There’s something ironic about talking about some of the best plays in World Series history when the key feature of the first two games of this year’s Fall Classic have been the defensive miscues that decided the outcome. But as quickly as we’ve judged Pete Kozma’s Game 1 or Craig Breslow’s Game 2, we’ve also seen Carlos Beltran’s slam-saving wall-banger in the opener and Kozma’s slick, bare-handed pickup in Game 2. At this level, it’s in almost anybody’s power to deliver an indelible moment to add to October’s gem-spackled history.
Baseball’s multicentury scope almost automatically defies you to shave any such list to a top 10. There are plays with their place in legend: Willie Mays’ Game 1 snag for the Giants in 1954, or Bill Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play in the Tribe’s backbreaking Game 5 win over the Brooklyn Robins (or Dodgers) in 1920 to help untie a series they’d ultimately win. If you’re going to peg an all-time best World Series, Mays would be the huge favorite to top any poll or list, because as grainy as the footage might be, it’s more than we have on Wambsganss. How fair a choice is that, really?
So let’s put those two incomparable moments in their corner of baseball Valhalla and talk about the best from the past 50 years. It’s a good, round number that incorporates the full spread of divisional-era play. Running them down in chronological order:
(To cast your vote for the best World Series Web Gem of the last 50 years, click here.)
Game 4, 1969: Right fielder Ron Swoboda, Mets (Watch)
You’d think Swoboda might be best remembered for driving in the winning run in Game 5. Not so, because that was made possible by his ninth-inning, full-extension leap the day before to rob Brooks Robinson of extra bases with two men on. That prevented the Orioles from taking the lead and potentially tying the series; instead, the Mets won in extras.
Game 1, 1970: Third baseman Brooks Robinson, Orioles (Watch)
Robinson’s snag of a hard grounder down the line by Lee May was perhaps just the best of several slick-fielding plays he made, in part because he picked up the ball in foul ground heading away from first but nevertheless managed to pivot and get off a one-hop throw that bounced true off Cincinnati’s artificial turf to retire May.
Game 2, 1972: Left fielder Joe Rudi, Athletics (Watch)
Denis Menke’s smash looked like it would be at least a ninth-inning double off the wall for the Reds trailing 2-0 with a man on, but Rudi raced back, found the wall with his right hand and leaped to spear the ball with his left to help preserve Oakland’s win in a series that proved the Big Green bragging rights over Big Red in the battle between the Machines.
Game 6, 1975: Right fielder Dwight Evans, Red Sox (Watch)
Peter Gammons has said this was the best catch in World Series history -- Joe Morgan’s smash to right field went over Evans’ head, but Dewey made an over-the-head catch going up against the wall and fired to first base to complete the double play. Carlton Fisk’s home run in extras never would've happened if not for this catch.
Game 3, 1978: Third baseman Graig Nettles, Yankees (Watch)
Much like Robinson, you could pick from among several great plays in the Fall Classic. Nettles’ D was decisive in helping the Yankees rally from a 2-0 deficit in the series.
Game 3, 1982: Center fielder Willie McGee, Cardinals (Watch)
McGee’s running leap at the wall in the ninth inning robbed Gorman Thomas of a two-run home run that would have brought the Brewers back to within two runs.
Game 6, 1991: Center fielder Kirby Puckett, Twins (Watch)
Puckett’s perfectly timed running leap against the fence in left-center robbed Ron Gant of extra bases with a man on. The run saved would prove huge when the Braves rallied to tie, only to lose in the bottom of the 11th -- on Puckett’s walk-off homer, which set up …
It’s 0-0 in the eighth, Jack Morris’ biggest game, dueling with John Smoltz. Lonnie Smith’s leadoff single looked like trouble, and Terry Pendleton’s double should have provided a lead ... except the rookie Knoblauch deked Smith into thinking he was fielding a double-play grounder, limiting him to reaching third base, where he’d be stranded. If most great plays on defense are a testament to physical gifts, Knoblauch’s moment is a bit of incomparable situational awareness that made sure Morris’ shutout held -- and that the Twins won the Series.
There are a couple of amazing things about this play, first that Devo nearly started a triple play on his catch in center against the wall, but also that he made it look easy. But there’s nothing easy about making a catch heading into the wall yet coming off the wall firing the ball to first base for the DP, and perhaps winding up just a replay shy of starting a triple play.
Much like Knoblauch’s play, this was just pure reactive genius, and that should be considered as important as a throwing arm or a great set of wheels. The Rays had already tied the score and had the lead run at second in Jason Bartlett. Aki Iwamura’s sharp grounder up the middle looked like it would be an infield single as Utley threw to first -- except he didn’t. Utley sold that pump fake to everybody, including Bartlett, who tried to score but was dead to rights when Utley threw home to preserve the tie in an eventual Phillies win.
There were some tough cuts that we had to kick around before the start of this year’s Series. Swoboda wasn’t the only Met making a major difference with leather in ’69: Tommie Agee also made a pair of plays that merit mention. Juan Uribe going into the stands down the left-field line to run down a popup for the White Sox in 2005 was a pretty rangy feat. And removing Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar’s diving stab to rob Lenny Dykstra of a hit in 1993? Perhaps the toughest cut of all.
So that’s our 10 -- which one tops your list? And if not one of these, if there’s a different play from the Fall Classic that you think was even better, pipe up and tell us: What was it?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.