Monday, August 10, 2009

The Double Steal

Potomac Nationals vs. Wilmington Blue Rocks, Sunday, August 9, 2009

It's a blistering hot August Sunday.

Top of the eighth inning. Wilmington, in a tie with the P-Nats for first place in the Carolina League, has come back from a 3-0 deficit to rack up six unanswered runs. Things may be out of hand for the home team.

Wilmington puts runners at first and third. Nats reliever Patrick McCoy winds up to pitch. As he does so, the runner on first breaks for a steal. McCoy catches it in time, and concentrates his attention on throwing him out. From our seats in Section E (close enough to home plate that Freddie and I can legitimately contest ball-and-strike calls with the ump -- the $11 seats!) we see the runner on third sneaking down the line to steal home.

Nooooo! we all shriek. Look behind you! Don't make a rookie mistake! Get the lead runner!

But no. McCoy throws to the second baseman, crabwalking for second along with the runner. Immediately, the lead runner on third breaks for home. The second baseman, far more in tune with his baseball instincts and training than those of us in the stands -- who remembers the Double Steal play from high-school ball? Certainly not me -- susses the play immediately. He's been waiting for it. He fires the ball on a smoking rope to the catcher at home, who falls on the miscreant home-stealer like a ton of bricks, and the ump punches the runner out, out, out.

I sometimes forget how much I love this game. Who laid out the bases at 90 feet apart? Such that when a ground ball goes to the shortstop's right, and he snags it and throws to first, it's always an exciting bang-bang call? Eighty-five feet, the runner's invariably safe. Ninety-five feet, he's out by a country mile. And on a tall sacrifice fly to deep center, runner at second gets overconfident and tries for home, centerfielder hits the cutoff man, who does his job and gets the ball on a line to home, the ball and the runner are there at exactly the same time, and only the ump can see through the cloud of dust to make the call?

Baseball oughta be the National Pastime or something. That's what I think.


James Young said...

Certainly a more exciting game than we attended on Saturday night, for Scout night. Scoring was done by the third inning, by which time the P-Nats had built up a 9-run lead.

The only excitement after that was finding a place in the outfield to pitch our tent.

Mike said...

It is a perfect game, and for those of us who are Cub fans, one full of excitement until August or September or October and then...heartbreak. Pathos. Spilled beer and nachos. Tears. (Shakes fist) Damn you Cubs!

But Neddie, the 500 lb. elephant in the room is the new Pynchon, who I'm sure is a baseball fan. I would love your impressions.

Neddie said...

Pynchon: Yeah, I know! I just this morning read a positive review in Time, of all places. I do believe I'll trot down to shops tomorrow and snag a copy.

Sunny Jim said...

Hi Neddie - give us an update on that dead deer when you get a spare minute or three. I remember from hiking trips that that can be one mighty strong stench in the middle of summer. Did you move it far enough away from the house? Good luck.
And speaking of hiking trips, took the loooonnng route passing North to South thru Virginia, and found that the Blue Ridge Parkway - Waynesboro to Roanoke, south of Shenandoah National Park - to be one of the nicest roads in the country. The crowds all fork over the $15. and go through Shenandoah (I guess it makes sense since it's closer to the populated areas). But once out of the park if you continue on the Blue Ridge you have it just about all to yourself - more deer than people.

Decatur Dem said...

It's fortunate that baseball was conceived and born in the US. Had it been Canada or the Dominican Republic or Cuba, it's highly unlikely they'd have arrived at the perfect inter-base distance of 27.43 m. And 30 m. would have made it an impossibly long run. At that distance, Ty Cobb and Lou Brock and Maury Wills would have a combined career stolen base stat around 100 or less. And catchers would be graded solely on their batting stats, because any schmoe off the street would be able to throw runners out at second.

Anonymous said...

Am I missing something here? Surely, lengthening the basepaths by a factor of x (or shortening by a factor of x if x<1) would also lengthen (or shorten) the distance the ball has to go from home to second, or short or third to first, by the same factor of x, so in terms of competitive balance it'd be largely a wash. So if the distance from home to first were 100 feet, infielders would risk the health of their throwing arms a bit more, and have another fraction of a second to get a bead on line drives and sharp grounders while, however, having to cover more ground. Right?

Neddie said...

That would be true, James, if certain constants (the speed of a batted ball, the force with which a good shortstop can throw a ball, the speed at which a good athlete can cover the ground between home and first) were to also increase correspondingly.

But a good shortstop's reflexes remain the same no matter the size of the field,and you'd find the short playing somewhere near the pitcher's mound on your 100-foot basepath -- as if he were playing to prevent an infield hit on today's field -- and he'd get to a ball hit to him at the same speed as on a standard field. The runner would be at a hopeless disadvantage.

It would be a fascinating experiment to set up an infield with the bases set at variable distances -- 85 feet, 95 feet, etc. -- and see if you still got the same game. My every instinct says no, and that the Bestowers of Baseball truly gave us the perfect symmetry between physics and athleticism.

I'm going to set this as a research quest: Who gave us 90 feet between bases? And what did they know?

xjmueller said...

The 90 ft base path was decided in the mid 1800s according to a book titled "Baseball Before We Knew It" by David Block (2005). Found it a google books. A couple other sites repeated this info, so I'll take it as credible.

Linkmeister said...

See Wikipedia, Knickerbocker Rules, codified by Alexander Cartwright into the general rules of baseball.

We just had the annual gravesite celebration out here for Mr. Cartwright, who founded the Honolulu Fire Department and was its chief for ten years.

Anonymous said...

Okay, my automatic assumption that the infielders would stand commensurately farther back on a bigger infield was a bit naive, but was it all that naive? The infielders, even the shortstop, are still responsible for covering the actual bases once runners get on. (Oh, the ramifications: What would double-play depth look like with 100-ft basepaths? Would Tinker continue to roam the infield, prepared to grab a weak dribbler and spin 135 degrees to his left for the easy lob to Evers, followed by the 100-foot toss to Chance? But then what about grounders up the right side?) But the extra difficulty of getting on in the first place leads me to concede your point.

The Vintage Base Ball Association also has some 19th-century codes. The Knickerbocker Rules of 1845 say: "The bases shall be from 'home' to second base, forty-two paces; from first to third base, forty-two paces, equidistant." Taking a pace as an even yard and dividing 42 yards by sqrt(2) gives you almost exactly 30 yards to first base 164 years ago.

Sluggo said...

Spent the summer trying to convince my son's team of 12 year olds not to make that throw, with little success. Hard to believe the kids in Williamsport are playing the same game - they should move the mound and bases back a bit there, eh?

Even worse: we had a guy get picked off second by a centre fielder sneaking in behind him, and the rest of the year our centre fielders kept trying the play, with results ranging from bad to disastrous.

Oh well, as I often told the kids, you're not a real pitcher til you've been called for a balk.