10/22/2003 1:34 PM ET
Power steals speed's threat
Stolen bases continue to decrease in homer-happy era
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
Roberto Alomar was able to distract opposing pitchers at the plate and on the bases. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
CHICAGO -- Remember the stolen base?
There was a time when the quick dart from first to second or second to third led to almost as many runs scored in Major League Baseball as the 500-foot home run, with the requisite choreographed routine as the ball sailed out of the park.
A player reached first base via a hit or a walk, bothered the pitcher during four or five pickoff attempts and then took off for second. One sacrifice bunt and one sacrifice fly later, and the team had manufactured a run.
But when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa started peppering outfield fans with 60-70 home runs per season in 1998, the stolen base slipped into the background. Some veteran players believe it’s the age of instant gratification and increased television coverage that has led to the change more than the lively baseball.
“When you watch ESPN, they are always showing highlights of the long balls,” said Julio Cruz, who finished with 343 stolen bases in 10 seasons, including a four-year stint with the White Sox. “They no longer show guys stealing a base because who wants to see it anyway?
“It’s such a lost art, and that’s really a shame. But who knows -- this game might evolve and come back to the stolen base.”
"Stealing bases just doesn’t seem like an important part of the game anymore. We basically lived for stealing bases and scoring runs. ... Too much of anything is not good for a team. You become too one-dimensional and easier to shut down."
-- Rudy Law
Cruz joined the White Sox a little over 60 games into the 1983 season, providing one of the needed sparks to turn around a slow start and push the South Siders to the American League West title and the postseason. The fiery second baseman arrived in Chicago with 33 stolen bases behind him at Seattle and added 24 more for the White Sox in 99 games.
His total was a distant second to Rudy Law’s 77, the single-season franchise record to this day. The White Sox had all of 77 stolen bases as a team in 2003.
The 1983 squad, dubbed “Winning Ugly,” had its share of sluggers who could clear the roof at old Comiskey Park, players such as Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and Ron Kittle. They also had starters such as Law and Cruz who could run the bases aggressively and apply constant pressure.
“We had (Jerry) Dybzinski, who could run a little bit, and if you didn’t hold Pudge (Fisk), he would run,” said Britt Burns, a starting pitcher on the 1983 squad who benefited from the team’s aggressiveness. “Guys like Cruz and Law really made things happen.
“They made opposing pitchers rush. They would have those guys on base, get distracted and they weren’t quite as focused with their next pitch.
“Freddy Gonzalez, the third base coach with the Braves, once told me that speed never goes into a slump,” Burns added with a laugh. “I’m a big fan of speed. I’m a big fan of the guys up the middle who can fly.”
The 2003 version of the White Sox was built on power, with walk-off thrillers delivered by Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez and others, leading to a single-season record of 220 home runs. But when they weren’t going deep or making solid contact consistently, the White Sox looked unnecessarily lethargic against pitchers who appeared to be infinitely beatable.
That approach changed slightly with the July acquisitions of Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett. While Alomar didn’t steal 45 or 50 bases, as he did four times prior during his 16-year career, the fleet-footed second baseman used his guile at the top of the order to disrupt the opposing pitcher with a well-placed bunt or a stolen base that set up a few mistake pitches for the power hitters behind him.
Everett, who claimed he never had the chance to run at other American League stops in Boston and Texas, swiped the occasional base but also provided a solid combination of power and speed that most teams seek. In 11 seasons, Everett has topped 100 home runs and 100 stolen bases.
Carlos Lee led the White Sox with 18 stolen bases, all but two coming in the second half. It’s an individual total that could have ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack on teams 10 or 12 years ago, when the league leaders were regularly posting 75 to 90 steals per season.
In 2003, Lee finished four behind Adam Kennedy for a spot in the American League Top 10.
The Florida Marlins brought back speed into the limelight, trying to become the first team to lead the Major Leagues in stolen bases and win the World Series in the same season in almost four decades. It could influence how other teams approach the game in years to come.
White Sox general manager Kenny Williams hopes to address that topic for 2004 with free-agent signings tailored toward ‘grinders’ instead of the best player available during the current offseason. The long ball will still power the South Siders, but taking the extra base as opposed to continuously rounding the bases could lead to an appearance in the postseason.
“Stealing bases just doesn’t seem like an important part of the game anymore,” said Law, who had 228 stolen bases in seven seasons. “We basically lived for stealing bases and scoring runs. But a little bit of base running and power provides a good combination -- that’s what you really want.
“Too much of anything is not good for a team,” Law added. “You become too one-dimensional and easier to shut down.”
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