|Tuesday, July 2
Updated: July 4, 1:06 PM ET
Cedeno's steal joins exclusive company
By Jeff Merron
If you factor in the percentage of major leaguers who are doing steroids or HGH or popping greenies, well, the last "straight steal of home" may have been 15 years ago. But even by the broadest definition of the term, Roger Cedeno's fourth inning swipe of home plate for the Mets against the Yankees Saturday was a true rarity. When it happens, the feat is so sudden and unexpected it's like a novice burglar pocketing the Mona Lisa during a casual visit to the Louvre.
Stealing home, in any form or fashion, is an oddity -- for example, of 2,923 steals in 2000, only 18 were of home. Stealing home straight is so tough to define that the Elias Sports Bureau, which tracks everything for Major League Baseball, doesn't keep count. After Raul Mondesi stole home straight on April 17, 2001, the Blue Jays said it was the first time it happened in club history. But Tom Hirdt of Elias wouldn't confirm the team's claim. "Without videotape we can't tell for sure how many straight steals there have been over the years. We have no idea," he said.
Most people consider a steal "straight" if it's not part of a double- or triple-steal. Some plays are considered straight steals when the batter botches his end of a suicide squeeze, but often a straight steal of home is simply the result of a very aware baserunner (or third-base coach or manager -- Cedeno credited manager Bobby Valentine for shouting "Go, go, go") noticing that a pitcher is taking his sweet time pitching out of the windup. This was the case with Yankee pitcher Ted Lilly on Saturday.
"You've got to really study what the pitcher is doing," said Andre Dawson, who stole home straight twice during his 21-year career. "What the catcher is doing, whether they're paying attention to you or not, how much room they're giving you, what the count is on the hitter. It's almost like the situation has to be perfect."
Back in the day, players stole home more frequently, but it was still unusual. When Ty Cobb set the single-season stolen-base record of 96 in 1915, he stole home four times; when Maury Wills broke that record in 1962, his 104 steals included only two of home. Lou Brock told the Milwaukee Sentinel in the late 1960s, "I've never stolen home and never will. I don't think the percentage is good." When Brock broke Wills' record in 1974, he didn't steal home at all. Rickey Henderson stole home twice when he broke Brock's mark in 1982.
These days, even the speediest players practice their home-run trot more than they consider the dance down the third-base line that precedes stealing home. After Mondesi stole home, his manager, Buck Martinez (whose major-league playing career began in 1969), said, "I can't remember seeing a straight steal of home."
Martinez may have been aware that just two days before Florida's Preston Wilson had stolen home on Expos catcher Randy Knorr's lob throw back to the pitcher. But was that a "straight steal"? ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, in his weekly roundup of baseball oddities, said it was. Basestealer par excellence Tim Raines said no: "It was a perfect situation, but it wasn't like that was a straight steal." Stat-man Hirdt was so unsure that he only raised it as a rhetorical question: "He took off when the catcher threw the ball back to the pitcher. Is that a straight steal?"
Even with teams (or journalists) thinking they're keeping track of straight steals of home, the evidence is overwhelming -- it's a rare feat that requires the boilerplate, "It was the first straight steal of home by a (name team here) since (name date here)." Often, the date is a decade or more distant. After Cedeno's steal, it was noted that the last Met to accomplish the straight steal of home was Tommie Agee, on July 31, 1971.
Some recent straight steals of home
April 15, 2001: Montreal catcher Randy Knorr is caught sleeping. As Florida's Preston Wilson edges his way down the third-base line, Knorr lobs a lazy toss back to pitcher Tony Armas Jr. Armas is so shocked he never catches the throw, and Wilson scores easily.
Sept. 20, 2000: With left-handed power hitter Jim Thome at the plate, the Red Sox put on an infield shift that leaves third baseman Lou Merloni covering the entire left side of the infield. Cleveland's Omar Vizquel, on third, gets a big lead off reliever Rheal Cormier and dashes home. Cormier never releases the ball. "I tried to scream (to Cormier) but he had already gone," Merloni told the Boston Herald. "It was a great play on [Vizquel's] part."
June 2, 1996: Atlanta's Marquis Grissom triples in a run in the fifth inning against Cincinnati, then notices that Reds lefty pitcher John Smiley is winding up with overdue deliberation. He takes off for home and slides in headfirst, safe under a tag also delayed by a high and outside pitch.
August 22, 1992: Expos vs. Reds. Eighth inning. Montreal up 2-1. Norm Charlton is pitching, Joe Oliver catching, Grissom is on third, and Moises Alou is at the plate. With two strikes on Alou, Charlton begins his slo-mo move to the plate. Alou's planning to bunt, but things don't turn out as planned. "I mean, I looked up and Marquis is right in my face," said Alou. "I didn't know what to do, bunt it, get out of the way, or just sort of fall down. That's what I did." Grissom gets to the plate before Oliver can tag him. Grissom admits he may have botched the squeeze play, despite the good result. "Moises said I left third base too soon, and he's probably right," said Grissom.
April 26, 1992: In the first inning of a nightcap against Milwaukee, Cleveland's Kenny Lofton is on third base. Brewers pitcher Jaime Navarro goes into a full windup, and Lofton slides in safely under catcher Andy Allanson's tag. "It's scary," said Lofton. "It's OK as long as the guy doesn't swing. If he swings and hits you, you'll be hanging up your shoes."
April 14, 1992: Does the name John Smiley sound familiar? With Robin Yount at the plate and the count 1-1, Paul Molitor steals home straight against Smiley, who's on the mound for Minnesota. Molitor's steal is one of six for the Brewers in the game, tying a club record. "It was an ideal situation: a left-handed pitcher with a slow windup, turning his back to the runner on third base," Molitor told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Pags (third baseman Mike Pagliarulo) was deep. The hard part is convincing yourself to try it."
Sept. 15, 1988: Roger Clemens is pitching for the Red Sox against the Yankees, and Claudell Washington's been on third base for two outs, during which time he's had plenty of time to study Clemens' motion. "I noticed he puts his hand in his glove and puts his head down when he starts out," said Washington. With this keen observation, Washington takes off on an 0-1 count on lefty batter Pagliarulo. Clemens throws a slider down, and Washington beats catcher Rich Gedman's tag for the winning run. "It was a crazy happening," said Clemens.
Jeff Merron is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's Page 2.