I remember two things about my first major league baseball game: Dale Murphy homered, and somebody -- probably Jose Uribe -- got into a pickle. I believe he escaped that pickle, but what I really remember is the pickle itself, and somebody nearby yelling "Pickle!" That's what I remember, which is to suggest that the two most significant events in baseball are home runs and pickles.
The sport of baseball would largely disagree. Here's a snapshot of major league baseball rundowns as they actually are:
It lasts less than four seconds. Tyler Naquin dutifully backs away from the opponent with the baseball, as his contract requires, but once a rundown begins the outcome is basically conceded. Jose Altuve simply runs until he reaches Naquin, who slumps his shoulders and allows defeat. As the play officially ends, Altuve and Naquin seem almost to be sharing the same goal: closure. Altuve, for a moment, if you pause it just right, looks like a Boy Scout helping an elderly lady cross the street.
I want to tell you about Josh Harrison, though. Harrison is an unexceptional baseball player who has had his moments. His player page tells you he is a utility player with a broad range of skills that don't stand out. He does it all, but only OK. He has never led the league in an offensive category. But he is the best in the world at something extremely small, which probably describes almost all of us (whether we know it or not). At least the thing Harrison is the best in the world at shows up in highlight packages: He is the king of the pickle, which, 30 years from now, I hope will be one of the things I definitely remember from this game.
We have nine episodes to demonstrate Harrison's rundown skills. Many of these episodes will end in outs, these being, after all, rundowns. Episodes have been assigned chronologically, but we will bounce around a little bit.
4, 5, 6: Peak Harrison
Episode 4: June 27, 2014
The key detail here -- besides the outcome -- is the helmet. What Harrison attempts with each rundown is something like entropy: The longer the rundown persists, the less orderly it becomes, particularly because Harrison keeps introducing countless shifts of pace and direction to thwart any sort of coagulation. The helmet is quickly out of this play, but for a moment there is a bouncing helmet in the middle of a baseball play, and no matter how many rundown drills the Mets performed in spring training they definitely did not run a drill for when there's a bouncing helmet on the field.
Ultimately, if Harrison can stay in the pickle long enough, this chaos will affect everybody: Eventually the pitcher will be involved in the play and trip on his feet, or the left fielder will come down and get in the way, or somebody's coverage will get blown, or the baseline will end up so drastically redrawn that nobody knows where it is anymore -- the last of which is exactly what happened in this play.
Harrison, literally on his tummy in the infield grass, has disappeared from Ruben Tejada's concern. Tejada considers Harrison out of the baseline and thus out without a tag, and for just a moment he gives up on the play. The umpire does not see it this way. The umpire and Tejada are operating from different maps. Harrison does not consult maps. He simply follows his nose toward the nearest safe place he sees, which in this case happens to be third base.
Time spent in rundown: 12.36 seconds
Changes of direction: 6
Touches of ground: 7
Times down, by rules of college football: 3
Score that play: 1-6-5-6 ...
... which is the House Bill that: repealed in Pennsylvania a law requiring physicians to obtain informed consent from patients for treatment of breast disease.
Episode 5: July 27, 2014
This is, simply, the most audacious baserunning I've ever seen. Harrison overslides the second-base bag on a stolen base. His momentum spins his body around, so that he is on his knees, facing a man with a baseball, and five or so feet from second base. His solution to this: Run somewhere else. If you've ever taken a screenwriting seminar, you'll recognize in this a perfect first act: Hero living unextraordinary life is jolted out of it by an instigating event. Forced to make a choice, he embarks on a hero's journey that will require he confront various obstacles until he reaches his goal. Harrison embarks.
As Rockies manager Walt Weiss would say after the game, "We've got to get an out there. I look at a rundown as a free out." This is exactly Josh Harrison's elevator pitch: Everybody knows a rundown is a free out. What my career presupposes is, what if it's not?
Time spent in rundown: 13.16 seconds
Changes of direction: 6
Touches of ground: 5
Steps (estimated): 40
Score that play: 2-6-5-6-1-4-2 ...
... which is phone number for: Cerrito's Auto Sales of Wallingford, Connecticut.
Episode 6: Sept. 10, 2015
Josh Harrison had a narrow hallway when he was growing up, and it is to this that his brother attributed his pickle skills in a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story:
The long hallway that led from the front door to the kitchen was much more than just a hallway. It also was a baseball diamond, football field and even basketball court for Harrison and his older brothers, Vince Jr. and Shaun. It was narrow, so maneuvering around opponents required some skill.
Vince Jr. thought about that hallway earlier this season when he watched his youngest brother -- nicknamed Magic Feet from his youth football days -- dodge and duck his way out of a rundown to land safely on third base in a game against the New York Mets.
"If I had a dollar for every phone call and text I got after that, and a lot of it was my friends, Shaun's friends, Josh's friends going, 'That's Magic Feet! That's from the games we played in that hallway!'" said Vince, 34. "I'm not the only person who thought there was a direct correlation."
Harrison's best chance in this rundown was probably when first baseman Adam Lind had the ball, and second baseman Luis Sardinas was closing in on him to take the throw. Sardinas might have gotten too close, and there might, might, have been a moment Harrison could have accelerated past him before Lind could have delivered the throw. Instead, Harrison waits for the throw, reverses, and then reverses again, trying to use Sardinas' momentum against him. There are moments I suspect Harrison prefers staying in the rundown to actually beating the rundown, which is just spurious speculation, but it's how I was when I was a kid playing in a hallway.
Time spent in rundown: 7.12 seconds
Changes of direction: 4
Touches of ground: None before the tag
Of which steps how many might be considered "high": 3
Score that play: 2-4-3-4 ...
... which is the Lego part number for a: Knob Stone 2x4x2 piece
1, 2, 3: Prequel Harrison
Episode 1: Sept. 2, 2011
Harrison's first rundown in the majors is still a year away, but this play -- made in just his 48th career game -- is a nice introduction to Harrison the baserunner. We see shortstop Starlin Castro go deep into the hole to field a grounder, and we see second baseman Darwin Barney race over to first base to back up the throw. There are only two middle infielders, and we've just accounted for them both, as has Harrison, who produces the only play of 2011 that would be logged into official records as "Double To Shortstop (Ground Ball to Weak 3B)."
There is always a certain amount of math involved in exploiting a rundown, in finding the precise moment when the base is most vulnerable to charge. Here, Harrison uses that math to pre-empt a pickle. It is the literal opposite of a rundown -- rather than lots of defenders, there are none -- but we consider it canon anyway.
Episode 2: Sept. 24, 2012
We have here a few elements that will be seen again in later episodes, including just the faintest hint of a loping high step, the desperation drop to the ground and Ruben Tejada. But Harrison is still young here, and his skills are not yet well-developed. He doesn't expand the baseline, staying right on the line the entire time. He doesn't pick a vulnerable defender and attempt to run past him, he doesn't use the ground as a balancing aid, and but for a single juke he doesn't do much to disrupt the defenders' timing. He is cooked, and while he shows more emotional resistance to this fact than the average pickled baserunner, he has not developed any plan for defeating it. When we see a shot of him head-on, he is grimacing, not yet having fun.
Time spent in rundown: 7.12 seconds
Changes of direction: 4
Touches of ground: None.
Score that play: 4-6-5-2-5 ...
... which is the postal code for: Santa Rosalia, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.
Episode 3: June 30, 2013
Harrison is out here, as nearly all runners in nearly all rundowns will be, but give him credit: He got the catcher, Rob Johnson, to do exactly the wrong thing, leaving his feet and sailing past Harrison, opening up a possible lane for Harrison to advance forward to a run only 30 or so feet away. The umpire rules Harrison out on the tag, even though Johnson tagged him with an empty glove (the ball in his throwing hand). Even had the umpire noticed that, Harrison would have likely been out on the throw, but remember: The out in a rundown is considered all but automatic, so it is a considerable victory to force a tumbling catcher to make an off-balance flip from his stomach into a congested throwing lane. Over the course of 8.61 seconds, Harrison improved his chances of survival from maybe 1 in 100 to maybe 1 in 4, or so.
Time spent in rundown: 8.61 seconds
Changes of direction: 7
Touches of ground: 3
Score that play: 1-5-2 ...
... which is: barely worth noting here at all.
7, 8, 9: Sequel Harrison
Episode 7: Aug. 9, 2016
Harrison defies my hypothesis that he simply likes pickles and finds reasons to stay in them. Here, he abandons a budding rundown but earns a free stolen base with an akimbo slide. That's another way to do it!
Episode 8: Aug. 11, 2016
Derek Norris, the Padres catcher, does the one thing that Harrison can't beat: He holds the ball, stays on his feet, and (mostly) keeps his body between Harrison and the next base. In most of these plays, Harrison tries to find a pitcher or a catcher to isolate against, and once Norris gets the ball Harrison is intent on beating him. It's fun to watch and, for just a moment, at 0:09 in that highlight video, with the ball snug in Norris' catcher's mitt instead of throwing hand, Harrison seems to have daylight for a dash home. But he misses the moment, perhaps discouraged by a crowded running lane that includes not just the pitcher but the umpire and a bat. Reversing himself, he lets Norris back into the play and snuffs his own chances.
Time spent in rundown: 8.55 seconds
Changes of direction: 6
Touches of ground: None
Score that play: 6-2 ...
... which is: probably the appropriate way to handle an overactive Josh Harrison in a rundown.
Episode 9: Sept. 8, 2016
Alas, Harrison is again undone by baseball's decision to play on loose pebbles. His final spasm, though -- his pathetic little attempt at rolling away from Brandon Phillips, as though there might be some alternate ending -- is a career of Harrison rundowns in a nutshell: Until you're out, you're safe. There are no bonus points for helping the other team make it official. And maybe, just maybe, Brandon Phillips' mom will call him to dinner in the nick of time.
Here's another thing I remember: When we were kids, we would play pickle at recess for weeks in a row. There'd be 20 or 30 of us darting from one base to the other, trying to avoid the two kids with gloves who were "it." It was just tag, of course, but tag with narrow boundaries and extra challenges.
Baseball is, essentially, tag with narrow boundaries and extra challenges. In fact, when Slate challenged readers to describe the sport in 150 words or less, the winning entry began:
Baseball is like tag, except the only way you can tag someone is with the ball. There are two teams: the fielders, who try to tag the other, the batters. The batter's goal is to lap the field, without being tagged.
It's also, essentially, other things. It's also a stick-and-ball game, where the point is to hit the sphere as far as possible. It's also a darts-type game, where the point is to throw a sphere into a small zone with as much velocity and accuracy as possible. Every year, in fact, it becomes more and more of those games: On a per-plate-appearance level, home runs were hit more frequently in 2016 than any year in history. Strikeouts were higher than ever, too, the 10th year in the past 10 that a new record was set. You could imagine a history of baseball where the tag elements were emphasized, and these many decades later we all cheer for the world's best tag players. Instead, there is less call than ever for it.
So it goes for Josh Harrison. We get to make a lot of choices in this world -- whether to juke, to high-step, to sprint, to fall flat, or to let ourselves be put out. We don't, alas, get to choose which athletic skills earn worldwide adulation.
Thanks to Rob McQuown and Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.