Pirates in a pickle between 1st and home?

Mudcat Grant

Pirates
Courtesy of MLB.com

Even if you don’t follow baseball, you may remember the May 27, 2021 game between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the top of the third inning. Wilson Contrares of the Cubs gets a single and stole second base. With two outs, Javy Baez hits the ball to third baseman Erik Gonzalez. He throws to first baseman Will Craig, a little offline, but in plenty of time.

All Craig has to do is step on first base and the inning is over. But Baez stops running towards first and instead heads back towards home plate, gingerly evading Craig’s tag. Meanwhile, the runner Contrares is heading toward home. Craig flips the ball to the catcher, Michael Perez, but not in time to tag the sliding Contrares.

Now Baez runs to first. There’s no one there. Second baseman Adam Frazier is running over to cover the bag, but Perez’s throw is offline, and Baez ends up on second base. Perez is initially charged with an error though it is later attributed to Craig. The next batter, Ian Happ, drives Baez home.

Much was made of the fact that Craig could have just touch first, and rightly so. On CBS This Morning, Gayle King tried to mitigate his mistake, but co-host Anthony Mason was having none of it. “He gets paid to do that.” True enough. But, more than that, virtually any Little Leaguer or college player or minor leaguer would have known this.

Baseball in the headlines

This is why I love the story. Baseball, even though it’s probably not the National Pastime, was in the spotlight. Almost any fan would recognize what to do in the situation. My wife was reading a YA novel, Six Innings by James Preller. She doesn’t always understand the jargon that Preller uses – “stayed in the park,” e.g. Yet I am confident my wife would have just tagged first base.

BTW, if Craig had not tried to toss the ball to the catcher Perez, he could have just ignored Contrares and tagged Baez, because the batter can’t touch home plate in this situation, lest he is declared automatically out. Even though the runner Contrares reached home, his run would not have counted.

Rule 5.08 states: “No run shall score during a play in which the third out is made by the batter-runner before he touches first base.” This is unambiguous. Also, if the second baseman Frazier had covered first base sooner, Perez’s throw probably gets Baez, and the inning ends with no runs scored, instead of two.

Not incidentally, The Cubs won the game by two runs, 5-3. The play is #1 on the list of the Top 50 Plays of the First Half! (2021 MLB Highlights). Writers from both the New Zealand Herald and Slate called it the worst baseball play they’ve ever seen.

Will Craig was sent back to the minor leagues and was eventually released; he’s reportedly going to play baseball in Korea. Baez was traded to the New York Mets. Meanwhile, Frazier, an All-Star, was traded to the San Diego Padres for three players. This sort of thing happens when a team is last in its division, as the Pirates are, unfortunately.   

Mudcat

Jim “Mudcat” Grant, American League’s first Black 20-game winner, died in June at 85. He was a starter for Cleveland and Minnesota, then a reliever, with the Oakland A’s and the Pirates.

“By his account, Jim Grant acquired his nickname at an Indians tryout camp in 1954 through a combination of racial stereotyping and disregard for his geographical roots. Mudcat was the informal name given to large catfish found in muddy streams, especially in the Mississippi Delta, though Mr. Grant was born and raised in Florida.

“’In those days, they thought all Black folk was from Mississippi,’ he once told the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. ‘They started calling me Mississippi Mudcat. I said, ‘I’m not from Mississippi,’ and they said, ‘You’re still a Mississippi Mudcat.’ And it’s been very good to me.’

“Mr. Grant’s experiences with racism and his interest in Black history inspired him to write ‘The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners” (2006),…a collaboration with Tom Sabellico and Pat O’Brien.”