In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.
Bunting for a hit during a blowout is frowned upon, as is calling for a hit-and-run. Swinging with a 3-0 count is out, and woe be to the player who uncorks a huge swing—“from his ass,” in baseball parlance—in such a situation.
This notion of propriety was at the forefront of the mind of F.P. Santangelo one spring afternoon in 1996, his rookie season with the Montreal Expos. Against the Rockies in Coors Field, Santangelo was having the game of his short career, piling up a single, double and home run in five at-bats before he came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning.
He poked the third pitch he saw into the right-field corner. With Dante Bichette positioned what seemed like miles away in the spacious Coors Field alley, it looked to be an easy triple, with viable potential for an inside-the-park home run. There was, however, another consideration.
The Expos were ahead 20-5 at the time, and in Santangelo’s mind that put the kibosh on digging for extra bases, especially as a young player trying to make a good impression. So the 28-year-old pulled up at second and collected himself, pleased with the latest addition to his statistically impressive day. When he looked into his dugout, however, he was startled to see manager Felipe Alou on the top step, brow furrowed, lips pursed and gaze fixed firmly upon him. With a disgusted shake of his head, Alou raised his outstretched arms, palms up, in the universal symbol of frustration. “I’m out there thinking, ‘I’m four-for-six, standing on second base,” said Santangelo. “What’d I do wrong?”
When he got back to the dugout, Alou told him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the manager snapped at the terrified rookie. “You were one base from hitting for the cycle! Do you know how long I played this game?” (The answer to this rhetorical question was 17 years in the majors.) “Do you know how many times I hit for the cycle?” (Rhetorical answer: never.)
To compound matters, it would have been the first cycle in Coors Field history.
“He was pissed,” said Santangelo of the manager. “I didn’t even realize I was a triple away. I just knew not to show the other team up.”
For more nuanced baseball minds (such as, say, Alou) it would have been perfectly appropriate for Santangelo to have trotted into third. For one thing, there was achievement on the line (a cycle), as well as the notion that even by the unwritten rules, nonagressive baserunning—the act of taking a base that is by all rights, yours—is perfectly acceptable. Without a play in the offing, third base was Santangelo’s for the taking.
Decades later, he’s still thinking about why he didn’t.