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Thievery on basepaths has become lost art

Mets' Jose Reyes, beating throw to Phillies' Chase Utley to steal second, could become first player since 1987 to steal 100 bases.
Mets' Jose Reyes, beating throw to Phillies' Chase Utley to steal second, could become first player since 1987 to steal 100 bases.Read more

ON THE AFTERNOON of Oct. 4, 1987, the final day of the regular season at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Cardinals leftfielder Vince Coleman reached first base on an infield single with two outs in the third inning of the game against the Mets.

Few in the red-clad crowd of 41,890 were surprised by what happened next. With Ozzie Smith at the plate, Coleman took his lead against Mets lefthander Sid Fernandez. Getting the jump he was looking for, he broke for second and slid in ahead of the throw from catcher Gary Carter.

The fans acknowledged the stolen base with a perfunctory cheer. Then again, there was no reason to overreact. The Cardinals had already clinched a spot in the playoffs; they would go on to the World Series, where they'd lose to the Twins in seven dramatic games. Besides, it wasn't as if seeing Coleman steal a base were anything unusual. It was his 109th theft of the year, the third straight season he'd topped 100.

It's only 20 years later, with the benefit of hindsight, that this becomes a watershed moment in baseball.

That was the sixth time in the 1980s that a player had stolen at least 100 bases, the eighth time since Maury Wills, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, first broke the barrier in 1962. Oakland's Rickey Henderson set the record, with 130, 5 years earlier.

Nobody has stolen 100 since.

As recently as 2002, the Yankees' Alfonso Soriano led the American League with only 41 and Florida's Luis Castillo paced the National League with 48.

Stealing bases, it often seems, has become something of a lost art.

The need for speed was reintroduced to baseball by Maury Wills, a happy combination of necessity meeting the right player at the right time.

Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, a big and beautiful baseball palace. Especially big. The fences were distant and the night air was heavy in Chavez Ravine. Home runs became harder to come by.

Wills helped fill that void with 104 stolen bases.

(It's no coincidence that two of the pre-eminent baserunners who followed, Coleman and Lou Brock, played for the Cardinals, another team that played in a spacious stadium.)

"I was allowed to," Wills explained one day this spring at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., after a morning spent tutoring Dodgers runners. "Because we needed it. We didn't have the bats, and that was our way of getting that one run in."

There are several reasons baseball moved away from "little ball."

The designated hitter was introduced in the AL in 1973.

By that time, Baltimore's Earl Weaver had already begun to have success with a philosophy that depended heavily on good pitching and waiting for a three-run homer. "If you play for one run, that's all you get," he liked to say.

Runners who steal a lot take a pounding. And the players who are most suited to it tend to be smaller and faster, so the accumulated wear-and-tear quickly takes a toll.

Pitching became weaker. Almost everyone agrees on that point, although there's never been a satisfactory explanation why this has occurred. Rapid overexpansion is most often cited.

Sabermetrician Bill James pioneered a new, statistics-based method of explaining baseball. One of the tenets was that outs are precious and shouldn't be risked on stealing bases. Oakland's Billy Beane might have been the first general manager to openly embrace these philosophies, but he was soon followed by a string of young, highly educated number crunchers.

When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, it ignited a wave of ballpark construction. As a rule, these new yards were smaller and more homer-friendly than the multipurpose facilities they replaced.

It is now accepted that steroid use became widespread about this time. That made even little middle infielders a threat to go deep.

After the ruinous strike of 1994-95, baseball was "saved" when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa slugged it out in the Home Run Summer of 1998. Both easily surpassed Roger Maris' single-season record of 61; McGwire ended up with 70 and Sosa finished with 66. Purists were appalled, but fans loved it.

As a result, the home run became more celebrated than ever. Home runs are routinely featured on the highlights shows, and teams tend to hand out the biggest contracts to sluggers. Which only encourages more players to swing for the fences. So the cycle feeds on itself.

Wills has some strong opinions on the subject.

"I think it's because of the longball coming from McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds," he said, sitting in a room of the Holman Stadium clubhouse. "They were exciting people by hitting balls not just out of the ballpark, but out of the county. With the smaller parks, with expansion, it's been an evolution of the game, that's all. They went to the longball.

"And so managers were reluctant to take a chance on someone getting thrown out when they could have somebody hit the ball out of the park. That's never been my kind of game. I don't think that's baseball, but that's how the game goes from time to time."

Wills believes there's room in the game for both power and speed.

"As a person who loves the stolen base, I would have been a home run hitter if I'd had the choice. I don't want to sound like I'm taking anything away from that," he said. "One swing of the bat and you've got a run. But if you live by the home run, you're going to die. Fast.

"If I have a good basestealer, they're going to enhance the slugger's chances of getting a nice fat pitch. Besides, when a batter hits 50 or 60 home runs a year and he gets up 550 times, what does he do the other 500 times? He strikes out, pops up or hits into a doubleplay. So if I've got the speed, I'd take advantage of it."

Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes, who stole 557 bases during his career (1972-87), agrees with Wills.

"A lot of people coming into the game in recent years have a different philosophy. The new breed, the Ivy Leaguers," he said. "They think of the stolen base, or the bunt for that matter, as more of a detriment than a positive. Obviously, I don't agree with that.

"Used correctly, it can be a tremendous asset. I'm talking about stealing on a productive basis. We don't steal ruthlessly or with reckless abandon. I can understand what [critics of the stolen base] say. If you're thrown out 50 percent of the time, obviously it's not a good play. But if a guy can steal 70 percent of the time, you have a much better chance of advancing than waiting for the guy to get a hit.

"When I was playing, they'd say, 'Get into scoring position as quickly as you can and we'll drive you in.' The game has changed. But it makes for a good discussion."

Wills and Lopes agree on a couple of other points: That the sabermetricians are missing the fact that just the threat of a stolen base can change the game and that the game is more exciting with the stolen base as an integral part of a team's offense.

The first point, in fact, has become part of Phillies lore. How with the Phils leading by a run in the bottom of the ninth of Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, Mitch Williams walked Toronto leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson. How the threat of Henderson stealing, even after he reached second, was so much on Williams' mind that he used a slide-step - a pitching maneuver designed to quicken the pitcher's motion - for the first time in his life with Joe Carter at the plate. How Carter hit that pitch into the leftfield seats to give the Blue Jays the world championship.

"I know it hurts the pitcher's concentration," Wills said. "It takes away certain pitches. The ball in the dirt that the big hitter might go for. You can't afford to throw that when you have a basestealer on. The catcher is reluctant to call for a changeup, for pitches down in the dirt. He wants something he can handle, in case the runner takes off.

"Those people who have a certain way of playing the game and want to eliminate the stolen base, I don't think they've really played the game. They want to change it, but that's not the way the game was set up. You take the baserunning and the stolen base out of the game, I don't think it's as exciting.

Added Lopes: "Even if the runner doesn't steal, the pitcher can't commit 100 percent to the batter. The same with the manager. And the infielders have to be quicker. A premier basestealer creates a distraction for everybody, and it makes the game more exciting."

Lopes said the stolen base adds needed drama.

"Our game can be very boring, a turnoff, no matter what anyone says," he said. "I don't think that's the way baseball was designed. We need to open it up more. Unless you grew up in it, it seems too slow. Ask the kids. Faster and more contact seems to be the in thing."

Wills and Lopes appreciate the art of basestealing.

"We've got a guy on [the Dodgers], Juan Pierre. He's my guy," Wills said. "Dave Roberts used to be my guy. He's with the Giants now, but wherever he goes, I'll always have a warm spot in my heart for him. Which means I have admiration for a Giants player. And I never thought that would happen. I always said that if I saw my good friend Willie Mays broken down on the freeway, I'd have to say, 'Too bad, Willie. Call AAA.' Because he's a Giant. But I don't feel that way about Dave Roberts."

Lopes also has guys around baseball he enjoys watching. "The kid in New York [Jose Reyes], if you watch the Mets play, you know who their most valuable player is. As far as I'm concerned, he's the one guy they can't afford to lose. Look at [Tampa Bay's] Carl Crawford in the American League. So maybe it's starting to change.

"The game got slower, but it's starting to come back a little bit."

Said Wills: "I think we have people around who could steal 100 bases or more if we allow them to. I think the stolen base is coming back."

They might be proved right sooner than they think.

Rickey Henderson spent 10 days in the Mets' camp this spring as a guest instructor. He had barely unpacked before he issued a challenge to Reyes, who led the league with 64 steals in 2006, to break his record of 130 set in 1982.

"He needs to think about being twice as good," Henderson told reporters. "There's no reason he shouldn't be able to [steal] almost every time he's on. No reason to worry about getting caught. It's all in your attitude."

Reyes brushed off the suggestion. And he probably won't break Henderson's record this year.

But with 19 steals in the Mets' first 33 games, he just might be the first guy in two decades to reach 100. *