstop was coming over to field the catcher's throw, and he approached near the inside part of the bag, so Leflore aimed for the back of second base. His foot scraped across the gritty dirt, and the shortstop reached for a perfect throw from the catcher.
Some of the fans in the stands were now on their feet. They watched with satisfaction as LeFlore made it into second base safely, just ahead of the catcher's admirable attempt to catch him stealing. The crowd broke loose, letting out cheers and yelps, and clapping their hands together madly. LeFlore didn't seem to notice. With his uniform now covered in dirt on the back, as well as the front, he again stood and dusted himself off. He glanced over toward third base, as if sizing it up.
Base Stealing is a Game Within the Game of Baseball
As a kid watching this spectacle, and I observed LeFlore a few times, it was the most exciting part of baseball. It wasn't my favorite part of playing baseball, because I wasn't fast, but it was what I enjoyed seeing most as a fan.
I was too young to understand that people were cheering for Ron LeFlore for a lot of reasons other than his base stealing prowess. But, I haven't forgotten the intensity of the crowd when he successfully got on base and went into his crouch. From where I sat, elevated above the field among the loud fans, it was an amazing sight to behold.
Baseball is a game of physical prowess and skill, but, for the guys that don't hit big home runs or strike out a bunch of hitters, it's also a game of wits. I understood, even as a kid, that guys like LeFlore were special to the game. They got the crowd involved and could totally alter how a pitcher was faring on the mound. I've seen players like LeFlore and Rickey Henderson totally get inside a pitcher's head, just by getting to first base. Their presence there was like a bad omen, a harbinger of doom. The pitcher was in trouble.
Fans have focused on the bigger aspects of baseball in recent years. Team owners and managers have responded accordingly, so that even a good base stealer is groomed to focus on other things, like their hitting. Small ball isn't as common today as it was in earlier years, especially in the American League.
That's a shame, because there's probably of bunch of kids rooting for their home team's fastest and sneakiest player. While the rest of crowd is anticipating the hulking hitter's next home run, there are people with their eyes glued to the base stealer on first base. Some fans are watching the inner battle of wits between runner and pitcher turn into a frantic dash for another stolen base. They're cheering for the guy to make it safely, for him to get his chance to stand on his hard-fought gain and bask in the spotlight for a few moments, while he dusts himself off.
Stolen Base Artists
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