Curt Flood, Camden Yards, Pete Rose, and Other Reflections on Baseball
by George Will
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Now it was time for the first pitch to Alomar, and it was Alomar's and the Orioles' turn to try to learn something. Alomar shortened up and partially squared to bunt, but he took the first pitch, a buntable breaking ball. His eyes were less on the pitch than on the left side of the Indians' infield, third baseman Matt Williams and shortstop Omar Vizquel. Both are among the best defensive players at their positions; both have won Gold Gloves. Together, they give a manager confidence to put on the "wheel" or "rotation" play in a situation like this.
But Mike Hargrove had not done so. Yet.
On the "wheel" or "rotation" play the third baseman charges the bunt, as does the first baseman, as the pitcher covers the middle of the infield. The second baseman sprints to cover second. And the shortstop breaks toward third, racing the runner on second and arriving at third -- if all goes well -- in time to force the lead runner. However, on the first pitch to Alomar, Williams had, in Johnson's words, "played it regular." Playing it "regular" means, Johnson says, that "the third baseman doesn't come until he sees [the ball] coming toward him." Williams had not charged. He had been edging in toward Alomar as Nagy prepared to deliver the first pitch, but then had held back.
So what information had the Orioles acquired? Precious little. They had learned that the wheel play was not on. Not on the first pitch, at least. Which did not surprise Johnson: "Our reports were that they did not run the wheel." When told that Johnson had assumed the Indians did not use that play, Hargrove said, laughing, "That's what you get for assuming."
The trouble is, in baseball, as in the rest of life, we live by assuming. We act all the time on assumptions about how children, the weather, stocks and other things are apt to behave. And in fact the Orioles' reports had been basically right. Hargrove says the Indians only use the wheel play "two or three times a year." But, he says, "we work at it all the time." They were about to work it for what Hargrove thinks was only the second time in 1997.
After Alomar took that first pitch, Williams looked in to the Indians' dugout on the third-base side of Camden Yards, then turned toward his teammates and went through a series of signs. Next, he went to the mound and, with his glove over his mouth to frustrate any lip-readers in the Orioles' dugout, spoke to Nagy. As Johnson said later, "Williams is a National League guy." He had spent the ten seasons prior to 1997 with the Giants, and the wheel play was a routine part of his defensive craftsmanship. So Alomar and the Orioles had to wonder whether Williams had signaled a new play -- the wheel -- or whether all this was just a charade to get the Orioles thinking that the Indians would not play the second pitch the way they had played the first. If the Indians were not going to use the wheel, Alomar's job would be to bunt the ball toward third hard enough that Williams, not Nagy, would have to field it, drawing him away from third, leaving the Indians with only the option of getting Alomar at first as Bordick and Anderson advanced.
Alomar bunted the second pitch toward third, and he and the Orioles instantly, and to their sorrow, had the answer to their question. This time Williams was charging and Vizquel was on the run to his right, toward third. Williams fielded the ball about 25 feet in front of the plate, whirled and threw to Vizquel, who beat Bordick to third by at least 15 feet for the force-out.
The time that had elapsed between Anderson's single touching the rightfield grass and Williams' throw touching Vizquel's glove: one minute and fifty-nine seconds.
The Orioles still had a threat going, with Anderson -- who is a lot faster than Bordick is going from second to home -- on second and Alomar on first. But the Indians, having been challenged to anticipate correctly and execute flawlessly, had done so. The next batter, Geronimo Berroa, grounded the first pitch into a double play with Roberto Alomar out at second. The game remained scoreless until the eleventh inning, when the Indians' second baseman, Tony Fernandez, lofted a home run over the right-field scoreboard.
That, and one more inning of good relief pitching, sent the Indians to the World Series. However, the hinge of the game was the play four innings earlier.
It was not a baseball fan who said that God gave us memory so that we could have roses in winter. Roses are all very well, but real fans are warmed between the postseason and the preseason by the afterglow of episodes like Alomar's bunt and the Indians' businesslike but beautiful 5-6 putout in the seventh.
Copyright © 1998 by George F. Will. Excerpted with permission.