The Forgotten Man

The Forgotten Man

September 3, 2023

Ray Knight scored one of the most famous runs in baseball history, jumping onto home plate and into a sea of gleeful Mets teammates to end Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. It was a wild outpouring of joy from a team that played hard and celebrated harder.

But if that same play happened today, the scene would look much different. The Mets would have streamed out of their dugout and, instead of turning left toward home plate, almost certainly sprinted to their right to chase Mookie Wilson, the batter who put the ball in play, slapping his helmet and hugging him tight.

At some point the philosophy of celebrations shifted entirely, with the player who was at bat being the ultimate hero, even if the winning run scored on a fielding error. The one who touches home plate, no matter how dramatic his route to get there, is just the last click of the machine.

“It definitely has changed,” said Ron Darling, a pitcher for the 1986 Mets who is now a broadcaster. “Back then, you wanted to greet the player scoring the winning run. Now you want to reward the guy that does whatever. It’s a 100 percent change.”

With the playoffs set to begin next month, and the regular season synthesizing into its pennant stretches, the trend will be more evident as walk-off celebrations become more jubilant and expressive.

“It’s an electric feeling when it happens,” said CJ Abrams, the Washington Nationals’ shortstop, whose single on July 26 knocked in Dominic Smith for a walk-off win against the Colorado Rockies, igniting a celebration around Abrams. “You celebrate with the guy who puts the exclamation point on it.”

But for years, home plate was a focal point of celebrations for walk-off wins on base hits, bases-loaded walks, sacrifice flies, balks and errors (home runs are a different matter, of course). Back then, teammates piled on the person whose physical action of touching home plate won the game — like a running back scoring a touchdown in overtime or a hockey player sliding the game-winning goal past the goalie.

Sid Bream ended the 1992 National League Championship Series by sliding home on a single by the little-known reserve Francisco Cabrera and was smothered under a pile of his Atlanta teammates. The same went for Ken Griffey Jr. when the Mariners beat the Yankees in the decisive Game 5 of their 1995 American League divisional playoff.

Some Mariners players ran to Edgar Martinez, who had the game-winning hit for Seattle in the 11th inning. But Griffey was nearly lost under a massive mound of teammates, which probably would not happen today. In 2004, Johnny Damon scored the winning run in Game 5 of the A.L.C.S. against the Yankees. Half the Red Sox players went to Damon at home plate and half went to celebrate with David Ortiz, whose bloop single enabled Damon to score.

Today’s baseball teams credit the last person at bat on a winning play — almost regardless of what they did — so much so that they often ignore players whose hustle and instincts on the basepaths were sometimes more consequential.

“I think we all understand how hard it is to get a hit with runners in scoring position in a situation like that,” said Jose Altuve, the Houston Astros’ second baseman, who has been involved in numerous postseason walk-offs. “Any way you get the job done — with a walk, a hit-by-pitch or a home run — you did it, and that’s what we celebrate.”

In an era when analytically driven front offices de-emphasize R.B.I. as a pure statistic, the players still believe in their value. Often, players scoring winning runs — like Dansby Swanson in Game 2 of the 2021 N.L.C.S. with Atlanta — touch the plate and immediately look for the teammate who knocked them in.

Smith, who scored on Abrams’s game-winning single earlier this summer, said there was more value in what Abrams had done because he got the hit and the R.B.I.

“I only got the run,” Smith said. “He had more of a winning play, and that’s why the guys celebrate with him.”

One of the most striking examples happened at the end of Game 4 of the 2020 World Series. Randy Arozarena scored the winning run in the ninth inning after one of the wildest circuits around the bases to end a World Series game. He sprinted from first on a single by Brett Phillips (the ball was booted in the outfield). Arozarena fell down after rounding third base, scrambled to his feet and slid home safely, only because of an error by the Dodgers’ catcher. His play was opportunistic, dramatic and thrilling, and it ignited a raucous celebration. Just not with Arozarena.

As Arozarena lay on his belly, repeatedly tapping home plate with both hands and wearing a smile of delighted surprise on his face, he was completely ignored in the postgame euphoria. Willy Adames, the first teammate on the scene, literally jumped over Arozarena and ran to the outfield to celebrate with Phillips. Brandon Lowe made an almost instinctive, micro-gesture toward Arozarena before running to the outfield, too, as did every other Rays player in the dugout.

“Seeing Randy trip, your heart stopped,” Lowe explained. “But once he scored, we were like, ‘We got to go get Philly.’ I think I gave up halfway trying to catch him.”

Lowe and his fellow Rays chased Phillips across the outfield as the hero evaded them at top speed, his arms carving through the air like airplane wings. That explains part of why the modern celebration focuses on the last player at bat: It is fun to chase teammates around the field.

“If you run to home plate it’s not as dynamic as chasing the guy all over the outfield,” Darling said. “It’s more fun, it’s like you are 10 years old again.”

Jeff Nelson, the former Yankees pitcher who is now a broadcaster, wondered if the stature of the players used to be a factor for home plate celebrations of old. Nelson was in the Mariners bullpen on Oct. 8, 1995, when Griffey, perhaps the most popular and talented player in baseball at the time, scored to beat the Yankees.

“I went straight to home plate to jump on the pile,” Nelson recalled. “Maybe it was because it was Ken Griffey Jr. and all he meant to the team and the city. Maybe if it was someone else, we all would have gone to Edgar.”

Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s general manager, has seen his team celebrate numerous walk-offs in recent years, including in back-to-back games of the 2021 N.L.C.S. on the way to a World Series title. He said only players can fully explain the trend, but he suspects it reflects the modernization of the game.

“I think it’s just the culture now, where players are so much more expressive,” he said. “Back in the day you would never see players pushed around in laundry carts after home runs, or hand signs to the dugouts after hits, or bat flips. Chasing the guy in the outfield after he got the winning hit is part of that.”

Ron Washington, who has been a major league player and manager and is now Atlanta’s third-base coach, has been witness to the transformation.

“In the old days, we gave the guy at the plate his due, and then we would go to the other guy,” Washington said. “Times have changed, players have changed.”

It has even gotten to the point where players will celebrate with a batter who reached on a hit-by-pitch or an error, instead of the daring base runner who hustled all the way home. That happened to Tyler Wade earlier this year, when he was with the Oakland Athletics. Wade scored from second on a fielding error because he never stopped running hard on a grounder hit by JJ Bleday. But no one celebrated with him at home.

“JJ did his job, too, by hustling all the way,” Wade said. “But in those moments, you’re not breaking down the play. Everyone just blacks out and looks for someone to mob.”

That wasn’t the case back in 1986, when Wilson hit the ball that eluded Bill Buckner’s glove at first. Wilson reached first base safely, made the turn to second and then headed toward home to celebrate. He does not remember any teammates running to him.

“If that had been today, I’d probably have a broken leg from all the guys jumping on me,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s different. Just a cultural change. It’s how the young guys do it now.”

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