This article is an excuse to watch the Adam Jones catch over and over and over again. Know that going in. I will write words, and some of them might humor you briefly. Nothing will be as good as this catch.
It’s perfectly acceptable to pretend that you read the rest of the words and watch the catch again before closing the tab. This is a judgment-free zone. I would have done the same. However, if there’s room at the end — and there is — I’ll slip in a Giancarlo Stanton home run that began as a baseball and ended as a pulsing orb of pure mercury. So maybe scroll down before you close the tab?
I’m not going to pretend that the Adam Jones catch was the greatest I’ve ever seen, or that it single-handedly allowed the United States to continue playing in the World Baseball Classic, but I am getting a print of the catch and hanging it in my dining room. Specifically, a print of this:
I’ll have to make room.
But look at that baseball catch. This is the perfect time to acknowledge just how beautiful over-the-wall robberies are. They are exhibitions of raw talent and pure athleticism, but they’re also the timing and luck that baseball is made from. Over-the-wall catches are baseball, then. They’re a combination of skill and luck, and that’s the same description that every championship team since the 1998 Yankees could use.
Is that laying it on too thick?
Fine, fine. But over-the-wall grabs are a beguiling mix of skill and fortune, and it’s worth looking at what makes them so great. What are the ingredients to catch a baseball like Adam Jones did?
The height of the wall
In 348 years, there will be a player who takes a home run away from the Green Monster in Fenway Park. The fielder will Assassin’s Creed up the wall, and the baseball world will go bananas for a week or so. Then someone else will do it soon after, and then there will be a catch like that every year for the indefinite future. It will become normal. And we’ll all be dead and unable to register our amazement. Everyone was gnarled and 5’4” back when baseball was invented, and we’re too dumb to imagine someone robbing a homer from the Green Monster.
The center field wall at Petco was perfect for our generation, though. It’s a sneaky-great wall for a dinger-theft.
The wall can’t come up too high. If the wall goes too low, that’s fine and fun, but it’s not nearly as difficult for the fielder. It’s not nearly as pretty for the audiences. You want the Spider-Man illusion. You want that feeling of wonder that audiences had watching 2001 the first time, when the astronaut jogged around the danged space station like gravity didn’t apply to him, which it didn’t.
You want the ribs to be above the top of the fence, or close to it, when a player gives up his corporeal form to make this catch.
Nails it. If there’s a complaint with the greatest homer-robbery in recent history, it’s that it was too superhuman. The wall was too high, which forced your brain to normalize it immediately. Watch the linked video and listen to the radio call, the second one. That’s the call of an announcer who was duly impressed but couldn’t quite believe what he just saw, so he played it cool.
The short-ish fence of Petco helped the aesthetics a ton. Consider this brilliant Jarrod Dyson catch from last season, which is every bit as great as Jones’ catch, if not even a little superior:
Just a brilliant catch. But it’s hard to put the athleticism of Dyson into the proper perspective. There’s a giant green wall, and his arm just gets over it. There’s a flummoxing hedge maze behind him, which makes him see small in comparison.
No, Jones had to catch that ball at a park like Petco to get this kind of lasting reception. It’s all about the size of the wall.
The dimensions of the ballpark
Ah, but it can’t be a short porch. It can be a six-foot wall, and hopefully it is, but it can’t be 300 feet from home. There’s no time for an outfielder to run back in those situations.
What Petco Park had for Adam Jones, then, was a center field that was deep, but not too deep. He had ground to cover, and that’s worth style points, and he had a fence to scale, which is also worth style points.
This works a couple ways. Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series is famous because of just how far he had to run, not because it was a clear home run robber.
Really, I’m not sure if anyone has ever hit it out of dead-center of the Polo Grounds.
Why would I google that, what is wrong with this place, anyway, it was almost 500 feet to dead center in the Polo Grounds. Mays went back and back some more, and that’s what made the play special. There weren’t any dinger-thefts in the ol’ Polo Grounds. Just a lot of running.
In Petco, outfielders can play deep, or they can play shallow, but they can probably reach the wall if the potential dinger is hit high enough. Which it usually is.
The ball being right there at that moment
This is the most important, and the most obvious, part. The timing. You watch a lot of homers go over the fence every year. You watch outfielders chase them and leap, and it never works when you’re watching. Yet you know it’s possible. You know they can bring the homer back, and that you can watch the cosmic baseball tumblers click into place. You can be a part of it.
My analogy is this: I’ve spent maybe 2,000 hours of my life playing Baseball Stars for the NES. I can enter cheat codes to build my team from memory to this day, and I can still tell you the lineup of the SNK Crushers.
I never did this, not once.
It’s not just me being inept, which was absolutely the case, but none of my friends robbed one of my home runs, either. The combination of the ball being right there and the fielder being right there and the requirement to push the danged A button at exactly the right moment. It was a complicated ballet, and I knew it was possible, but it never happened for me.
The ball in that game goes, like, one of 18 places. And it was still impossible to rob a homer.
In the real world, we’re talking about Jones because Manny Machado didn’t hit the ball an eighth of a millimeter up his bat. Because the winds weren’t swirling, or because they were just swirling enough. Because the catcher called for a fastball instead of a change. It all conspired to get Jones on that wall. Tyler Clippard wanted him on that wall. He needed him on that wall.
We see a few of these catches every year, and there will probably be a better one than this in 2017. I don’t want to be cynical, but we’ll almost certainly see a more impressive one — just in terms of physical skill and timing — before the postseason. Probably from Mike Trout, who has a brand to maintain.
The lesson, though, is to treasure each and every one. It takes the right fence, the right ballpark, the right timing, and, of course, the right ballplayer. This is true for each and every robbed home run, and it always will be.
The next time you see a robbed dinger, though, think about just how many wheels of the slot machine had to click into place. It didn’t have to be like that. But for the outfielder, and for you, who happened to be watching, it all worked out. And, my stars, it’s fun that it did.
Also in that game, Giancarlo Stanton hit a home run on a pitch that began as a baseball and ended as a pulsing orb of pure mercury.
That also seems important. But if you wanted to watch the Jones catch again, I wouldn’t blame you.