There are many lessons to be gleaned from the San Diego Padres’ improbable two-run ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday night. The two that stand out are 1) the importance of keeping your focus every moment of the game, and 2) some things just can’t be coached.
With two outs, two runners on, and a 2-2 count, Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen forgot the first lesson. The fact that he was one pitch away from saving the game for the Dodgers should have kept Jansen focused on what he had to do – all of what he had to do – to close out the game. The fact that there were already two runners on, and they were on second and third base, should have been enough to keep Jansen focused on what he had to do to close out the game. The fact that the Dodgers’ lead was a single run should have kept Jansen focused on what he had to do to close out the game. None of that did the trick.
For no more than a second or two, Jansen was so preoccupied that he forgot about the runner at third. He dug at the dirt in front of the rubber with his cleats, and then he turned his back to the plate, focused most likely on his next pitch. By the time he turned around, it was too late. Everth Cabrera was racing home. Jansen’s throwing error on the play allowed Cabrera to score and Will Venable, who was on second, to score right behind him. Amazing! Two guys who kept their heads in the game, and one guy who didn’t. A tough lesson for Jansen, and one the league’s pitchers seem to need every now and then.
The second lesson is there are some things you just can’t coach. When Jansen was out on the mound digging and turning his back to the plate, most ballplayers would not have broken for home. What Jansen did was routine for pitchers, especially relievers. The game practically comes to a halt while some of these guys gather themselves in a zen-like trance for 30 seconds or more before each pitch. And you rarely see a base runner take advantage of that. But Cabrera has a nose for scoring that just can’t be taught. Either you have it, or you don’t. He has it.
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Cabrera’s brazen steal brought to mind a couple of similar plays; one by Jason Kendall of the Oakland Athletics, and one by a guy I’m sure you’ve never heard of, Donnie Schuyler of the Tigers.
Back in early August of 2005, the Angels came to Oakland for a crucial three-game set tied with the A’s for first place in the AL West. The teams split the first two games, and game three was tied 4-4 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Oakland’s catcher, Jason Kendall, stood on third, Eric Chavez was at the plate, and the Angels’ closer, Francisco Rodriguez, was pitching. Rodriguez didn’t like the call – ball one – on his first pitch to Chavez. He displayed his displeasure by slapping at the ball when it was thrown back to him. That action caused the ball to pop out of his glove and roll away from him. While Rodriguez was pouting about the call, Kendall darted towards the plate. Rodriguez’s scramble for the ball and his wild throw home allowed Kendall to score. Game over. That play became known as the “Sulk Off,” and it nicely demonstrated the two lessons on display in Los Angeles on Saturday.
A similar play, with similar lessons, involved a guy named Donnie Schuyler of the Tigers. Schuyler was a kid from New Jersey. Like a lot of people where Schuyler grew up, he had a thick Delaware Valley accent; when he referred to his team, it sounded like he was saying “Taggers.” This kid could play baseball, and I got to watch him up close. He had speed, quickness, power, and a nose for the game that can’t be coached. He stole home to end a game once in a way that would have made Everth Cabrera and Jason Kendall proud. But it wasn’t a big league game. Quite the opposite. It was a Little League game more than 42 years ago, and Schuyler was ten years old at the time. I was twelve.
It was the bottom of the 6th inning (the last inning in a Little League game), and the score was tied. The Tigers were the home team, so we were in the third base dugout. It was an actual dugout that you had to take a couple of steps down to get into. The first base dugout was newer and set on top of the ground. But the third base dugout was the real deal, and it made us all feel like ballplayers to be in there. The score was tied and Donnie Schuyler was on third base, hoping to score the winning run. When the catcher threw the ball back to the pitcher at one point, Donnie stepped off third a bit to rattle the pitcher or, better yet, draw a wild throw. But the pitcher wasn’t paying attention. Instead, he turned his back to the plate, took his hat off, and gazed out at the scoreboard in centerfield for a moment. That was all it took.
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We could see it coming from the dugout. Donnie, with this mischievous smile on his face like he was about to steal a piece of pie, took a couple more steps off the bag. The moment he put his head down and took off for home we started cheering. The pitcher’s team yelled at him to throw home. He turned, threw the ball wildly over the catcher and the umpire, and Donnie slid in safe. Game over. One guy lost his focus for a second, and the other guy, in a way you just can’t coach, saw it and stole home.
I turn 55 in a couple of weeks, but I remember that moment from more than 42 years ago just as clearly as I remember anything. The look and feel of the dugout, the warmth and fading light of the late spring evening, the grin on my remarkable teammate’s face, the dash to the plate, the wild throw, and the sound of 14 boys and their coaches shouting and cheering for Donnie Schuyler as he stole home. And I owe both the memory and recent recollection of that sublime childhood moment to the great game of baseball.