— Standing in the batter’s box and waiting for Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte to make his 1-1 pitch, J.D. Drew sensed that Red Sox teammate Jacoby Ellsbury had larceny on his mind.
Drew watched as Ellsbury inched farther and farther from third base, then gathered momentum and dashed toward the plate.
“In that situation, I didn’t wanna give it away by, like, backing out of the box or anything to speed Andy up or anything,” said Drew, who was facing Pettitte with the bases loaded and two outs. “I mean, his complete focus was on me.”
It might have done Pettitte, who was pitching from the windup, some good April 26 at Fenway Park had he paid attention to the fleet-footed Red Sox who was on third. His inattentiveness gave Ellsbury the edge he needed to steal home.
“I knew if he was going into his windup again, I was gonna take off,” Ellsbury said.
And take off he did, barreling toward the plate before Pettitte realized what was happening. He rushed a throw to catcher Jorge Posada, who reached to grab the ball and tag Ellsbury. He slid under Posada’s mitt.
Ellsbury’s thievery caught more than Pettitte and the Yankees by surprise. In this power era of Major League Baseball, stealing home is a rarity. No Red Sox ballplayer had accomplished the feat since Billy Hatcher did so April 22, 1994.
Too bad, too, because the steal of home ranks among the most exciting plays in sports. Fans see the play about as often as they see a ballplayer hit for the cycle. Watch a full season of games, and you’d be lucky to witness one steal of home.
Baseball didn’t always have a shortage of this electric play, though. Nor of players who were unafraid to attempt it. According to Baseball Almanac and baseball researcher Jan Larson’s findings, Ty Cobb stole home a record 54 times, a total that might grow as Larson and other researchers pore over the hard-to-decipher box scores from the early 1900s.
Cobb’s total dwarfs Max Carey’s No. 2 total of 33, and compared to baseball’s all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson, Cobb trumps Henderson’s total by 50.
“They wouldn’t let me steal home,” said Henderson, offering a defense for his meager total. “Pitchers always go into their stretch; they wouldn’t go into their windup, so we would get the opportunity to steal home plate.
“I stole home a few times, and then they wouldn’t go back in their windup for me at all.”
Pitchers today are mindful of speed like Henderson’s, maybe more so than they were during Cobb’s era. For a pitcher to let somebody with Henderson’s or Ellsbury’s speed go unnoticed falls into the category of sports malpractice.
Cite malpractice for the straight steal of home that Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore pulled off Aug. 26, 2005, in Toronto. Sizemore used sheer speed and an inattentive pitcher in swiping home against Blue Jays right-hander Dustin McGowan.
“I remember there being two strikes and two outs, and I kinda saw him out of the corner of my eye,” said Travis Hafner, who was batting at the time. “I was like thinking, ‘Is he really stealing?’
“It was almost the last thing I was expecting.“
Like Ellsbury, Sizemore was taking advantage of a pitcher who let his mind wander.
“He happened to be in the windup, and he kinda had a real long delivery,” Sizemore said of McGowan. “With (Travis) Hafner at the plate at the time, there was a huge hole there; they really had the shift on.
“So I was able to get halfway down the line before anyone was really near me. It was just one of those things where I felt I had a chance and I just took it.”
That’s the daredevil’s spirit a player needs to take the risk. He’s in scoring position anyway. A wild pitch, a passed ball, an error or a hit of any sort can bring home the run.
But with the home runs now the game’s currency, risks don’t seem worth taking. Even a Hall of Famer like Henderson, “the man of steal,” might find his manager holding up the don’t-steal sign when he’s standing on third base.
Just to try it is risky business, said Ozzie Smith, a Hall of Fame shortstop who knew a bit about a stealing base.
“I know I didn’t do it a whole lot,” Smith said. “Usually, it was on the backend of a double steal or something. Generally, it’s very tough these days because pitchers do a better job of holding a guy on.”
Henderson doesn’t disagree.
“I think it’s a high risk,” he said. “I think managers don’t believe in it. They feel that the hitters that come up to home plate can drive ‘em in and why take the chance.”
Managers haven’t always been risk-averse. During Cobb’s time and the years heading into the 1960s, stealing home was a strategy that managers pulled from their toolbox. They gave free reign to men like Cobb, Carey, Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig, whose career total of 15 ranks ahead of speed demons like Henderson, Maury Wills [two] and Lou Brock [two].
Babe Ruth, a man not renowned for his baserunning, stole home 10 times, which beats the combined total of Henderson, Smith, Wills and Brock.
The only contemporary ballplayer who displayed a knack for stealing home was Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew. His career total stood at 17, and in 1969 alone, Carew stole home seven times.
“All I knew about stealing home was that Jackie Robinson had done it so spectacularly,” Carew said in his autobiography Carew. “I remember seeing newspaper photos of him, with a big hook slide and a lot of dust around home plate and the catcher [Yogi Berra] lunging at him.”
But those Kodak moments don’t happen much these days. They’re simply too risky for a game as conservative as baseball. According to Stats Pass, 15 steals of home were recorded last season; its record-keeping makes no distinction between steals on the backend of a double steal or straight steals of home like Ellsbury’s and Sizemore’s.
“It’s really rare, and it’s a pretty exciting play,” Hafner said. “It did cost me an RBI though, ‘cause I did hit a home run that at-bat.”
Drew didn’t match Hafner’s homer. He just doubled, driving home another run in what ended as a 4-2 victory for the Red Sox. All Drew could do, as he talked about Ellsbury steal of home the next day, was to shake his head in amazement.
“I don’t think anybody in the ballpark knew but him,” Drew said. “So, it’s just one of those situations that he’s hoping I don’t take a swing at it.”
He didn’t swing, and Ellsbury was safe, stoking the emotions white-hot inside Fenway.
“I don’t think the opportunity arises too often,” Ellsbury said. “But, yeah, it was pretty neat, you know. I’m not gonna lie about that.”