Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente

For most sports fans, the Pittsburgh Pirates have become synonymous with losing baseball.  They are currently working on their 18th consecutive season of losing more games than they have won, and there’s no indication that streak won’t continue.  I was 12 years old the last time they were good.

But I’ll still always be a Pirates fan.  How could I not be?  I’ve cheered the Steelers and Penguins on as they won championships for Pittsburgh, which is more than some die-hard sports fans get to see.  What kind of fan would I be if I gave up on the Pirates?

Historically, the Pirates have a lot of great moments to look back on.  They are one of the National League’s oldest teams, and they own 5 World Series championships.  And they’ve done some things that no other major league team has done.

One of the things that gives the sport of baseball its charm is its eclectic set of statistics.  The stats for football are measured in familiar terms like yards and seconds.  But baseball is a weird game; it has its own language with things like at-bats, earned runs, and 4-6-3 double plays.  In the oddest cases, the statistics become more important than the game itself (something that I don’t always agree with).   A batter purposely stops at first base in order to record a single because he already has a double, triple, and home run.  A crowd stays breathlessly to the end of a game that is not even close because the pitcher has a chance to record a perfect game.  It’s all because of the chance to see or do something so rare that you can list all of the players who have done it on one page.

I sometimes think my Asperger’s may have something to do with my enjoyment of watching and reading about games to see the patterns that emerge– no two games exactly alike, but some beautiful in their uniqueness.  It’s like throwing a handful of sand into the air to see the patterns that emerge as it spreads in the wind.  But I think it’s probably a human thing to find enjoyment and comfort in watching for patterns.

Anyway, the Pittsburgh Pirates have their share of unique history.  Within the space of 5 years, three players on the Pirates each accomplished a different feat that has been done only once– it had never happened before and has not happened since, even with all of the hundreds of major league baseball games played each year.

Let’s begin with a question:  What is the most impressive outcome possible for a batter in a single time at bat?

Most people will probably say a home run.   The object of the game is to score runs.  Usually you accomplish this by getting on base and then advancing as your teammates bat.  But with a home run, the batter is able to score a run all by himself.

Usually, the way you hit a home run is to hit a fair ball that goes out of play– into the stands, perhaps even out of the park entirely.  Then you can take your time running around the bases because there’s no way for the fielders to get the ball back.

A much rarer kind of home run is an inside-the-park home run, in which the ball never leaves the field of play, but the batter is able to make it all the way around the bases before the other team can force or tag him out.  It is already less common to hit a triple than to hit an ordinary home run– hitting a triple usually requires a ballpark with a big outfield, a good bounce that knocks the ball out of the fielder’s reach, and a fast runner.

Everything really has to fall into place in order for an inside-the-park home run to happen.  It can’t happen because of a stupid mistake by the fielder, because that would result in the play being considered a double or triple plus an error.  The ball has to get by the fielder legitimately.

A home run hit with the bases loaded is a grand slam.  It is the only way to score four runs in a single at-bat.  Obviously, the number of runners on base when a batter comes to the plate is out of his control; the possibility of hitting a grand slam is only there if the bases are loaded.

It’s possible to hit an inside-the-park grand slam.  Given how rare an inside-the-park home run is, an inside-the-park grand slam is a real rarity.  They happen at an average rate of about one every two seasons.

Another special kind of home run is a walk-off home run.  A walk-off home run is a game-winning home run hit in the bottom of the 9th inning.  It’s called a walk-off home run because the game ends as soon as the go-ahead run scores in the bottom of the 9th, and everyone walks off the field.  It’s one of the most exciting ways for a baseball game to end– usually the team waits at home plate to celebrate with the winning player.  Again, a walk-off home run requires the situation to be set up right.

Only a player on the home team can hit a walk-off home run, because the home team always bats in the bottom of the 9th inning.  The home team has to be either tied or behind the visiting team on the scoreboard.  And the play has to score enough runs to put the home team ahead.

So what’s the most impressive outcome possible for a batter in a single time at bat?  I would argue that it is a walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam.  All of the things I described above have to fall into place on one play, plus a few more that may not be obvious at first.  The home team has to be down by three runs— no more, no less– when the player comes to bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th inning.

Why can’t the home team be tied, or just down by one or two runs?  That would work if the home run were not inside the park.  Then all of the runners on base would come home, and their runs would be counted in the final score because they happen in a sort of “frozen time” period between plays.  But an inside-the-park home run involves a ball still in play, which means that the game is over as soon as the home team goes ahead.  If the home team were only down by two runs and the bases were loaded, then the game would end as soon as the runner from first base touched the plate (assuming the two runners ahead of him made it home safely).

Anyway, as you might guess, a walk-off, inside-the-park home run is very rare.  So rare that it has happened only one time in the history of major league baseball, on July 25, 1956 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

Right fielder Roberto Clemente came to bat for the Pirates in the bottom of the 9th inning with Pittsburgh trailing the Chicago Cubs 8-5 after giving up seven runs in the 8th inning.  The bases were loaded, and the Cubs brought pitcher Jim Brosnan into the game to face Clemente.

Clemente swung at the first pitch and drove the ball deep into left field, where it hit a light pole in fair territory.  The Cubs left fielder backed up to the wall to try to catch the ball, but it was out of his reach, and the ball rolled back towards center field.

One runner scored, two runners, three runners scored.  The Pirates had tied the game!  Pittsburgh manager Bobby Bragan signaled wildly for Clemente to stop at third base, but Clemente ignored the sign and kept on running.  He got to home plate just ahead of the throw and slid, missing the plate at first but reaching his hand back to touch the edge of it.  The crowd cheered– the Pirates had won, 9-8!

It’s been over 50 years since Roberto Clemente hit the first walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam, and it hasn’t happened again yet.  I think that’s pretty cool!