Nearly every moment in sport comes down to strategy, a decision, the pressure to make the right one, and with it the associated fear of failure. Pinch at the blueline to keep the puck in or hang back? Go for the green and try to carry the water or lay up and take it in two? Wait for your pitch… and risk never seeing it.
But when a batter does connect with the baseball and puts it over the fence, the seconds that follow a homerun are one of the few instances in sports when an athlete is allowed to completely exhale, to at once contemplate and appreciate their recent accomplishment. They round the bases at a pace of their choosing–be it a leisurely trot or a more conscientious jog–taking a pat on the back from a base coach and receiving applause from an adoring crowd, before being embraced at homeplate with a hug or high-five, which initiates an increasingly elaborate series of handshakes and custom celebrations in the dugout.
Take this 2011 bomb from Vladimir Guerrero:
This is how it’s supposed to go. Guerrero, one of the best bad-ball hitters ever, knows it’s out from the crack of the bat and there’s immediate relief on his face. He then rounds the bases stoically (as is the baseball tradition). His progress is unimpeded. He basks in the moment and then briefly celebrates with teammates before preparing for his next at-bat.
But over the course of baseball history, when the stakes are raised and an athlete achieves the greatest possible outcome from a showdown with a pitcher in an important moment of the game or season (or at a milestone in their career), that contented jog from base to base is taken away. The custom breaks down and the task of touching all four bases becomes a challenge, as adulation from the paying spectators boils over into something else.
In 1974, Hank Aaron was about to break the greatest record in baseball, having tied Yankee legend Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark of 714. As it became obvious that Aaron would pass Ruth, he began to receive racist hate mail and a local Atlanta newspaper even commissioned an obituary of Aaron’s to be written, fearing the Braves outfielder might be murdered before hitting the milestone homerun.
And then on April 4, he did it.
Aaron’s solo trip around the bases is interrupted, as two students take to the field and congratulate him after he touches second. He reaches home and is mobbed by his teammates and other random fans, before his family greets him. The attention, and the subsequent eruption of emotion, is palpable and warranted. As broadcasting legend Vin Scully put it in his call that evening: “What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron. …And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”
In this case, a crowd (which broke attendance records that night) came to the ballpark hoping for this event. When it happened, the crowd acted accordingly and fittingly.
(This made me think about Guerrero’s homerun–the first example. On first blush, it seems trivial–a solo-blast in the sixth inning of an 8-2 ballgame. But, in hindsight, it was an historic event. It would be the last homerun Guerrero, a surefire Hall of Famer, ever hit. Would his homerun trot have been at all interrupted if fans knew that at the time?)
What happens when the balance of a season comes down to the dramatic battle between pitcher and batter, with the batter winning?
Game 6 of the 1975 World Series was a back-and-forth affair. In the bottom of the 12th inning, Carlton Fisk stepped to the plate and put the second pitch over the Green Monster, hitting the foul pole.
A jubilant Fisk jumps with joy on his way to first to celebrate the walk-off homerun, which forced a seventh game. Fans storm the field and by the time Fisk reaches third, he is forced to put his shoulder down to complete his path home. You can’t blame Red Sox fans for their excitement. If their team had lost the game, the series would have been over and with it the chance to end their then-57-year World Series drought. (In typical pre-2004 Red Sox fashion, Game 6–often referred to as the greatest game ever played–would only prolong the heartbreak, as the Sox would lose in Game 7.)
I write this post after falling down a Youtube rabbit-hole yesterday, that included a video of the 20 biggest homeruns ever and a brief history of fans storming the field. The inspiration for this came after I saw the aftermath of the Chris Chambliss homerun in 1976 again. The walk-off shot sent the Yankees to the World Series. It was pure bedlam.
Chambliss gets to enjoy his series-winning hit for about eight seconds before his trip around the bases devolves into a battle for survival. He’s knocked down, he struggles to keep possession of his helmet and then he takes it off uses it as a shield to mow through fans and get off the field. I’m not sure if he even touches homeplate. I can’t blame him. Chambliss would tell reporters later that he feared for his life.
You’ll notice most of these occurrences are relics of the past. As Stefan Fatsis, from Slate, notes: “In the 1990s, baseball stadiums transitioned from social cauldron to corporate venue. The field also transforms into a place that’s sensibly, if less dramatically, reserved for players, officials and media only… The threat of the fan invasion is fully neutralized.”
That’s a good thing. Even though fan interactions make for unpredictable TV, we should preserve the sanctity of the homerun trot, one of life’s purest rewards for a job well done.