On April 26, 1989, light-hitting Ozzie Smith slapped a fly ball toward the left-field line, and Giants left fielder Kevin Mitchell streaked across my TV screen after it.
After about a half-dozen steps, Mitchell realized the ball was carrying deeper than he first thought, much deeper than the TV viewer first thought, and Mitchell began to veer toward the corner. A couple of steps after that, the broadcast cut from an overhead, third-base-side camera to a tighter, field-level shot from the first-base side of the field. The effect of that jarring cut, and the effect of Mitchell changing direction so steeply, and the effect of Smith somehow hitting a ball that deep on that swing, was all very disorienting. The ball was entirely off-screen to this point, and as a viewer, you couldn't really estimate where it was anymore: fair, foul, shallow, deep, in play, out of play, catchable, uncatchable? The play felt weird, and Mitchell -- in his first full season as a left fielder -- looked as if he might be lost.
And then Mitchell shot his bare hand up into the air. The ball suddenly descended on his wrong side, either because of wind or because Mitchell had simply overrun it. His body was twisted around, his back was almost to the plate, his right arm fully extended, and he caught the ball clean in his fingers. He took a couple of more steps on the run and then gently bumped into the left-field wall, knocking open a padded gate that somebody had left unlocked.
The catch went viral. "That's got to be the play of the year," Giants announcer Duane Kuiper said on the broadcast, and according to one Reddit commenter's memory, it literally was -- named so by CNN's Sports Tonight at the end of 1989. "It was on every newscast that night, every morning show the next day and every baseball highlights package for the next decade," Giants blogger Grant Brisbee wrote. You can buy a flipbook from that season showing the grab. Sports Illustrated used the catch as evidence that Mitchell might be "the toughest" player in baseball. Mitchell's teammate Mike Krukow called it "paranormal." "Catch of the Century?" the Chicago Tribune asked at the time. "Greatest catch I've ever seen," Tony Gwynn claimed.
And, over the past 30 years, it has stayed viral. It was apparently one of the first 30 classic videos MLB Advanced Media posted when it began to fill its YouTube channel. When McCovey Chronicles retroactively named the greatest Giants GIFs of the pre-GIF era, the Mitchell catch was at the top. There's a bobblehead of the catch and baseballs signed by Mitchell with the inscription "Catch 4-26-89." Urban Dictionary claims the phrase "Kevin Mitchell" has its very own dirty meaning originating from that catch. (No link to that one!) "The older you get, the more people remind you about things," Mitchell told Henry Schulman in 1999. "But they never remind me of my year in '89. They always remind me of my catch."
It's one of the most famous catches in baseball history -- maybe the second-most famous, and certainly one of the top 10. But it's also confounding. Most extraordinary fielding highlights involve athletes doing something we ourselves tried to do at some point in our baseball or softball experience, but couldn't possibly. Ramon Laureano's highlight catch this week, for example, featured Laureano leaping higher than we possibly could, making a catch we couldn't possibly make, and then throwing a baseball much farther than we could possibly throw. Given 10 tries I wouldn't be able to do what Laureano did, but even given 10 million tries, I still couldn't. Mitchell's catch is something else: It's a famous highlight because it involves something we never even tried to do. That almost nobody ever tried to do.
To understand it, then, requires I try it. And to try it requires first understanding it.
1. Would it hurt?
In 2014, a guy on Twitter posted a picture of his palm after he tried to catch a Giancarlo Stanton home run. Half of his hand was blackened, and his ring and middle fingers were swollen like hot dogs left too long on a grill. "Honestly, I'm sort of surprised this hand isn't in worse shape," Deadspin wrote, which, honestly, I was too.
But that tweet was a hoax. (The guy apologized to Stanton and the Marlins in a subsequent tweet.) In fact, catching a Stanton blast bare-handed is ... not so bad. In May 2015, Stanton hit a baseball 115 mph, and 478 feet later a Marlins fan named Ryan Mont leaned over a railing and caught it one-handed. He pumped his fist and went back to his seat, giddy. "To be honest with you," he told us by email, "it stung a little, but I was so excited I didn't really feel any pain! I was just excited I had caught it and excited to give it to my friend!"
The ball Stanton hit was going 115 mph, but the ball Mont caught was not. As soon as it left the bat, it began losing velocity to drag and gravity; according to a trajectory calculator physicist Alan Nathan provided us, that Stanton home run was probably traveling around 60 mph when it got to Mont.
We don't know how hard or how high Ozzie Smith hit the ball, but based on an estimate of how far it traveled (about 325 feet) and how long it was in the air (about 4.35 seconds), we can compare it to this fly ball hit by Oswaldo Arcia in 2016, when Statcast had begun measuring everything. Arcia's hit traveled 331 feet with a 4.4-second hang time. It had an exit velocity of 95.7 mph and a launch angle of 27 degrees.
According to Nathan's calculator, Arcia's ball would have slowed to below 70 mph within one second of flight, and by the time it reached its apex, it would have been going only 49 mph. As it began its descent, it would first slow even more, and after traveling 240 feet, Arcia's ball (and, roughly speaking, Ozzie Smith's) would have been traveling just 45.5 mph. But then gravity would be pulling it faster and faster, so that when it landed it would be traveling around 53 mph. That's not nothing, but most of the energy of the hit had dissipated. Catching a baseball traveling 53 mph is about what it's like to catch a pitch thrown 60 mph. It might sting, and could injure you if you catch it wrong, but ... you know?
2. Would it be difficult?
So, then, to the question of whether it was difficult. I showed this catch to Jarrod Kimber, the global writer for ESPNcricinfo and senior analyst for the Melbourne Stars. Cricket is, of course, a sport similar in many respects to baseball, but with no gloves. Cricketers catch everything bare-handed.
"I like that he caught the ball on the wrong side of his head," Kimber said. "As in, instead of his arm crossing over to the other side of his body, he catches it in a way he almost has to exorcist his neck around. And maybe I have a bias against mistake catches -- as in catches where the person made an error that made it more difficult. I mean, he's misjudged it, hasn't he, and got himself into a tangle, which is why he throws up his non-gloved hand.
"I've seen many cricketers, even amateur ones, actually especially amateur players, get in the wrong position when running back to catch over their head, then throw their hand up and the ball sticks. I think we'd call it arsey rather than classy. There was more elegance in this catch, but I didn't think it was that amazing."
According to the cricket analytics company CricViz, gloveless players successfully catch 77 percent of their chances during international matches, comparable to the NBA's free throw percentage. Most of the time they use two hands -- not one, as Mitchell did -- and, importantly, this is what they do all the time. For much of their lives, they've caught dozens of balls bare-handed each day. "I'd rather use a glove, although when I played baseball I often used my bare hand as it was easier and more natural to me," Kimber said.
3. Could I do it?
Earlier this week, I went to a field in Sonoma, California, with a bucket of balls and a glove I wouldn't need. Theo Fightmaster -- an independent league GM whose playing career peaked as a failed walk-on at Arizona State, where he played intrasquad games with Dustin Pedroia -- was there to hit me a bunch of deep fly balls. I stood in left field, and Fightmaster tried to replicate the trajectory of Ozzie Smith's fly ball.
"Because we have more soft-tissue padding on the palm surface, you could argue that the hand was built asymmetrically this way to absorb the use we give it," said Dr. Ben Jacobs, who chairs the public education committee of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand. "The soft tissues are somewhat effective at spreading out the load from an impact, so force that is applied can be distributed more across the hand instead of loading in just one location."
He stresses that, from a hand surgeon's perspective, catching baseballs bare-handed is a bad idea. But would he try to catch one if he were at a ballgame? "Of course I would." I took that as permission.
As the first catchable fly came near me, I groaned in dismay, anticipating the pain. I reached out for it, but my naked right hand was wary and tried to pull away. The ball deflected off the ends of my fingers and dropped to the grass. The pain was no worse than what comes of a hard high-five, and it faded quickly. The second got me in my palm, and I couldn't hold on. The third was over my head, and I fell face-first into a patch of mud chasing it. I had to extend, on the run, for the fourth, and it bounced off the top of my middle finger. That hurt. Each missed catch caused me a slightly different grunt or gasp, but none hurt for longer than a few seconds. The fifth, directly over my head, clanked loudly off my palm, and I screamed -- but more out of frustration that I had dropped it than out of pain. The sixth hit off the end of my fingers. The seventh was right at me, and I tried to catch it low, at my belt, but I still couldn't hang on.
I caught the eighth.
It landed clean against the base of my ring finger, and my pinky curled around to hold it in place. This was the most painful of the eight, by far, and the last segment of my ring finger felt as if it might have a bone bruise. But even that pain was tolerable and went away after a few minutes. I then caught four more cleanly, dropping only two. I mostly caught the ones I could get under, while the ones I had to really run after -- like the one Mitchell caught -- were much harder, bouncing off my fingers. Two fingers hurt for about a half hour, and my hand shook (as with nerves) for about that long, but the sorest part of my body was my shoulder, from throwing baseballs back to Theo. Catching a ball bare-handed wasn't that painful, that scary or -- it seemed to me -- that hard. (Theo tried catching a couple; one clipped his finger and turned his fingernail black.)
Running like Mitchell had to, of course, makes it harder. Needing to stretch out makes it harder. Twisting a body around so that one's back is almost to the infield would make it harder still. I want to be very clear that Mitchell's catch was miles harder than any catch I managed. But nothing about Mitchell's catch seemed impossible, the way Laureano's catch was impossible. Of all the great catches in baseball history, is there any that so resembles something that fans (and ushers!) pull off every day?
So, then, what are we to make of this catch?
The most famous catch of all time is certainly the one by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series -- dead sprint, his back to the infield, to haul in Vic Wertz's long fly. But there's less consensus among Mays observers that it was his best catch. Some say the best was a bare-handed catch he made running back for a screaming liner in Pittsburgh, in 1951. Pirates GM Branch Rickey sent a note down to the dugout after the play, according to baseball writer Nick Acocella. The note read: "Young man, that is the greatest catch I have ever seen, or the greatest catch I'm ever likely to see."
Hall of Fame center fielder Duke Snider also said Mays' finest catch was made bare-handed, when Mays was running to his right in Ebbets Field: "Couldn't extend his arm far enough to catch the ball so he reached out with his bare hand and caught the ball about three feet off the ground as he dove for it," Snider said. "And to me, that was so much better a catch than he made against Vic Wertz. This was an outstanding catch, and it was very exciting to see that happen. I never tried it."
I never tried it. This is the key thing. Most great catches, as we noted at the top, are incredible athletic acts by incredible athletes. But there are hundreds of incredible athletes in Major League Baseball, thousands over the past century. Every game, you can see one do something you could never do. Every year, you see a handful that seem to defy physics. And every few years, you see one you remember forever. But these catches merely confirm what we already know: These guys are good. That's all baked in, and it's why we watch in the first place. Yessiree, they sure can play baseball.
A bare-handed catch is something different. It doesn't seem to defy physics as much as it actually and literally defies the sport. It has been 150 years since baseball players collectively decided this game wouldn't work without gloves; but every so often, a player forced into a desperate situation makes it work.
"In my entire life, I've never seen that happen," Duane Kuiper said on the Giants broadcast that day 30 years ago. "Happen" is the important word there: The situation happened to Mitchell. He wasn't a cricketer who was used to making this play in this fashion. He didn't spend even one full second of his life planning or preparing for what he had to do; maybe a quarter of a second, the final quarter-second before the ball landed. He had nothing but a single pre-modern tool at his disposal, and he didn't have eight chances but just the one. "All I could do was stick out my hand, and there it was," Mitchell said. The bare-handed catch wasn't what he was trying to do. It was all he could do.
That's why bare-handed catches hold up. These are unpracticed, unplanned, disadvantaged and desperate. They're the difference between headbutting a basketball into the basket on your eighth try in a game of H-O-R-S-E and headbutting a ball in when your team needs two points to win at the buzzer and that's somehow the only option. The key lesson from my experiment wasn't what I did on the eighth try, but on the first. In retrospect, there was zero chance I was going to catch the first one. Zero.
If you think of the question as, "Is it hard to make a bare-handed catch on a fly ball?" the answer is, "Eh, kind of." But if you think of the question, "Was that specific fly ball hard for Kevin Mitchell to catch?" then the answer is, "Yes, it was basically impossible. He had to invent something to do it." Duke Snider never even tried it!
Earlier this month, Freddy Galvis sprinted out from the shortstop position to try to catch a popup. The ball came down just a little bit too far for his gloved left hand to reach, so Galvis shot out his right and caught it bare-handed. It's the best catch I've seen this year, or will see. I'm not alone.
Could you, theoretically, make the play? If you had 30 or 40 tries, I definitely think so. But Galvis had one, and anyway, when's the last time you saw somebody even try?