The Best Play I Ever Made

Share
Share

Luis Gonzalez got all of it.

It was probably the only ball that I thought that I was never going to get to.

The ball came off his bat hard, more like a line-drive than a pop fly. But I didn’t feel like I had a choice. You always run down every ball. My dad taught me that.

So I took off toward right center field.

In the majors, you play so many games in a season that sometimes they all run together. But I remember that game. It was the 1998 season, some time in the late summer. We were below .500 and struggling for a distant chance at a playoff spot. When I got to Tiger Stadium for that day’s game, the reporters all asked me about the same thing: My hitting.

Why do you think you’ve been struggling at the plate lately?

I was coming off three strikeouts in five at-bats the day before. I’d been stuck at 41 home runs for what felt like a month.

Are you in a slump? Are you injured? Tired?

One reporter informed me that I hadn’t homered in over 40 at-bats. I hadn’t really kept track, but that sounded about right. I was cool with the media scrutiny, even if it was a little beside the point. In baseball, you’re only as good as what you’ve done lately. I knew that lesson. Anyway, reporters gotta report. We had another game to play.

I was in a full sprint towards right-center, running straight at the wall where it said 415.

The second deck actually hung over the outfield, jutting out into fair territory so it literally cast a shadow over the warning track.

Luis really got all of this one.

This was the old Tiger Stadium, which turns out to be important to this story. Baseball is one of those rare sports where every playing field is unique. It’s always 90 feet to first and 60 feet, six inches to home plate, but after that, every stadium has a different feel — low outfield walls, Green Monster-size walls, the thin air at Coors, the constant rain in Seattle, dome or no dome.

The old Tiger Stadium was one of those ancient baseball cathedrals. Nothing had been updated for years. It was from another era and you could feel the history: Reggie Jackson blasting one into the light tower, the famous no-hitters, the die-hard fans. But opposing players didn’t always love to come to Detroit. No disrespect, but when you’re on the plane to Detroit, you’d look over at your teammate like, Do we really have to have a four-game series here?

As an outfielder, the Tiger Stadium quirk was its outfield overhang.

The second deck actually hung over the outfield, jutting out into fair territory so it literally cast a shadow over the warning track.

Listen

I took extreme pride in my defense, probably more so than offense

Ken Griffey Jr. describes robbing Luis Gonzalez of a home run in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium during the 1998 season. (1:15)

progressbar

I’ve seen guys climb the wall getting ready to make a catch in Detroit and it’s in the first row because of the overhang. They lose sight of the ball completely, like they were jumping for an invisible home run ball.

That damn overhang.

It didn’t matter, though. Like I said, as a center fielder, you have to have the mentality that every ball hit to you is fair. It’s like a good rebounder in basketball — you have to crash the boards thinking every shot will be a miss. You always run down every ball.

I wasn’t sure if it would hit the overhang or drop just underneath but I strided out toward the fence.

When I got to the wall, I wondered, for that split-second, whether I was risking a triple by jumping for an uncatchable ball. If you miss a catch trying to do something heroic, it could bounce off the wall and result in a triple. In the outfield, I’ll give you a double if I can’t do anything about it. Good hits in the gaps are good hits. But I always hated allowing triples. A triple is embarrassing, so I was really stingy about them.

If you miss a catch trying to do something heroic, it could bounce off the wall and result in a triple. A triple is embarrassing.

My thinking was, You’re not gonna be smiling and dusting off your gloves at third base. Not on me.

Just before I jumped, I still wasn’t sure whether it would hit the overhang, but I left my feet anyway. Jump and decide in the air. When I got to the height of my jump, I realized it wasn’t going to hit the overhang.

So I threw my glove out there and it hit the very tip of my glove and rolled back into my palm.

When I landed, it was a shock to find the ball in there. Jay Buhner was a few feet away yelling, “One, one, one, one!”

That’s part of our job in the outfield, to let the other guys know where to go because everything’s happening so fast. You certainly have an idea of the right throw, but if a base runner is extra fast or gets a great jump, you have rely on good communication. Jay was a great communicator. That’s something fans don’t always see.

Jay ducked as I threw over him towards the cut-off guy. The Tigers had a fast baserunner, a guy named Brian Hunter. I don’t think Brian thought I’d catch it, so by the time he tagged at first, my throw was coming in. We held him.

We had this philosophy in the clubhouse that we referred to as Baseball Gods.

I threw up my hand in the air with two fingers up.

Two out.

Inside, my heart was racing. I was pumped.

But on the outside, it was business as usual. Two fingers to signal two outs. Next play.

On the Mariners, we had this philosophy in the clubhouse that we referred to as Baseball Gods. Maybe it was more of a superstition than a philosophy. When someone referred to Baseball Gods, we were acknowledging that this game will make you feel human really fast: Never get too high on yourself and never get too low. It was reminder that you’re never as bad as they say you are and never as good as you think you are. You might say it was something like karma.

What if after my catch, the next ball was hit to me and I was still feeling myself from the previous play? What if the ball hit off the wall and resulted in extra bases? Fans would say, He thinks he’s above the game. He ain’t ready.

So whenever I would make a good play, I tried to get back into baseball mode. A little celebration is great and it’s a different formula for every player. For me, I had to keep my emotions locked inside until after the inning or after the game. Inside, I knew the Baseball Gods were telling me, Good play. Now focus on the next one.

After the game where I caught Luis’ ball, the reporters gathered around my locker. They all wanted to ask me about the catch.

It was a nice little break from questions about my hitting. I had been stuck at 41 home runs for a few weeks and all the talk in recent games had been about how many I would end up with by the end of the season.

Baseball is a statistics-obsessed sport, so it makes sense that hitting is easier to understand than fielding. It’s more glamorous, that’s for sure. There’s no real stat in baseball for robbing guys of home runs — there’s no list of Hall of Fame names you get to pass for that.

If I had robbed 630 people of home runs, maybe it would be different.

I loved those home runs. I loved every one that I got to watch sail over the fence.

If you ask me about the most memorable play I ever made, it’s probably going back-to-back home runs. But my best play? That happened at the 415-foot mark, just below the Tiger Stadium overhang. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the ball rolling back into my palm.

Griffey_Sig

Field Notes: Ken Griffey Jr.

I do miss running into an outfield wall. I don't miss what comes after running into an outfield wall.

Read More