Ive seen a lot of baseball in my 33 years. Ive been to seven big-league parks and spent countless hours at Tim McCarver Stadium and AutoZone Park. Less than a month ago -- May 21st to be exact -- I saw one of the five greatest plays Ive ever seen live. (And yes, it was so good its worth sharing with you several days after the fact.) Happened at the Zone during a game between the Redbirds and the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. The player didnt dive to make this play. He didnt leap above the outfield wall to rob his opponent of a home run. He didnt even have to make a throw on the play. But again, it was one of the five greatest defensive plays Ive ever seen, and should stay on that list for a long, long time.
In the top of the ninth inning, with one out and Memphis clinging to a 4-3 lead, Jose Rodriguez coaxed the Sky Sox batter into a popup in foul territory, shortly behind and to the right of the first-base bag. Redbirds first baseman Ivan Cruz shuffled into position, raised his glove . . . and dropped the ball. Out two.
How the second out, you ask? Because Stubby Clapp was there to catch the misplay. Hustling over from his second base position, Clapp was a few feet to Cruzs right as this seemingly routine play developed. He snagged the ball inches before it landed on the grass. It was a play that 99.9 percent of all second basemen -- including the 30 regulars in the major leagues -- would go through the motions on, take a few steps toward where the ball will fall, maybe shout out right there! when he feels his teammate is in the proper position . . . and likely turn away as the misplayed ball reaches the turf. Not Stubby Clapp.
Keep in mind, the bases were empty on this play, the easiest time during a game for a defensive player to go on autopilot. No major repercussions if a foul ball isnt caught, right? Wrong. That ball isnt caught, who knows? Instead of Colorado Springs being down to their last out -- still trailing and with no one on base -- the Sky Sox have at least two swings to tie the game. Considering the lift Clapps play gave the entire stadium -- particularly those wearing cardinals on their chests -- that final out became merely academic.
As I was extolling this play recently, a friend told me that if this was one of the five greatest plays Ive ever seen, well, Im easily pleased. Maybe so. I dont want to take anything away from the brilliance of men like Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith. Their athleticism, agility, cunning even, in mastering their positions has made millions of jaws slack. But there remains something to be said for playing the game of baseball a step ahead of the pack . . . not with your feet, but between your ears.
The only other time Ive seen the kind of play Stubby made that Tuesday night was during the 1980 World Series. If you dont remember the play, you certainly remember the player. Guy by the name of Rose. On a misplayed foul pop by Phillies catcher Bob Boone, Charlie Hustle was
there to catch the deflection and, not coincidentally, help spur Philadelphia to the world championship.
More recently, the play Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter made in last years divisional playoff against the As belongs in this category. With New York down two games and clinging to a one-run lead in Oakland, Jeter fielded a misdirected throw from rightfield -- in foul territory beyond first base! -- and shuffled a toss to home plate in time to nail what would have been the tying run. Yanks go on to win the series and eventually the American League pennant.
In each of these cases, your average ballplayer has no business being where Clapp, Rose, or Jeter wound up. Their play transcends conventional baseball because they are intuitively doing, not what should be done, but what their hearts tell them to do at the moment. Its all about the moment. Right place, right time. Its easy to hustle in body . . . very, very difficult to hustle in mind. Pete Rose is a legend. Stubby Clapp is not. Derek Jeter has four World Series rings. Stubby Clapp doesnt. But as for baseball genes, these three are from the same lineage. Stubby wont be in Memphis forever. Now in his fourth year as a Redbird, hes already exceeded the standard Triple-A life span and his recent shoulder separation has him on the shelf. When (if?) hes back in uniform, go see him play . . . before its too late. You dont have to attend a major-league stadium to see a major-league play.