Every baseball fan has their own set of reasons for loving the game. We all have our personal collections of moments, experiences, or memories that make it great. Maybe you love to crunch the numbers and dominate your fantasy league. Maybe you love the history and nostalgia and revel in getting all sorts of trivia questions right. Maybe you are happiest eating a hot dog and drinking a beer in the stands. Whatever it is for you, it keeps you coming back. It sucks you in year after year because there is a magic to baseball that gets into your blood. And so, to honor and celebrate not only the holiday season but also our collective adoration of the greatest game ever created, here are The 12 Things of Baseball That Make the Game for Me.
12 Walk-Off Dingers
I defy you to find a bigger moment in any sport than a walk-off home run. It is, by its very nature and concept, guaranteed to happen in front of the home crowd. It is a moment that goes from nervous tension to chaotic exuberance in an instant. The energy that builds in a stadium at the crack of the bat is palpable, and its thunderous release is nothing short of electrifying when tens of thousands of people simultaneously realize it’s going over the fence. Or, in the case of Tampa Bay, tens of fans. The point here is that home runs are just downright exciting all on their own and game-winners amplify that exponentially.
There are the iconic blasts that we all know about. You’ve all heard the clip: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” which refers to Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that saw the New York Giants defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3, 1951, to win… the pennant. Another such bomb was Bill Mazeroski’s blast off of Ralph Terry to win Game 7 of the 1960 World Series (against the Yankees, which is an important fact that should never be left out) which was not just a game-ender, but a World-Series-ender and how does a moment get any bigger or better than that? Sorry, the-birth-of-everybody’s-child-ever, this wins.
There is, of course, the iconic blast hit by Boston’s Carlton Fisk off the left-field foul pole in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the World Series in 1975 where he coaxed the ball to stay fair with some serious body language, and Kirk Gibson, who, with injuries in both legs, came on to pinch-hit down by a run in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Serie and delivered against Dennis Eckersley. And for our Canadian friends in the Great White North, there was the 1993 blast from Joe Carter off Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams which gave the Blue Jays an 8-6 win in Game 6 and a 4-2 series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Mitch had great 90s hair but will likely be remembered more for serving up a meatball to Joe than for his career 4.44 FIP.
There are two that come to us from exhibition games. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t refer to All-Star Games as “exhibitions” but that is, objectively, true. The first came off the bat of Ted Williams in 1941, hitting a three-run dong to give the American League a 7-5 win. Williams later said, “I just shut my eyes and swung.” I used the same strategy in a middle school fight and it did not go nearly as well for me. Stan Musial also walked off an All-Star game in 1955 in the 12th inning after the National League had been down 5-0 as late as the seventh. Musial said of the at-bat that he, “…was just trying to get on base.” Technically, he did.
Rounding out the 12 game-ending ding-dongs that prove how awesome they are, let’s start with the first walk-off in World Series history. It happened in 1949 and was, of course, hit by a Yankee. In Game 1, Tommy Henrich took Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers deep to start the ninth, giving the Yankees a 1-0 win. In Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS, Chris Chambliss went yard off of Mark Littell for a 7-6 win. Here’s the fun part: After hitting the homer, “Chambliss is surrounded as he rounds first base, and has to reach out to touch second, which has been torn out by a fan. He never reaches third, but teammates later have him return to step in the general area of home plate” (Baseball-Reference). He literally tagged second with his hand as he jogged while a fan was holding it for him. That’s amazing.
And in more recent developments, we have a non-homer home run, an unlikely hero, and a clutch hitter for the ages. In 1999, Robin Ventura, famous for getting pummeled by Nolan Ryan after charging the mound, came up in the 15th inning of Game 5 of the NLCS in a 3-3 tie and hit the first grand slam in playoff history except for one thing: He never rounded the bases and it went into the books as an RBI single. Still exhilarating. Also, kind of funny. What was not so funny, at least for Boston fans, was the ALCS in 2003 where Tim Wakefield served a no-doubter to Bucky Dent namesake Aaron [expletive] Boone, sending the Yankees to the World Series and the Red Sox to the golf course. One year later, however, the Red Sox would mount the greatest comeback in baseball playoff history, overcoming a 3-0 deficit to beat those same Yankees and eventually win the World Series. David Ortiz was beyond clutch in that series, including a Game 4 knock that gave Boston life when facing elimination.
11 Pitchers Dealing
Hitting a baseball may be the single-most difficult discrete skill in all of sports. I’m sure there is a scientific argument to be made that it’s not, but until facts matter again, I’m sticking with “trying to make contact with a three-inch sphere traveling nearly 100 mph inside 60 feet that could dart or move in nearly any direction at an unknown time.” And who is responsible for making the ball dance like that? Well, pitchers of course, and when they are dealing, it is a thing of beauty. Anybody who calls a pitchers’ duel boring needs an intervention.
It could be something really special like a no-hitter or a perfect game. It could be striking out 20 guys in nine innings. Or it could be one of the best pitching performances in baseball history that you’ve likely never heard of and it starts with Babe Ruth punching an umpire.
Unfortunately, there is no YouTube video of this altercation, but the story goes that on June 23, 1917, Ruth took the mound and immediately had an issue with the umpire’s zone. Words were exchanged between Brick Owens and The Babe, and things escalated quickly. Ruth yelled at Owens who responded by threatening to toss Ruth, who said something like, “If you throw me out I’ll bust you on the nose”. Then, after ball four was called, Ruth yelled, Owens tossed him out, and The Babe punched him in the nose. Enter: Ernie Shore. I imagine he had some fantastic metal entrance music, but it was probably more like a barbershop quartet. The cat threw a perfect game the rest of the way: 27 up, 27 down. The only man to reach was on the leadoff walk surrendered by Ruth and so it went down as a combined no-hitter, but Shore-truthers know what’s up.
As we all know, there are 27 outs per side in each nine-inning game. Three pitchers have gotten 20 of them via strikeout. On April 29, 1986, Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners to set a new world record for Ks in a game. The last out of the game was a groundout to short which made it a bit less climactic than if he’d gotten 21. Then, on May 6, 1998, the Cubs’ Kerry Wood accomplished the same feat, fanning 20 buzzer-less Houston Astros. Not to be outdone, on May 8, 2000, Randy Johnson, throwing for the Arizona Diamondbacks and sporting a turquoise D on his jersey, also struck out 20 batters in nine innings against the Reds. Here’s the thing though: The game went into extra innings and while Arizona eventually won, Johnson’s feat comes with a bit of an asterisk.
There have only been 23 official perfect games in the history of baseball. You probably know about the only one to happen during a World Series with Don Larsen completely befuddling the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 8, 1956. You may know that Randy Johnson is the oldest player to toss one when on May 18th, 2004, at 40 years, 8 months, and 8 days old, he took down the Atlanta Braves in a game that lasted just 2 hours and 13 minutes. He just beat out good old Cy Young himself who was perfect on May 5, 1904, against the Philadelphia Athletics at age 37 in a tidy 1-hour and 25-minute affair (no YouTube clip of this either, but here’s the box score). This is the shortest perfect game in baseball history by a full minute.
But did you know that the first two perfect games in baseball history happened just FIVE DAYS APART FROM EACH OTHER? And they happened for teams in cities THAT DON’T EVEN HAVE BIG LEAGUE TEAMS ANYMORE?! In fact, of the four teams playing in the two games, ONLY ONE STILL HAS A BIG LEAGUE CLUB AND IT’S NOT EVEN THE SAME NAME?! DO YOU KNOW WHY I KEEP YELLING ABOUT THIS?! On June 12, 1880, 23-year-old Lee Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs (which is a name that sounds like something I would totally make up for the sake of an article but I promise that I did not) threw his perfect game against the Cleveland Blues. Just five days later, on June 17, 1880, 20-year-old John Ward threw his against the Buffalo Bisons while pitching for the Providence Grays.
Here are two more facts about pitchers who retired all 27 batters in a row: Addie Joss of the 1908 Cleveland Naps used the fewest pitches at just 74. The year with the most perfect games, of which there were THREE, was 2012 when Philip Humber, Matt Cain, and Felix Hernandez were all perfect in April, June, and August, respectively.
10 Fielders Leaping
Great defense is the unsung hero of baseball. With so much of the focus of the modern game on offensive production and pitching efficiencies, it can be easy to forget how valuable it is to have a lockdown defense. Whether it is a diving catch or a leaping snag, defense wins games. The athleticism required to pull them off at warp speed is awe-inspiring and I will always dig watching a web gem, even when it robs my team or fantasy player of a few points or some counting stats.
Here are 10 recent [insert fire emoji here] defensive plays that’ll blow your mind:
9 Fans a Fanning
I really miss being able to go to games. There is just nothing like being in the stands and watching your favorite team in their home stadium, especially if they win. But sometimes the fun isn’t just on the field, it’s in the stands too. In some cases, it’s even better than the game itself.
In this first clip, you may notice a fan in the background. It almost looks as if the pitcher hears him suddenly and seemingly without cause to fall to the ground as he slowly turns his head.
Either way, whatever caused the fall, this is absolutely hilarious. Our second video shows that no matter how much time you spend in the gym, and in this case, it is definitely A LOT of time in the gym, you can still be beaten by something as small as a water bottle cap. We’ve all been there, granted with much smaller biceps. Maybe he should have teamed up with the little girl on a sugar high who looks like she probably could have opened the thing with her teeth!
There is this fan who seems to have forgotten how to poncho, and the next one who makes a catch for the ages with his tub of popcorn. Meanwhile, there are two aspiring umpires helping to call the game from their perch behind the dish, also in the stands.
Then there’s this crew sitting behind home plate mocking Craig Kimbrel as he prepares to throw a pitch. The sequence does not go well for Craig but it sure cracks up the announcers.
And speaking of cracking up announcers, there’s this classic clip of a fan throwing pizza at some guy at Fenway. Excuse me, pizzer at some guy at Fenway. If you have not seen this, you really need to watch the whole thing. They literally stop talking about the game for a while to thoroughly review and discuss the incident. Eventually, the rogue pizza thrower is escorted from the game and we can all take a moment to mourn the loss of a perfectly good slice.
And finally, while we are at Fenway anyway, I will leave you with this shining moment of a fan jumping from the stands and onto the field. We never get to see these things on television which I understand, but if they’re all this amazing, I wish we would! I. Can. Not. Stop. Laughing.
Bat flips have become quite a divisive issue. For a long time, doing something like that would get you definitely drilled and maybe even killed. Then things started to shift. Then there was a backlash and a backslide into the unwritten rules of baseball. Then it was okay again. I don’t know what the right answer is, but these things are just plain fun and baseball just needs more…fun. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here at PitcherList, we have amazing people who do amazing things. One of these amazing things was Noah Scott’s “Bat Flip Thunderdome” series that ran recently. Generously, he has lent his “Electric Eight” bat flips to me (go check out his work, for real) and here they are, pasted below, clipped, and put together for your viewing pleasure. Spoiler alert: I won’t tell you who won, go check out the series!
Whatever else excites you about a baseball game, I cannot imagine anything filthier than a nasty strikeout. Home runs are exhilarating, but strikeouts can make a hitter look downright bad, befuddled, or even embarrassed. When your team’s ace dominates a batter by dropping in a called third strike, it’s just awesome. But perhaps the ultimate in-your-face, you-got-owned moments come from inducing ridiculous swings and misses. When a grown man, paid many dollars because of his prowess and expertise in making contact with a baseball, swings and so badly misses, it’s just so gosh-darned entertaining. Here are seven of those.
6 Closers Owning
In today’s game, having a dominant closer is a big deal. It’s such a big deal, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t a deal at all. There have been a lot of interesting characters come through the role over the years since its inception, some quirkier than others, but all bringing something special to the experience. Here are six that left their mark on the game, one way or another:
Rollie Fingers is that guy you’ve seen in pictures with an iconic handlebar mustache. If he wasn’t destined to be a top-notch baseballer, he would most definitely have been a scheming supervillain in the mid-1800s (or a silent film about the mid-1800s). Thank goodness it wasn’t the latter because he was, quite frankly, really superb at pitching. One of baseball’s first prototypical closers, he was the AL MVP and won the Cy Young for the Brewers in 1981. Along with his 341 career saves, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992, only the second relief pitcher to receive the honor. His money pitch was a sinking fastball that was so effective, it redefined the role and importance of relief pitchers.
Lee Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019 with 478 saves, and a 3.03 ERA over 1,022 games. He was a large fellow, coming in at around 6’5″ – 6’6″ and anywhere from 220-260 lbs. depending on the source, Smith was an intimidating force on the mound. His Hall of Fame bio states that, “By 1980, the … right-hander with the blazing fastball debuted with the Cubs, and by 1982 he had earned Chicago’s closer job with 17 saves and a 2.69 earned-run average in 72 games.” From 1993-2006, he was baseball’s all-time saves leader. He was an absolute unit and an absolute force with which to be reckoned. Here’s a video of Smith throwing three scoreless innings in the 1987 All-Star game sporting a classic Cubs uni.
Trevor Hoffman made his way into the Hall of Fame in 2018, a year prior to Lee Smith. Not that Trevor was not deserving, but I’m not sure he should have beat Smith to the honor. He did unseat Smith as the career saves leader in 2006 and held that honor until 2011 when, Enter Sandman, Mariano Rivera overtook him. He saved 40+ games in 9 different seasons and, maybe even more importantly, entered games to AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells in true WWE entrance-music style. According to his HOF bio, “On June 24, 1993, the San Diego Padres agreed to send third baseman Gary Sheffield, who had won the 1992 National League batting crown and nearly achieved the Triple Crown, and pitcher to Florida in exchange for three prospects—including Hoffman.” Interesting deal at the time. The rest, as they say, was history.
Bruce Sutter sported a kick-butt hipster beard before kick-butt hipster beards were cool. He also may have invented the first split-fingered fastball. If it was somebody else, they did it wrong, and Sutter’s was much better. He was also a rare relief-pitching Cy Young award winner, earning the honor in 1979 with a 2.22 ERA having tallied 37 saves. He led the National League in saves in five different seasons and, according to his Hall of Fame page, “Sutter won or saved the All-Star Game for the National League each season from 1978-81.” That is simply astounding. Here he is securing the final out of Game 7 of the 1982 World Series and celebrating winning it all.
Dennis Eckersley was and is an absolute character. There is a Twitter account called “The Ecktionary” (@ecktionary) that is entirely devoted to explaining the unique things Eck says when he’s talking baseball. He talks about “salad” and “cheese” and “cheddar” but he’s not talking about food at all. This is only the beginning. He’s absolutely fun to listen to and boy does he know baseball. He and John Smoltz are the only two pitchers ever to have both a 20-win and a 50-save season on their resumes. The man dealt. When he gave up the heartbreaking (or heart-making depending on your perspective) game-ending dinger to Kirk Gibson, he called it a “walk-off home run” which may be where the term originated. His Hall of Fame page states, “Eckersley ended his career with a record of 197-171, 361 games started, 100 complete games, 1,071 games pitched, 390 saves, 2,401 strikeouts and a 3.50 ERA.” Here’s a video of Eck owning, personality and all.
Then on Sept. 26, Rivera made his last appearance for the Yankees – retiring all four batters he faced before he was pulled from the game, with teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte going to the mound for manager Joe Girardi to take the ball from Rivera, who wept on the mound as 48,675 fans at Yankee Stadium cheered.
5 Golden Swings
There have been many prolific hitters in the history of the game. Of those, there is only a handful with swings so pretty, they deserve isolated, slow-motion GIFs to showcase that beauty. Here, in no particular order, are those swings.
Ken Griffey Jr.
4 Brawling Words
This is something that we all secretly love but know we probably shouldn’t. Even watching at home, it gets the heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing to watch a fight break out on the field, but should we really be so excited by violence? We know how most brawls break out: A pitch comes up and in, gets a guy between the numbers, maybe a bit high and tight, maybe too close to the head. It might even come in behind the batter and fly to the backstop. However it goes down, the hitter takes exception and charges the mound. Every now and then it happens on a play—maybe a collision at home (more so when that was allowed) or a hard slide into second a la the Bautista / Odor bout.
Every now and then it comes from too much talking. Too much jawing. Too much yappity yap. We don’t often get to know what was actually said on the field when this stuff goes down, benches clear, and fists fly. There is a code of silence and players often answer any public questions about incidents with something vague with a reference to “on the field” or “in the clubhouse” and that’s that. Even if we knew exactly what was said, there is very little chance that I would be able to repeat it here so instead we are left with four examples of fights that started after some, shall we say, failed communications. That said, let’s take a look at the results of exchanging some fighting words.
Kevin Romine / Miguel Cabrera: This one’s weird. It starts with what looks like a conversation about where they might meet up for dinner after the game and escalates quickly. The chit-chat gives way to heat, Romine takes his mask off, Cabrera shoves him and the melee begins.
Josh Donaldson / Joe Musgrove: Musgrove clips Donaldson’s jersey which is where it all starts. Maybe it got some nipple and stung more than it appears, but it doesn’t look like much at the start. Donaldson begins to make his way to first when he says to Musgrove, “What are you looking at?” which has all the earmarks of the kid on the playground just looking to start trouble and cause problems where there are no problems. Neither backs down, tempers flare, and benches clear.
Amir Garrett / The Entire Pirates Team: This one was all over the news. Garrett was having an animated conversation through his glove on the mound with his coach. The announcers mention something about the Pirates’ dugout chirping at him. Garrett gets hotter and hotter and finally turns to the Pittsburgh bench, postures, and then charges the entire team.
Jason Varitek / Alex Rodriguez: Though neither player confirmed this, this one seemed to escalate because Varitek, walking with Rodriguez up the first-base line after Alex had been hit by Bronson Arroyo, said to him something like, “Relax, we don’t throw at .200 hitters.” Rodriguez apparently took exception to it, coming back with a common and colorful two-word phrase. Varitek then face-washed Alex and all hell broke loose. This one is iconic, even if you’re not a Sox or Yankee fan.
3 League Trends
Baseball has always had its quirks. Whether it’s players doing wacky things, or new ways of playing and managing the game on the field, it always remains interesting. Here are my current favorites:
Handshakes / Team Hand Gestures: These are really endearing and fun little elements of the modern game. The pandemic certainly curbed a lot of the physical contact handshakes, but they’ll be back and how cool is it to watch your team score a run, head back to the dugout, and do some elaborately choreographed thing? Answer: super cool. The more recent phenomenon of team gestures back to the dugout when they get a big hit is also fun. There’s also often some mystery behind what the gestures mean or where they came from; players tend to shy away from talking about that or just talk about how it’s a clubhouse thing. The intrigue adds to the appeal. If you’re interested, though, here is a clip of Andrew McCutchen spilling the beans on where one such team gesture came from a few years back:
Embracing Cultural Diversity: Let’s face it, baseball is not always the most progressive sport and it never really has been. It is slow to adopt new things and stubbornly holds on to “old ways” that don’t always make sense in new eras. However, it does seem that MLB is starting to understand that it isn’t a league full of white guys from 1943. The clearest example of this is the “Let the Kids Play” campaign that basically was a pro-bat-flip, pro-showy behavior endorsement of a different way to play the game that, for far too long, was dismissed as disrespectful and often led to brawling words. The recent move to officially recognize the Negro Leagues as Major League teams is also a huge step forward. Admittedly, there is still a lot of room for improvement here, but it is encouraging to see some of these steps in the right direction.
Universal DH: This one’s going to burn some chaps and that’s fine. I have not heard a single convincing argument as to why pitchers, in the year 2021, should still be in batter’s boxes and running the basepaths. Teams invest big money into players that are already more susceptible to injury than position players and adding to that risk is just plain silly. Baseball “traditionalists” argue that it’s not how baseball was intended to be played, but neither was it intended to be played with analytics, extreme shifts, or things like closers or bullpens. So what we are really talking about is “this doesn’t look like the game I grew up with” which was different than the game your parents grew up with anyway. And no, the use of a double-switch in the seventh inning does not make the game more intensively strategic. All of this over keeping a lineup spot that is an out nine out of 10 times. In the immortal words of a Disney classic, “Let it Go.”
2 Expansion Clubs
This may not be as popular a take as some others, but I really love the idea of expanding the league. New cities. New logos. New mascots. New uniforms. An expansion draft. In the last 43 years, only four teams have been added: the Marlins and the Rockies in 1993 and the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays in 1998. Two new clubs would employ two more front offices, create two new farm systems, and create two entirely new fandoms. In 2018, Manfried suggested these six locations as possible landing spots for a new MLB team: Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville, Montreal, and Vancouver.
He also casually mentioned the idea of several places in Mexico and it would definitely be even more exciting for the expansion to go international (beyond Canada). A team in the Caribbean would be fantastic, bringing an MLB franchise to a part of the world that is absolutely devoted to the game and produces so many talented players. A franchise in London? Yes, please. Mexico City? Definitely. If the travel weren’t so prohibitive, I’d argue for folding in Korean and Japanese league teams too. The more the merrier. Spread baseball as far and wide as possible. Make it easier for kids to watch and more accessible for families. Expansion wouldn’t accomplish every one of these goals, but it would go a long way to getting some positive momentum that way.
1 World Series Win for My Team
I was going to do a solid here and highlight the Yankees, even though they are, and will always be, the Evil Empire. I searched and searched, going back more than ten years and I couldn’t find a single Fall Classic victory. So instead, I just chose a random year in the last three and chose to highlight it. Let’s say, um, 2018? That works.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! How many days until pitchers and catchers report?
Featured Image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)