Too many cheaters and not enough thieves

Jacoby Ellsbury's theft of home last week conjures one of baseball's modern plights

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Was it just 100 years ago yesterday -- May 2, 1909 -- that Honus Wagner stole his way clear around the bases in the first inning against the Cubs?

Honus to God.

I wasn't there, but the ancient texts have him stealing second, third and home (even then, you couldn't steal first), and what's more, May 2, 1909, was at least the third and possibly the fourth time he'd done exactly that.

Steals of home not being an official stat, records are inexact. And not that it was never done again; it's just that Wagner was one of history's top home invaders, swiping it 27 times in his Hall of Fame career.

I mention this not merely to flash my stunning research skills, but because on the most recent episode of Sunday Night Baseball, Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury stole home against the Yankees, the first straight steal of home by a Red Sock in 16 years. It was not part of a double steal, but rather a "straight" steal of home.

Play-by-play man Jon Miller, who has brought a boyish enthusiasm to the broadcast now for 20 years, was naturally apoplectic. I know because he woke me out of a sound sleep in time for the first of 278 replays.

If you're going to try this stunt, finding a big left-handed pitcher like Andy Pettitte in a full wind-up is a good place to start, but Ellsbury's brazen theft triggered the kind of joyfulness in Fenway Park that rarely invades April. Even more illuminating perhaps were the smiles and the laughter up and down the Red Sox bench. At one point, manager Terry Francona threw his arm around Ellsbury's neck as though he were a 9-year-old who'd just lashed a single to snap an 0-for-the-summer experience.

Why all the theatrics?

Because stealing home remains baseball's most electrifying, most audacious play, and because it has all but disappeared from the game.

Even to think about it conjures grainy black-and-white imagery of Jackie Robinson in the 1950s, flashing under an incensed Yogi Berra in a singular World Series moment. Robinson had a special brilliance for basepath swashbuckling. More than once he scored from first on a ground single to left, but the steal of home was his signature masterstroke.

The emotional wallop of having home plate stolen from under your nose is like little else in baseball. It's no accident that while the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees met in the World Series six times from 1947 through 1956, the only World Series the Dodgers won was that in which Jackie Robinson stole home.

When the Cincinnati Reds' Chico Ruiz stole home against the Phillies the night of Sept. 21, 1964, Philadelphia didn't win again for a week and a half, blowing a six-and-a-half game lead and the pennant. It wasn't nearly so rare then. The Dodgers' Willie Davis actually stole home against them the night before.

Still, of the 38 players who stole home at least 10 times in their career, as presented by baseballalmanac.com, only three played after 1950. In the early part of the 20th century, stealing home was an accepted component of the game's day-to-day potential. It wasn't just the swiftest and bravest who stole home. Ty Cobb stole it a record 54 times in his career, but Lou Gehrig, who drove in and scored runs by the 100s, still got around to stealing home 15 times. Even Babe Ruth, perhaps the baseball player least capable of ever bolting from third unnoticed, stole home 10 times.

Before 1950, at least eight players, including Wagner, stole home twice in the same game. In 2008, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, home plate was stolen exactly twice all season exclusive of the double steal, and then only 12 times. No Pirate has stolen home since 1996 (Jeff King).

Any number of evolutionary factors have co-mingled to virtually eliminate the steal of home from the game. In the pre-steroid era, the Dianabol era, and this allegedly post-steroid era, there has simply been little point in stealing bases in general, let alone home plate. There were always four or five guys in the lineup who could hit it 500 feet, so there was no positive risk-reward ratio surrounding the notion of trying to outrun a ball pitched from 60 feet from a point nearly 90 feet from the same destination.

All things being drug free, it grew harder and harder to find a pitcher willing to throw from the full windup with a runner on third. With the majority of pitchers being right-handed, most base runners who reach third are staring the pitcher right in the face from a stopped position, making larceny just about physically impossible. Add the pitchers' development of various slide steps to quicken their delivery and the odds of success are prohibitive. Add further the mentality of the modern hitter, who is highly insulted at so much as an inside fastball, and you don't want to be suggesting that home plate needs to be stolen with him at the plate.

That would be just too darn exciting.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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