Don't Steal with a Big Lead

Davey vs. Rickey, Ten Years After

Ten years ago this weekend, Davey Lopes and Rickey Henderson had a little Code-related run-in. It would quickly turn into one of the most prominent kerfluffles in the recent history of the unwritten rules, sufficiently noteworthy to lead a chapter about when and when not to steal in a certain book devoted to the subject.

Similar situations still come up all the time. (Look no further than Carlos Gomez or A.J. Ellis earlier this year, or Nyjer Morgan‘s antics last season.) Still, in honor of the grandaddy moment of them all, it seems worth revisiting. From The Baseball Codes:

In July 2001, Rickey Henderson was forty-two years old and, by an enor­mous margin, baseball’s all-time stolen-base leader. The San Diego Padres outfielder was well over two decades into his major-league career and had long since been anointed the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Then he stole second base against the Brewers, and Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes exploded.

It wasn’t just any steal that set Lopes off—it happened in the seventh inning of a game in which the Padres led 12–5, after Milwaukee’s defense had essentially cried “uncle” by positioning first baseman Richie Sexson in the hole behind Henderson instead of holding him on. The play was so borderline, as far as stolen bases go, that it was ruled defensive indiffer­ence, and Henderson wasn’t even credited with a steal. That wasn’t his goal, however. Henderson was approaching Ty Cobb’s all-time record for runs scored (which he would ultimately best in the season’s final week), and he had just put himself into scoring position.

Lopes could not have been less interested in the runner’s motivation. As soon as Henderson reached second, Lopes went to the mound, osten­sibly to talk to pitcher Ray King but really to direct a tirade up the middle. At top volume and with R-rated vocabulary, Lopes informed Henderson that he had just become a target for the Brewers pitching staff.

“I didn’t appreciate what he did,” Lopes told reporters after the game. “I know he’s trying to obtain a record for most runs scored, but do it the right way. If he keeps doing stuff like that he’s going to get one of his play­ers hurt. I just told him to stay in the game because he was going on his ass. We were going to drill him, flat out. I told him that. But he chose not to stay in the game; I knew he wouldn’t.”

Henderson was removed after the inning by Padres manager Bruce Bochy, which the skipper insisted had to do with the lopsided score, not Lopes’s threats. Afterward, Henderson said that he was reluctantly fol­lowing green-light orders given to him by third-base coach Tim Flannery and sanctioned by Bochy, and that showing anybody up was the last thing on his mind. “Davey and I argued, but I told him that on my own, in that situation, I wouldn’t go down and steal that base,” he said. (“Rickey said I gave him the sign?” said a surprised Flannery when he heard Henderson’s take. “Rickey didn’t even know the sign.”)

“To be blunt, what he did was bullshit,” said King after the game. “We weren’t holding him on. If he’s going to break the record that way, he doesn’t deserve it. The guy’s probably going in the Hall of Fame, but to try to get to second base just to score a run, that’s sorry. When he took off I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

What Henderson had done was break one of the cornerstone entries in baseball’s unwritten rulebook: Don’t play aggressively with a big lead late in the game. It’s tantamount to running up the score in football, and no tenet of the Code is more simultaneously revered and loathed. It means the cessation of stolen-base attempts, sending runners in search of extra bases, swinging at 3-0 pitches, and an assortment of other tactics aimed toward scoring at all costs.

“There is no excuse that can be made up to justify trying to show some­one up,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, one of the Code’s staunchest practitioners in his twenty-five years at the helm of the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. “There’s no excuse, and you can’t invent one.”

– Jason