If you wanted to get a laugh in Brooklyn in the 1930s, this joke
about the Dodgers and their daffy baserunning was comic gold: A
man walks down the street and bumps into a friend who's listening
to a ball game while sitting on his front stoop. The friend is
excited, grabs the man and says, "Hey, the Dodgers have three men
"Oh, yeah," says the man, "which base?"
The joke's particulars don't hold anymore--for one thing, no one
walks down the street in the Dodgers' current hometown--but its
essence does, and not just for the Dodgers. Baserunning, one of
the game's most basic elements, is laughably simple. Yet, as one
American League advance scout says, "A lot of the better players
in the game aren't very good at baserunning."
"From Little League to the big leagues," says Colorado Rockies
third base coach Rich Donnelly, "baserunning is the thing
baseball players do worst."
Ask players, coaches and front-office types which pitchers throw
the most wicked sliders or which hitters have the most bat speed,
and you'll get a roll call of candidates. Ask them to name
outstanding base runners, and watch their faces scrunch up in
puzzlement. The list, which includes the New York Yankees' Derek
Jeter, the Rockies' Larry Walker, the Cincinnati Reds' Barry
Larkin and Pokey Reese, and the Houston Astros' Jeff Bagwell and
Craig Biggio, is short. "There are a lot of fast runners," says
Walker, "but speed doesn't make you a good base runner."
For Exhibit A, look no further than Game 1 of last year's World
Series. With no score and two outs in the sixth inning, Timo
Perez, whose speed and daring on the bases had ignited the New
York Mets' offense late in the season and in the playoffs,
committed a monstrous gaffe in the biggest game of his young
career. The 23-year-old Perez was thrown out at the plate as he
tried to score from first on teammate Todd Zeile's scorching line
drive off the top of the leftfield wall. If Perez had used his
track-star speed for the entire 270-foot trip instead of slowing
down around second base to raise his arm and celebrate what he
thought was a two-run home run, he would have scored easily.
Fred Merkle and Lonnie Smith, make room for Perez, whose
carelessness cost the Mets a crucial run in a game they lost 4-3.
It was also a snapshot of the way the game is played today:
Baserunning, like so many other fundamental skills, has been
sacrificed on the altar of the home run. "There's so much
emphasis on what you can do with the bat," says Bill Doran,
Cincinnati's first base coach. "Baserunning is one of the things
that falls through the cracks."
In theory every big leaguer knows the basics--run hard; be
aggressive; cut bases at sharp angles, step on the inside corner
of the bag and lean toward the infield as you round a base; get
good primary and secondary leads; pay attention to how the
defense is positioned--and every organization schools its minor
leaguers in them. Baserunning drills are also a staple of spring
training. Once the season starts, however, it's like flossing or
scanning the hard drive for viruses: Everyone knows it's
important; few make it an everyday focus. Says Jeter, "I think a
lot of guys go through the motions."
In addition to being aggressive and pushing for the extra base,
good baserunning boils down to forcing the defense to make good
plays and to getting over the fear of making outs. Call it
intelligent recklessness. The most dangerous base runners have a
bull rider's mentality: Getting tossed once in a while is an
occupational hazard. "You can't be afraid to make mistakes," says
Larkin, who when he came up with the Reds, played for manager
Pete Rose, one of the best base runners ever. "Show me a guy who
doesn't make outs on the bases, and I'll show you a guy who just
goes base to base."
Jeter's an exception. He's recognized as one of the smartest and
most aggressive base runners in the game, and his above-average
speed doesn't hurt. Yet, Jeter made only two outs on the base
paths last season, excluding ground ball force-outs and the four
times he was caught stealing, startlingly few for someone who was
on base 281 times, seventh most in the American League. "In the
playoffs last year Jeter really showed how good a base runner he
is," says Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd. "He went first to
third so well, and you could tell he knows exactly what to do
when the ball is hit."
"I work at it," says Jeter. "You have to know who's playing
where, know fielders' tendencies, and that comes from paying
attention to scouting reports and observing."
Most good base runners have a solid understanding of the game,
but there are exceptions. Take Walker, who when healthy may be
the best in the National League. A native of Maple Ridge, B.C.,
he insists he "knew nothing about this sport" when the Montreal
Expos signed him in 1984. In rookie ball Walker once tried to
avoid being doubled off first base by doing what any good
geometry student would do: Having advanced almost to third on a
ball deep to the outfield that he didn't expect would be caught,
he returned to first by cutting across the infield. After he was
called out, Walker had to be separated from the umpire by one of
his coaches, who calmly explained that Walker had to retouch
second base on his way back to first. "I beat the throw," Walker
says. "I thought the ump lost his marbles."
Walker was blessed with the athleticism all good base runners
have, and he has developed techniques that allow him to take
advantage of it. For example, he knows how to turn his head to
find the ball without breaking stride, and he'll sometimes slow
down to bait outfielders into throwing behind him. He has also
learned a lot through observation. Which outfielders have
dangerous arms? Where's the ball going when it leaves the bat?
How is the defense shaded? Every team has a baserunning
instructor, but teachers can't do much if the students don't pay
attention. "It's difficult to simulate situations on the bases,"
says Donnelly. "Players who don't watch other runners, read
scouting reports and watch the defense usually have no idea what
to do when the ball is hit."
A team's personality on the base paths is generally a reflection
of its manager. Some skippers make baserunning a priority, some
don't. The Arizona Diamondbacks, managed by Buck Showalter for
the past three seasons, were very aggressive, and last year Buddy
Bell made going from first to third the trademark in his first
season as Rockies skipper. Phil Garner, now managing the Detroit
Tigers, has a reputation for fielding hard-running teams. Since
Felipe Alou took over in 1992, the Expos have been one of the
most aggressive teams on the bases, especially when it comes to
advancing on pitches in the dirt. "Montreal's first base coaches
have always told runners to look for that," says a National
League scout. "As soon as the ball hits the dirt, they're gone."
The value of little things like that is hard to quantify. Some
teams, like Colorado, keep track of how often their players
advance on the bases, and one statistics service, Stats, Inc.,
logs the extra bases each major leaguer takes, but you won't find
that info in your newspaper box score. What can be measured are
runs, wins and losses. Says Walker, "Running the bases well,
maybe getting to third base when most guys would stop at second,
is as good as making a defensive play or hitting a home run to
win a game."
As long as he's the only runner on third.
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY NITIN VADUKUL Jeter, who mixes smarts and desire with his natural speed, made only two outs running the bases in 2000.
COLOR PHOTO: J. SCHWABEROW/CLARKSON AND ASSOCIATES Walker is the rare base runner who can keep his eye on the ball without breaking stride.
Red Sox first base, outfield and baserunning coach Tommy Harper,
a two-time American League basestealing champion (1969, '73),
lists today's best on the base paths.
1. Alex Rodriguez, Rangers. He may not have blazing speed,
but he knows when to run.
2. Derek Jeter, Yankees. Same as with A-Rod: He's just smart.
3. Johnny Damon, Athletics. Has great speed, gets good
jumps--and he's always learning.
4. Barry Larkin, Reds. Never makes a mistake.
5. Delino DeShields, Orioles. Not quite the same as he was in
his prime, but still a great base runner.
6. Barry Bonds, Giants. Very intelligent. Does everything right.