PHILADELPHIA -- On a May evening at Veterans Stadium, Bobby Bonilla, the runner at second for the New York Mets, paces off his lead in short, calculated steps. Tommy Greene, the pitcher for the Phillies, peers in at catcher Darren Daulton for his signal and nods. The batter is Howard Johnson. Greene checks Bonilla at second -- once, then again -- and then stares in at his target.
Johnson cocks his bat.
Here comes the pitch . . .
HoJo drives it to right field. When Bonilla sees the ball drop in safely, he breaks for third. Wes Chamberlain, the right fielder, runs toward the ball and picks it up as Bonilla touches the inside corner of the bag and sprints down the line for the plate. Daulton knows Bonilla is there, but only has time to lock in on the throw from Chamberlain. In the span of just a few frantic seconds, Daulton has to decide between two options:
* Should he concede the run, command first baseman John Kruk to cut off the ball and keep Johnson from advancing to second on the throw?
* Or should he contest the run, let the ball come through, and end up with Bonilla in a tornado of colliding appendages?
Here comes Bonilla.
Here comes the ball.
The catcher shouts, "Let it go!"
Bonilla arrives . . .
The ball arrives . . .
(Now -- before we reveal the conclusion of this scene -- a word from our sponsor.)
Perhaps no single play in baseball is as exciting. Whenever the catcher and runner encounter each other in a cloud of dust at home plate, it is the quintessential action shot.
The drama is sudden, unpredictable and, in the context of such a tranquil sport, it is as jarring as a piano bouncing down a steep flight of steps. To appreciate how dangerous it can be -- and it can be immensely dangerous -- just ask Daulton what he remembers about the crackup he had with Ray Lankford of the Cardinals in April 1991.
"What I remember is that he just flattened me," said Daulton, who, two weeks later, was in the passenger seat of a car teammate Lenny Dykstra drove into a tree. "I remember I was still sore until we had the car wreck."
It is called "undressing" the catcher, and it is the stuff of highlight films. No one will ever forget how Pete Rose plowed into catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game; Fosse fractured his shoulder and was never quite the same. That collision was surely one of the worst and is an indelible memory, others have been just as violent.
No one has ever been better at blocking the plate than Mike Scioscia was during his prime with the Dodgers. Although Scioscia is now with the Padres and has been sidelined this season with a "significant" injury to his rotator cuff, base runners still invoke his name with awe.
"No question Scioscia is the toughest," said Phillies center fielder Lenny Dykstra. However, if the consensus seems to echo that -- that Scioscia is The Great Wall of China -- Daulton is also considered exceptional. According to Phillies coach Mike Ryan -- a former catcher who remembers when, in the Eastern League, Tommie Agee once drove his spikes through the shinguards Ryan was wearing -- Daulton is "tough, agile and smart."
"Darren is one of those catchers who, in effect, tells the runners, 'The plate belongs to me,' " Ryan said. "He can stand out there and take a bleeping jolt."
The object is to block the plate and not end up in the hospital. While the job description includes an element of contact, the stated preference of even some of the better catchers is to avoid it. Unlike the old days, when catchers wore awkward "pillow gloves" that required them to execute two-handed tags, today's catcher wears a mitt with webbing that allows him to make a one-handed sweep tag and still hold onto the ball. One practitioner of this is Florida's Benito Santiago.
Because Santiago weighs only 185 pounds, the sweep tag is a technique he uses to protect himself.
"We would prefer the runner to slide," Daulton said. "To persuade him to do that, the catcher has to show him part of the plate. Then -- once he commits to sliding -- step back, block the plate and stop him cold."
Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench elaborated.
"The proper technique is to expose part of the plate so the runner will slide," Bench said. "If you stand in front of the plate, blocking it completely, you become a bouncer standing in front of a barroom door. The runner is going to say, 'Oh yeah. Here I come.'
"Get him to slide. Then step up, plant your left foot toward third base (so the knee is not exposed laterally), catch his legs before his gets to the plate, tag him, and then get the hell out of Dodge."
Bench paused. "Of course," he added, "there are just times you are going to get hit. I have had six broken bones in each foot and I still have scars and cartilage damage in my shoulder. I just considered it part of the job."
Observed Scioscia: "There is no easy way around it. You are going to get hit. You just have to hang in there."
Perhaps the toughest play for a catcher is when there is a runner on second and the ball is hit to right field. When the ball is hit to
left or center, the catcher can plant himself for the throw and still see the runner; the ball hit to right leaves the catcher vulnerable to fierce blows. Because he is looking out to right field for the throw and his back is planted to the third-base line, he has no sense of where the runner is. Consequently, he has to be aware of who the runner is.
"You better know who it is," Daulton said. "Does he have speed? Does he slide hard? You have to know these things."
Base runners -- like certain catchers -- have reputations. In Dykstra, Daulton, Dave Hollins, John Kruk and Pete Incaviglia, the Phillies have some of the hardest base runners in the National League. Dykstra has been involved in some pileups at the plate but prefers to slide and "stick a hand in at the plate if I have a choice."
"No one ever tries to hurt the catcher, but there are times when the only thing you can do is attempt to jar the ball loose," Incaviglia said. "If I'm coming around third and it looks as if I am going to be out, I will hit the catcher with the hardest, cleanest shot I can in hopes that the ball pops free."
Daulton can appreciate that. "The object of this sport is to score," he said.
So here comes Bonilla.
Here he is, sprinting down the third-base line as the throw from Chamberlain approaches the infield. When Daulton shouts, "Let it go," the cutoff man, Kruk, lets it pass and it appears to have Bonilla beaten. It is a perfect throw, and what happens is exactly what is supposed to happen:
Daulton shows Bonilla a piece of the plate.
Daulton reaches out as the ball takes a room-service hop and whirls to tag the runner when . . . oops.
Daulton drops the ball.
Bonilla is safe.
That is not supposed to happen.