Baseball History and Personal Significance

August 24, 2009 | 30 comments
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Yesterday, baseball history was marked when the Phillies’ Eric Bruntlett recorded the rarest play in the game–the unassisted triple play. If you think about it, there is a bit of a life lesson in this.

The unassisted triple play is the only event in baseball that is more rare than a perfect game. But afficionados of the sport aren’t, or should not be, as impressed with Bruntlett’s accomplisment as they would be with a perfect game. The unassisted triple play is as much about circumstance than anything else, while the perfect game is much more about the player’s performance.

Too often in life we honor, or give fame to, those who have happened into a particular circumstance. Victims of a natural disaster or an accident, or even of crime usually just happened to be at the location that gave them their notoriety. In contrast, others who gain notoriety (and too often some who do not, but deserve that notoriety) have made extraordinary efforts in their field. [And this even ignores those who cheated in making their efforts--but that is perhaps another post.]

What perplexes me is that our society seems unable at times to distinguish between these two–between those who have benefitted mostly from circumstance, and those who have made extraordinary efforts.

We are wise to make a better distinction between the two.

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30 Responses to Baseball History and Personal Significance

  1. Ardis Parshall on August 24, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Maybe so, and I very much like your illustration of the principle. Still, I can’t help but be awed by people who seized the opportunity when circumstances afforded it, and especially those heroes who rose to the occasion when horrific circumstances gave them a chance to prove what they were made of. Maybe all of us really, truly would run through the fire to save a child — or complete the unassisted triple play — but my hat’s off to the one who actually proved he was up to the challenge!

    Meanwhile, I’ll go back to plodding along at the mundane, hoping that it will someday add up to an extraordinary effort worth recognition.

    Thanks, Kent.

  2. Reeder on August 24, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, II.v).

  3. Matt W. on August 24, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    I was about to say something, but Ardis said it already.

  4. queuno on August 24, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Shouldn’t we take away some of Bruntlett’s cred by acknowledging that he helped put a runner on base through his own error?

    This is like Elway getting the Broncos behind, then rallying them in the 4th quarter…

  5. Zack on August 24, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    WOOOO!!!! Go Phillies!

    (No profound commentary . I just love to see my internet reading merge like this.)

  6. queuno on August 24, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Or look at this from the angle of “While You Were Sleeping”:

    Peter: Remember the squirrels?
    Jack: Don’t even say it.
    Peter: First I knocked them out of their nest with a rock.
    Jack: Peter!
    Peter: Then I saved them.

  7. Tatiana on August 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    I’m confused about how an unassisted triple play works. Can someone explain it to me? I’m not a baseball fan so it’s probably something obvious to everyone but me.

    The first out is when he catches the line drive, correct?
    Then the second out is when he steps on second base, which the runner on second had left and was supposed to come back to because it was a fly ball?
    Then the third out is when he tagged the runner who was on first base and was running toward second? That runner would have been trying to get back to first, right? Because he has to touch the base he was on AFTER the fielder catches the ball before he can advance to the next base. Is this correct?

    Wikipedia said the runner who was on first base was trying to get to second before he was tagged, which didn’t make sense to me. That runner was actually trying to turn around and go back to first when he got tagged, correct?

    This is confusing me and I want to make sure I have it straight. if someone who knows about baseball will explain it to me, I’d appreciate it.

  8. Kent Larsen on August 24, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Tatiana, you have the idea. There are variations on the triple play, but you have it right for this case.

    The runner coming from first simply didn’t have enough time to realize that he had to go back to first (it didn’t look to me like he realized that the ball didn’t get past the second baseman). Bruntlett did have to run after him briefly.

    You might benefit from watching the video of the play, available on all the major sports websites (espn, cbssports, mlb.com, etc.).

  9. Kari on August 25, 2009 at 12:12 am

    The unassisted triple play is the only event in baseball that is more rare than a perfect game. But afficionados of the sport aren’t, or should not be, as impressed with Bruntlett’s accomplisment as they would be with a perfect game. The unassisted triple play is as much about circumstance than anything else, while the perfect game is much more about the player’s performance.
    [emphasis added]

    While the unassisted triple play is in large part a perfect combination of circumstances (line drive, no outs, runners going on the pitch), too many people are willing to claim it is all about circumstances. Bruntlett was in the right position to make the play. If he had been playing further towards first for the left-handed batter, Jeff Francoeur, he may not have been able to make it back to the middle to catch the line drive. He also made the catch; the sharply hit line-drive didn’t go off the heel of his glove or skip off the end of the webbing. He was prepared to take action when given the right circumstances.

    And too often we want to ascribe a perfect game to being all about one player’s performance, when in reality it is very much a result of circumstance as well. While the pitcher’s performance is a significant part of a perfect game; it’s not the sole part. Very frequently the pitcher has had to rely on great defensive play by the other eight players on the team. One necessary part of a perfect game is no errors; unless every batted ball is hit back to the pitcher while he’s running towards first base, that means his teammates have done a decent job in the field. It’s a result of the circumstances presented to the pitcher by his teammates.

    I think a better life lesson is that we would be wise to recognize that life is a combination of both circumstance and ability, and rarely the sole result of one or the other.

  10. Tatiana on August 25, 2009 at 4:10 am

    Thanks, Kent, I watched it several times trying to figure it out. My confusion came from Wikipedia’s mistakenly saying the runner from first was trying to make it to second before he was tagged. Wikipedia can be wrong? This is most disturbing! :-P

  11. rb on August 25, 2009 at 5:23 am

    Bruntlett was only in the right position because of Jerry Manual’s decision to send the runners. Bruntlett was going to cover second base for the throw on the steal. But for that, Bruntlett would not have been in position for the unassisted TP. In effect, he was brought to that point by the opposing manager’s strategy and his reaction to the baserunners. Just like in life, sometimes we react to what others do and find ourselves in fortunate and, at times, unfortunate circumstances.

    Interesting thoughts on the OP. I have to confess I read it yesterday afternoon and cribbed the idea/thought for part of last night’s FHE.

  12. Mark B. on August 25, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Tatiana,

    The runner had left first base before the ball was hit (I didn’t see the play, but it sounds as if it were a “hit and run” play, where the two base runners left as the pitcher threw the ball to the plate) and was of course trying to get to second, until he saw Bruntlett catch the ball, at which point he had to turn around and get back to first–but it was too late, and his momentum carried him right into Bruntlett’s arms, so to speak.

    The play couldn’t have happened without Bruntlett, but my mother, who’s nearly 85, could probably have made the play. (Well, maybe not this year.) Since he was covering second on the play, he happened to run into the ball that Francoeur hit, and, after he caught it, touching second and tagging the base runner coming from first was simple.

    The pitcher’s contribution to the perfect game is much, much more important. If the pitcher has lousy stuff, the batters will hit it all around the park, and no amount of stellar fielding would save him.

  13. TStevens on August 25, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Be watching for something even MORE rare tonight, the Twins winning a game while I am in attendance. They are 0-6 with me there.

    And I think I heard BKP discussing this very topic yesterday. Something about just because it’s rare, doesn’t mean it’s historic.

  14. Eric Boysen on August 25, 2009 at 8:21 am

    It is historic if it is rare and has meaning, and each of us can determine if we want want to ascribe meaning.

  15. Left Field on August 25, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Last year on a visit to Columbus, Ohio, my son and I went to a game at Jacob’s Field (or whatever it was called that year), and then made a pilgrimage to League Park. We walked out to what as near as we could determine was the exact location of Bill Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series.

  16. Kent Larsen on August 25, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Eric (14) I’m not sure that it is true that we “can determine if we want to ascribe meaning.” That sounds kind of relativistic. While that may be true for some things, judgment does neet to have a relationship with reality. We can’t just decide we want to “ascribe meaning” to something that doesn’t support that meaning.

    I think this bears a lot on what Kari (9) is saying about how nothing is 100% circumstance or 100% performance. That is true, but we need to recognize the reality of this particular situation. An unassisted triple play is relatively highly dependent on circumstance–much closer to 100% than most of what happens in baseball. A perfect game, in contrast, depends very highly on performance — much more so than most things that can happen in a single baseball game.

    The point here isn’t that anything is 100% circumstance or 100% performance. Its that we do need to use judgment and recognize performance over circumstance.

  17. Wally on August 25, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    I’m sending the pointy haired manager a link to this before my next review.

  18. Bob on August 25, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    I agree with you post, well said. I will add (as you opened up Baseball): also honor history. If the ball is over the baseman’s head, he will/should fake a catch to force the runner from first to slide. As players have done this in the past, the runner is not sure what is happening, and this makes it easier if he really does catch the ball.
    Also, triple plays are only rare in the major leagues. There are plenty in youth baseball. I called one when the last runner was tagged out in his dugout!

  19. Dave Kitchen on August 26, 2009 at 10:56 am

    I agree with the overall baseball conclusion and application to life in general. Perhaps you could have also explained that the majority of players on the field have no realistic possibility of ever performing the feat simply because of the position they play.

    One thing more to note about how unique this play was. To my knowledge, this was the first WALK-OFF unassisted triple play in baseball history. And it was done by the visiting team to boot.

  20. Bob on August 26, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    #19: My son did one playing 1st base, when he ran down a runner who was trying to score, but then was trying to get back to 3rd base.

  21. Vader on August 26, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I find it curious that the chance winner attracts so much public attention. It used to be that the fellow who made good through hard work and virtue was held up as an example, particularly to children.

    I think that says something about our society. Something not good.

  22. Dave Kitchen on August 26, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    #20: 1B is one of the tougher, but still possible positions to perform the feat. OF is neigh impossible. That is if you’re playing the game right. In little league all kinds of things are possible (even common) which don’t happen in the majors. Thats one reason its more fun to watch, IMO.

  23. Kari on August 26, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    #19 – it was the second game ending triple play in MLB history.

  24. Bob on August 26, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    @22: ” More fun to watch.” But not to umpire. (Or score kept).

  25. Bob on August 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    #21: In the 19th Century, character was rated higher in ‘picking’ your man or woman than their personality.

  26. Kent Larsen on August 26, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    #25: or what they looked like and how they dressed.

  27. Kari on August 26, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    #24 – Who in their right mind even attempts to score little league games. That would be a complete exercise in futility, and no kid needs to know how many errors he made.

  28. Bob on August 26, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    #27: No errors are scored in Little League. What I would do is leave it blank to protect the Pitcher’s ” no hitter’ record until he was ‘hit’. Then score the ‘error’ as a hit for the batter.
    All games must be scored by League rules.
    You are right…I was out of my mind to let anyone know I could keep score.

  29. Dirk Anderson on September 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    The runners on second and third took off to steal their respective next bases as the pitcher went into his motion . . . this is another circumstance that made the unassisted triple play possible . . . this is why the runner coming from first was so close to second base so quickly. If he had not been stealing second, he would not have been that close, and Bruntlett couldn’t have tagged him so easily. Also, Bruntlett could have just thrown the ball back to first base if that runner had not “tagged up.” Hopefully this adds some insight . . .

  30. Dirk Anderson on September 1, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Last week, some pitcher was in a bases loaded situation. He threw a wild pitch, and all three basemen advanced one base, leaving runners on second and third. On the next pitch, the batter hit a home run. I remember thinking how it would have been better for the batter to hit a grand slam if only the previous pitch had not been wild . . . However, when thinking of the overall good for the team, the same number of runs scored, and maybe without the pitcher taking “something off” the home run pitch . . . maybe the batter wouldn’t have been able to hit that home run.