A truism of baseball is that whenever you watch a game, you might see something you have never seen before and will never see again. Of course this is true in a trivial sense of any game, but it has a more specific meaning in baseball. Baseball has a system of concisely scoring every play. Each fielder is assigned a number: the pitcher is 1, the catcher is 2, and so on. These are used to record every fielder who touches the ball on a play. So a routine grounder to the shortstop, who throws to the first baseman to put the runner out, is a 6-3 out. Most plays fall into common patterns, but every so often you see something weird. This brings us to the triple play the Mariners turned on the Blue Jays on July 26..
Triple plays are not especially uncommon. There have been over 700 of them turned in the history of major league baseball. There is no such thing as a routine triple play, so if you see one happen you either, depending on your affiliation, high five the guy next to you or grumble about the team finding creative ways to avoid scoring. But you ought not be amazed at the mere occurrence of a triple play. (An unassisted triple play is another matter. Those are extremely rare, occurring about as often as perfect games.)
What makes the triple play of July 26 remarkable is not that it was a triple play, but how it happened. It was a 3-6-2 triple play. Or, to use the more precise notation of the SABR triple play database, it was 3*-6-2*-2*, the asterisks denoting which fielder made each out. So this was a ball fielded by the first baseman, who got the first out, who then threw the ball to the shortstop, who in turn threw to the catcher, who got the second and third outs.
The video of the play is posted below, but first stop and try to figure out how this could work out. What sequence of events can plausibly lead to this result? I’m not ashamed to admit that I was stumped. So here you go:
What the hell just happened? With runners at first and third, the batter hits a ground ball to the first basemen, who fields it and tags the base for the first out. He throws the ball to the shortstop covering second to get the runner from first. The force play is broken, however, so the runner quite sensibly stops rather than running into the tag. At this point the runner from third is standing halfway between third and home, waiting to see what will happen. The shortstop observes this and stops worrying about the runner from first. He freezes the runner from third merely by directing his attention there: if the runner breaks in either direction, the ball will reach the base before the runner. The shortstop runs across the diamond holding the ball, forcing the issue on the runner. The hapless runner feints toward home, so the shortstop throws to the catcher. The runner reverses course and retreats toward third base. Ordinarily the catcher would then throw to the third baseman, but he observes that in the meantime the runner from first has advanced to third. So when the runner from third retreats to the bag, the result is two runners on the same base. Only one of them is entitled to the base. The catcher, rather than working out in his mind which this is, simply tags them both. The rule of thumb is that the leading runner is entitled to the base (except in a force play, which this is not) so the runner from first is tagged for the second out. Then, and this is where the play moves from merely bad base running into the realm of the weird, the final runner falls off the base. The catcher is still holding the ball, so he tags the guy for the third out.
Got that? If not, that’s OK. The announcers were confused, too. I should have warned you to ignore them. They went down a garden path with the notion that the runner from third interfered with the shortstop. Offensive interference by definition only occurs when the fielder is attempting to make a play with the ball. The shortstop no longer had the ball, and the ball wasn’t being returned to him, so whatever offense against sportsmanship the runner might have made, it wasn’t interference. The plate umpire signaled this clearly, making a safe sign. The announcers got hung up on the idea of its being interference, and didn’t work it through. Had it in fact been interference, the runner from third would have been out, and the runner from first entitled to the base and therefore safe.
Then for the weird part. The runner from third is back on the base, having accomplished nothing, but neither having lost anything. Then he falls down. Notice that the third base coach touches his shoulder. One of the later replays shows that it was a pretty solid laying on of hand. The runner was off balance, and this is what sent him down, resulting in the final out. That’s something you don’t see every day.
How did this all happen? It was a series of screw-ups of the sort normally associated with nuclear power plant accidents. In order:
(1) The runner from third should have committed one way or the other. Breaking for home when the first baseman threw to the shortstop would be risky, but defensible. A runner on third base should play conservatively when there are no outs, since there will be more chances to bring him home, but more aggressively as outs accumulate. The batted ball had double play inscribed in golden letters upon it. The runner was reasonable in acting on the basis of two outs, rather than none or one. But going down halfway then stopping to admire the action is inexcusable. Decide: run or don’t run. If the latter, make sure you are close enough to the base to get back safely.
(2) The runner from first should have stopped at second. The guy from third, even caught in a rundown, might make it safe. A rundown involves a lot of throwing back and forth, and there is always potential for the ball and/or the runner to get past a fielder. But by taking third, the runner from first makes this far less likely. The catcher doesn’t need to throw the ball; he merely needs to keep between the runner and home plate (and not even really that, since the pitcher presumably is covering home). Had the runner from first stopped at second, the worst case scenario is that there still would be a runner in scoring position. A runner on third with two outs is only slightly better than a runner at second. (Note the third base coach waving at the guy to go back to second.)
(3) The third base coach. WTF? Don’t they teach you in coaching school not to pull your guys off the base? OK, that’s unfair. The guy was off balance, and the coach didn’t realize it. But still. That has to be about the most embarrassing thing a third base coach can possibly do.
On the positive side, the fielding was perfect. I love well-executed fieldwork, perfectly choreographed with everyone going where they are supposed to. This is choreography determined on the fly. It isn’t improvised. These guys are trained for each situation. They don’t have to work out from first principles what they should be doing. But they have to recognize the situation instantly and respond correctly. It is like being given a stack of index cards telling you the proper response for any given situation. You flip through the cards to find the right one. You have half a second to do this.
This play illustrates two peculiarities of baseball. One is that the ball is live unless it is dead. Just because everyone is standing around adjusting themselves doesn’t mean the ball isn’t live. There is a whole class of trick plays based on this. (“Hey, kid. What’s that in your hair? Come over here…”) The second is that baseball is unique among major team sports in that it has people not immediately involved in the game wandering around in the field of play: players not currently involved in the game and coaches and ball girls and security personnel. Sure, they are shoved off to the side in foul territory, but that is still the field of play. Most games have a strictly delineated playing area, and all those other people have no business inside it. Baseball has this weird foul territory: some, but not all, game events can occur in foul territory, and there are personnel and equipment strewn about. Putting these together, we have a situation where the ball is live and a non-player is right in the mix. Wackiness is just bound to ensue. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Yet no one would suggest that the coach had no business being there.
One final weirdness, and this is perhaps the biggest of them all. I had assumed that this play was unique in baseball history, but I performed my due diligence. It turns out that a nearly identical play occurred on August 3, 1955 in a game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Athletics. The difference is that the trailing runner started the play at second, suggesting that the base running was even worse than in the present case. It even ends with the runner from third stepping off the bag. No video, so I don’t know if the coach dragged him off.