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Bizarre plays happen in major leagues as well in high school
I love baseball stories. I love telling them and I love hearing other people’s stories – of great moments, great players or just funny events. Over the next few months, while we wait for baseball to start up again, I’ll drop in a few stories just for entertainment sake. Feel free to add any fun stories of your own in the comments.
In my hub about Jim Rice and his awe-inspiring batting practice session, I mentioned that the game contained the most bizarre play I’ve ever seen. More on that in a moment.
In 25 years of coaching, covering games for newspapers and magazines and watching thousands of games on TV, I’ve seen a lot of plays. Most were routine and unmemorable. But some of them were unusual and a few downright bizarre.
For six of those years I coached high school girls softball. While there may not be crying in baseball, there certainly is in softball. Often, I was the one on the verge of tears. Those teams were not very good and as a result created many bizarre plays that I don’t care to remember. But there were a few interesting one.
Back to first in the nick of time
For example, once our team had a runner on first base when the batter hit a hard grounder down the first base line, which the first baseman fielded on the short hop. She stepped on first and fired to second, expecting to double up my runner. Except my runner had become confused (as my team often seemed to be) and ran back to first instead of toward second. As the second baseman caught the ball expecting to tag a sliding runner, my player was perched back on first base. The ump appeared confused by it all but called her safe.
The opposing coach immediately protested, claiming my runner was out because she had to run to second. I countered with, and the ump agreed, that once the first baseman had stepped on first, the force play was off, meaning my runner could return to first base if she chose to do so.
Almost that exact play happened to Mickey Mantle in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, the one that Bill Mazeroski eventually won for the Pirates with his home run in the bottom of the ninth. In the top of the ninth, Mantle was on first base when Yogi Berra hit a grounder to first baseman Rocky Nelson, who stepped on the bag. Mantle dove back into first safely after the force had been removed, which allowed Gil McDougald to score the tying run.
Winning an argument with an umpire
On another occasion in softball, we had the bases were loaded with two outs in the top of the seventh (only seven innings in high school softball) when my batter hit a hard grounder at the second baseman. The ball skipped between her legs and then hit my runner heading toward second base.
The umpire ruled the runner out for being hit by a batted ball, which meant the game was over. Except….I argued with the ump, pointing out that my runner had not interfered with the second baseman’s attempt to field the ball because she wasn’t hit by it until after it had passed the fielder.
After some consultation, the umpires agreed with me (meaning I’m one of the few coaches to ever win an argument with an ump). The umps called the other team back onto the field (from where they’d been busy celebrating their win), we were given a run scored and the bases still loaded. We still trailed in the game but we had hope. Except….my batter popped up the first pitch for the final out, making it all pretty much meaningless.
But the entire reason I had argued the call in the first place was because I’d once seen Don Zimmer successfully make the same argument in a game when he managed the Chicago Cubs.
Out at home on a steal of second
In baseball, I also once saw a runner thrown out at home on an attempted steal of second. The opposing runner took off for second, but our catcher’s throw sailed high into centerfield. The runner then scampered for third. Our centerfielder charged in to field the overthrow, but overran it. Seeing that, the runner headed for home. But our centerfielder had an excellent arm and gunned down the runner at the plate.
Of course, those were high school games and you expect to see something a little off kilter almost every game. In the Major Leagues, you expect to see crisply-played games by professionals.
The bizarre play starts with a strikeout
That wasn’t the case, though, in the game I witnessed between the Red Sox and White Sox in a 1977. In the sixth inning of that game, with the White Sox leading 3-2, Carl Yastrzemski drew a one-out walk. White Sox pitcher Francisco Barrios fanned Carlton Fisk for the second out, bringing first baseman George “Boomer” Scott to the plate.
Scott, for those of you who don’t remember, was a burly power-hitter who had led the American League with 36 homers and 109 RBIs for Milwaukee in 1975. He was one of those players who understood that not only do chicks dig the long ball, but also that teams pay a lot more money to those who can hit the long ball.
Because of that he had geared his swing for homers, especially at Fenway Park where a long pop up could reach the Green Monster. My brothers and I imitated him by swinging straight up and down as hard as we could. You could have placed a china tea set on a table in front of home plate and chances are Scott’s swing would never hit it.
So with two outs, Scott was naturally swinging for the fences. And missing. He swung and missed badly at strike three. But Barrios’ pitched bounced in the dirt in front of the plate. It must have struck catcher Jim Essian’s shinguard, because it rebounded in front of the plate down the first baseline.
The play disintegrates for the Chisox
Scott dug for first but this was an easy play. Essian pounced on the ball, scooped it up and fired it to first. A perfect throw.
Except that for some reason first baseman Jim Spencer was charging in. I don’t know if he thought Scott had hit the ball, or if it was an involuntary reaction to seeing a ball head his direction. But because of it, the catcher’s throw arced over Spencer’s head.
This still wouldn’t have been so bad except that ball hit the back edge of the base and caromed down the rightfield line.
Now another problem came into play for the White Sox. Because Scott was known as a dead-pull hitter, the outfielders had swung around to left. Rightfielder Richie Zisk had set up nearly in centerfield, meaning he had a long run to the line to retrieve the errant throw.
By the time Zisk finally had the ball in hand, Yaz – 37 years old and hardly a speedster (although that year he had 11 steals in 12 attempts) – had scored all the way from first base. Scott, who at age 33 had lost what little speed he had, reached third.
Bizarre play leads to win
So, just to make things clear, on a strikeout that should have been the third out, the Red Sox scored the tying run and got a runner to third. It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. Barrios ended any further damage by getting Butch Hobson to fly out.
Later in the game, Rice singled and then took off on a steal of second base. But as he ran, Barrios uncorked another wild pitch, allowing Rice to continue to third. Yaz then hit a sacrifice fly for what proved to be the winning run.