I never watched a game with Rickey but it must have been a memorable experience. Within moments he could judge the proficiency of a team’s defense by watching how it reacted to every pitch. No doubt he would have been impressed by a couple of defensive plays made against the Yankees that I saw on TV the last two nights. In the Red Sox victory on Tuesday night, Dustin Pedroia’s rifle-armed relay from right fielder J. D. Drew to third baseman Mike Lowell nabbed Melky Cabrera trying to stretch a double into a triple. It was one out and Cabrera made a good decision trying to get to third base so he could score on an out. He simply got beaten by a great defensive play.
I have always thought that the second most exciting play in baseball is the triple and the most exciting play is being thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple. Rarely does speed on the bases and strength of throwing arm collide so beautifully!
I think Rickey would have also loved a play that Rays right fielder Gabe Gross almost pulled off last night. The former Auburn quarterback cut off Johnny Damon’s drive into the right field corner before it hit the wall at the new Yankee Stadium where the ricochet could have led to a triple. His strong throw almost nipped Damon hustling all the way at second. The TV camera showed Damon looking in bemused disbelief at Gross’s nearly miraculous play. (The Yankees could sure use some more players with Damon’s speed and timely power. As for his arm in the outfield, I still think one of the all-time great baseball comments is from the grousing Red Sox fan who said after the long-haired Damon signed with the Yankees: “He looks like Jesus, acts like Judas, and throws like Mary.”)
“Adventure, adventure!” was a favorite Branch Rickey mantra to spur on players. Ray Blades, who Rickey converted from pitcher to outfielder and later became one of his coaches and managers, liked to say that at the end of the game the right fielder should be the most tired player on the diamond. Why? Because he had to cover the most ground backing up positions once the ball was in play. You cannot win without good defense as both New York teams may well discover this year. Next time you are at a game at any level, watch the way the defense sets up and backs up each other. It will usually provide a key to who will win.