Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recalling the 'Designated Runner'

I tend to read a baseball book each November, in an effort to stretch the season out just a little more. Currently I'm reading the ode to 1970s baseball and all its odd cultural trappings, Big Hair and Plastic Grass. It's fun. I'll provide a full-on review when I finished it in the next week or so.

One thing of note: the "designated runner" was a real thing in the '70s. Teams would keep a speedster on the roster--one who often could not hit and would never be put in a position to hit--for the sole purpose of pinch-running and stealing a key base now and then.

So established was the practice that the A's (and I swear, half of Big Hair and Plastic Grass is about the A's, between their excellence on the field and their crazy owner, Charley Finley) had a skinny sprinter named Herb Washington whose Topps baseball card listed his position on the front as "Pinch Run.".

It's like a hockey goon having his position listed as "Fighter."

Washington was a college sprinter who appeared in 92 games in 1974--yet did not hit or play the field once. A designated runner, indeed. A's management figured Washington's speed would help the team win an extra 10 games per season.

Alas, Washington wasn't much of a baserunner, caught stealing 16 times in 45 attempts and picked off in a crucial spot in the World Series. "Hurricane Herb's" ineptitude on the paths proved what every baseball fan knows--running the bases well isn't simply a matter of being fast.

The A's may have given up on Washington, but they stuck with the philosophy. In 1976, Larry Lintz was the designated runner. Lintz had just three plate appearances all season.

These days, a player has to do more than run to earn a roster spot. But the basic philosophy hasn't disappeared--who can forget Dave Roberts coming into the game for the Red Sox in the 9th inning to steal second in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yanks? (Roberts of course came around to score the tying run, keeping the Sox alive. The rest is, of course, history. The swipe was named #2 all time stolen base by

Roberts was listed as an outfielder in the 2004 post-season, but his role was clearly designated runner.

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