Episode 61 — Chapter 69
Thursday April 22
New York at Atlanta
In the bottom of the first inning, Cobb came to the plate against the visiting New York Mets, after Adams had reached on an error.
Make contact… Don’t overswing… follow through… nice, fluid motion…
The slider was belt-high and outside, Cobb swung and made contact on the bat’s sweet spot. To his shock and the surprise of the large Friday night crowd, the ball cleared the opposite field fence for a two-run home run. It was a giddy feeling circling the bases and witnessing the partisan fans whooping and hollering. Cobb had to remind himself again to resist the temptation of going for the long ball; hadn’t he, in this instance, maintained plate discipline and still been rewarded?
As he entered the dugout after the circuit blast, the vast majority of his teammates continued to ignore him as he passed by. On the near side of the dugout, a few feet from Carpenter, sat a clique of several Hispanics and blacks, plus the Caucasian Karras and Rhodes. Gates was their ringleader, although he was currently batting. Walking past, Cobb received the usual treatment he had come to expect from them: lowering of voices and snickering, letting him know that he was the subject of their ridicule or conspiratorial plotting. Cobb paid them no heed and walked to his usual spot on the far side of the dugout. He didn’t need their support or friendship. To hell with them all!
The Mets scored single runs in the third and fifth innings, and by the ninth inning the score remained knotted at two runs a piece.
Cobb led off the bottom of the ninth with a perfectly executed bunt single down the first base line against Mets closer, Lance Crenshaw. Cobb looked for the steal sign at first base, but with DeMarcus Gates at the plate, no sign was forthcoming. Gates flied out to shallow centerfield, with catcher Ham Permak due up next. Although Permak had started the season well, he had fallen on tough times since. He flailed weakly at a couple of pitches, taking a called third strike on a full count pitch that was in the heart of the strike zone. Now with two outs, Cobb stared down the third base coach, demanding a steal sign.
Crenshaw’s delivery was slow and deliberate and his most effective pitches were off-speed ones. Although a lefthander, he was particularly vulnerable to the stolen base. Cobb was convinced that Carpenter did not want him to showcase his talents; in the previous four games, Cobb had reached first base three separate times when the steal sign should have been given, in his judgment. He felt like a prisoner on the base paths. In his early days with the Tigers, he reminisced how Armour had soon given him the green light to steal whenever he felt he could succeed.
Frustrated and rebellious, Cobb refused to wait for the steal sign. The game was on the line and he needed to be bold, regardless of the consequences he might have to face later. If he succeeded, Carpenter would be forced to acknowledge his baseball aptitude and speed. Bolt would have his back; it was clear to Cobb that nothing mattered more to Bolt than winning.
On the second pitch to Arnold Winston, Cobb took off for second base. The Mets’ catcher, with an excellent arm, hurried the throw but Cobb barely beat the tag.
Caught off guard by the unauthorized steal, Carpenter became incensed. He jumped up—spit out the vile mixture of sunflower seeds and chewing gum—and stomped up the steps of the dugout to remove Cobb from the game. No sooner had Carpenter stepped onto the field than he heard the ear-shattering applause from 36,000 spectators. But it was the loud chant of “Ty Cobb” which stopped him dead in his tracks ten feet from the dugout. He realized that if he took on all the fans, he would incur their wrath. Impugning Cobb’s parentage under his breath, the manager retreated back to his spot inside the dugout, steaming; he would wait until the Braves were retired before ejecting Cobb from the game.
The count on the right-handed hitting Winston was one ball and one strike. Cobb took a large lead off second. Crenshaw paid him little heed, confident that the runner would be content with one stolen base. On the next pitch, after the pitcher’s second cursory glance, Cobb exploded toward third. Surprised by Cobb’s break toward third base in his line of vision, the stunned Winston let a razor-close pitch go for Ball Two. This time, the young catcher lost the handle on the ball and wisely chose not to make a throw. Cobb was safe at third and the stadium was on the verge of pandemonium.
In the dugout, Carpenter gyrated in convulsions, screaming and gesturing wildly at Cobb. Everyone on the team knew that Cobb had not received the steal sign—only the fans were oblivious to that fact. Carpenter sensed his control over the team ebbing and his face turned red in humiliation. This offense would not only lead to Cobb’s removal from the game, but also his indefinite suspension for insubordination. The manager bit his lip, restraining himself from running out onto the field and yanking Cobb out of the game.
With Cobb perched on third base, the Mets’ skipper walked to the mound, congregating with the pitcher, catcher and infielders. The crowd, by this time, was resonating with such force that it was difficult for the manager and players to communicate. With the count 2 and 1 on Winston, the consensus was to keep the ball away from Winston and pitch to Burnham.
Cobb took several steps off third as the catcher signaled for the ball a foot outside the strike zone. Cobb began jogging toward the plate, his arms swaying back and forth, as the pitcher went into motion. Cobb put on the breaks as the pitch arrived home and scampered back to third. Cobb had noticed that Crenshaw’s pattern was to take two looks at the runner and then throw home. True to his custom, Crenshaw glanced twice at Cobb and then threw home.
3 and 1.
Cobb was well aware that the next hitter, Burnham, hadn’t connected on a base hit in nearly a week and was nearly a certain out the way he had been flailing at the plate lately. To Cobb’s surprise, there was no indication that Carpenter planned to pinch-hit for Burnham, since Burnham remained in the on-deck circle warming up.
Crenshaw received the ball back from the catcher. Cobb again took his exaggerated lead at third base. The fans continued their thunderous racket—standing, stomping and screaming.
Crenshaw looked over at Cobb.
Crenshaw’s face turned to the catcher.
Crenshaw looked at Cobb a second time and then back to the catcher, as Cobb began his slow jog toward home, not quite to the point of no return.
The moment that Crenshaw turned his back, Cobb burst into a feverish sprint toward pay dirt, his legs hitting the ground like the pistons in a racecar engine entering redline. In the din, Crenshaw failed to hear his catcher’s screams to hurry the pitch and was confused by his catcher’s exaggerated gestures to throw the pitch over the plate. Crenshaw, instead, aimed the pitch outside where the catcher had originally set up. Winston, seeing the pitch coming outside again, began to release the bat as his peripheral vision caught sight of his teammate surging home from third, causing Winston to back away from the plate.
Cobb began his slide just as the Mets’ catcher caught the outside pitch, off-balance. Diving back to attempt to tag Cobb, he was too late. The umpire’s signal of Safe caused a decibel detonation of nuclear proportions. The fans were in enraptured delirium as the screaming and stomping crescendoed beyond ear-shattering levels.
A walk-off steal of home!
Had it ever happened before in the history of baseball?
Atlanta fans hadn’t experienced such a collective joyous celebration in years. Above the uproar, the chant began again to fill the stadium: “Ty Cobb! Ty Cobb! Ty Cobb!…”
Laying on his side with his right foot still on home plate, Cobb took his sweet time getting to his feet. No one wanted to leave the stadium. No one believed what they had seen. Cobb stood up and began dusting the dirt from his uniform, looked up at the fans cheering behind home plate and doffed his cap. Prolonging the experience, Cobb sauntered slowly toward the dugout, milking the ovation. Just before entering the dugout, he removed his cap again and held it up, as the crowd’s cheering intensified.
Carpenter was conspicuous in his absence in the dugout and Cobb noticed several of his teammates smiling and nodding. He also saw sneers, but they seemed directed more toward someone else; then it dawned on him, they were laughing at Carpenter.
The pandemonium in the stadium would not let up until Cobb finally exited the dugout a second time and then a third, waving his cap high in the air each time.
On his final return to the dugout, Cobb was mildly surprised when the veteran, Arnold Winston—who had been indifferent to his presence—gave him a tap on the rear and uttered, “Gutsy play!”
Cobb’s eyes suddenly made contact with Carpenter, who seemed to reappear in dugout from nowhere.
“You back-stabbing sonofabitch. You just lost your ticket to the majors!” It hadn’t been the reaction Cobb had expected. To Cobb, winning was everything and he assumed it to be the same with everyone else. If taking matters into one’s one hands was necessary to win a game, it should be applauded, not vilified.
“You’re suspended—immediately! Clean out your locker. I don’t want to see your freaking mug around here a second longer!”
Smiling back arrogantly, Cobb responded in a friendly tone, “Sure skip… See ya tomorrow,” as he walked toward the locker room.