There were two outs. Many baseball stories, whether real or fantasy, begin with this situation. It’s when the stakes are highest for both the offense and the defense. An out means reprieve and perhaps a win for the team on the field, while reaching base means an extended opportunity for the hitters and possibly a win as well. Such stories tell moments of baseball history. They freeze the instance in time that might otherwise get lost in the accumulation of statistics, games played, and sometimes even wins and losses. Baseball moments can encapsulate a player’s entire career, or the essence of baseball at a particular time. Moments are what we remember. They are not always heroic—sometimes a great baseball moment does not capture the essence of a player as much as a quotidian aspect of the game—but they can nonetheless be what I would consider a Hall of Fame moment. While these stories will not, and should not, be part of the calculations when determining a Hall of Fame player, they have a way of remaining with the observer.
In one of my own early baseball memories, there were two outs. It was, in my estimation, a Hall of Fame moment. What makes it notable is that there were only two outs. In an April 24th game of the strike-shortened 1994 season, the Montreal Expos played a nationally-televised away game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. In the bottom of the first inning, with a runner on first base and one out, there was a pop-up to Expos right fielder Larry Walker. Being the quality defender that he was and given the relative ease of the pop-up from a right-hander, Walker tracked down the ball for the second out. So far unremarkable, but what he did next stood out.
Walker handed the ball to a receptive young baseball fan in the front row and started trotting back to the dugout. The runner on first, Jose Offerman, tagged first and took off running. Noticing that he just turned a live ball into a souvenir, Walker ran back to the fan, took the ball, and threw it to the infield. It turns out he didn’t need to retrieve the ball. According to the rules, once the ball left the field of play the runner was awarded two bases. In the moment, though, neither Offerman nor Walker mentally flipped through the rulebook. Offerman tried to score before Walker could get the ball back in play, all while Larry Walker pilfered a material object from a fan and in the process made a memorable moment for one fan unforgettable for everyone watching.
In 1994 Larry Walker was in his fifth full major-league season. His career was off to a fantastic start. Through the 1994 season, Walker slashed .281/.357/.483. He had hit 99 home runs, stolen 98 bases, had a wRC+ of 128, and accumulated a WAR of 20.9—about seven wins more than Jose Offerman produced in his 15-year career. Not only that, but in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Walker put up numbers that would be All-Star worthy over the course of 162 games. In 452 plate appearances, he hit .322/.394/.587 with 19 home runs, 15 stolen bases, a wRC+ of 149, and put up 4.4 WAR. While WAR is the only statistic cited that includes defensive value, it should be noted that over this time he played above-average defense, had a cannon for an arm, and had already won two Gold Gloves—something a cheeky producer reminded the audience of after Walker forgot how many outs there were.
That particular play is so memorable because it showed a famous athlete, a group so often abstracted as herculean, as eminently human. Incidentally, in the time-span from 1989-1994, admittedly chosen only because of my focus on Larry Walker’s early career, the major-league leader in WAR was well ahead of not only Walker, but everyone else in Major League Baseball. At 50.8 WAR and 15 wins ahead of Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson, it would only be later that Barry Bonds’ all too human actions, including mistakes, would be cause for the indictment of a generation and withholding him and others from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But back to the play at Chavez Ravine in 1994. It was not just a Hall of Fame moment because a right fielder who in my opinion should be in the Hall of Fame fielded a routine pop fly and brain farted it into the stands. The other part of the story is the hitter, who happens to be someone else who I believe belongs in Cooperstown: Mike Piazza. In 1994, Piazza was a year removed from a Rookie of the Year award. Earning this award is anything but a guarantee of a Hall of Fame worthy career or even years of average play. For instance, Piazza was second in a string of five consecutive National League Rookies of the Year for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1992 until 1996. Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi, Hideo Nomo, and Todd Hollandsworth have garnered little attention and even fewer votes for the Hall of Fame, despite solid to above-average careers. Piazza, like Walker, had a shortened 1994 season that would be valuable for an entire 162-game season. In 441 plate appearances, he slashed .319/.370/.541, hit 24 home runs, had a wRC+ of 139, and accumulated 3.8 WAR.
Like Walker’s case, only the most aspirational observer would have been thinking about the Hall of Fame and Mike Piazza in April of 1994 when he popped out to right field. Also like Walker, it’s the rest of his career that makes him a Hall of Famer. Piazza accrued 7745 plate appearances and hit 427 home runs over the course of the rest of his career, which ended after the 2007 season; his triple slash was .308/.377/.545; he had a wRC+ of 140; he ended his career with 63.7 WAR. He was the best-hitting catcher of all time, and the only real debate left, as Eno Sarris compellingly demonstrates, is whether he or Johnny Bench was the best catcher of all time. Larry Walker concluded his career after the 2005 season with more plate appearances than Piazza, 8030—his final tallies were a line of .313/.400/.565, a wRC+ of 140 (the same as Piazza’s), and 69 WAR. That Walker was able to do all of this despite missing quite a bit of time due to injury should buoy his Hall of Fame chances rather than diminish them, contrary to what Denver Post writer Troy Renck suggests. Additionally, that wRC+ and WAR are park-adjusted stats should mitigate the stigma of Coors Field.
Finally, somebody had to pitch the ball to Mike Piazza for Larry Walker to run it down, catch it, and give it away—that somebody was, in fact, future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. It was Martinez’s second full season as a major-league pitcher, and it was his first with the Montreal Expos. Prior to the beginning of the 1994 season, the Expos traded second basemen Delino Deshields to the very same Los Angeles Dodgers for Martinez. 1994 was also Martinez’s first great season as a starting pitcher. He tossed 144.2 innings in the short season, had an ERA of 3.42, which was slightly worse than his FIP of 3.32, and he struck out 8.83 batters per nine innings, all contributing to a 3.4 WAR mark. Martinez’s 1994 season in the context of the rest of his career was a blip akin to a pop out. He ended his career after the 2009 season with a 2.93 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, 10 K/9, 87.1 WAR, and a near guaranteed first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible next year.
That play at Chavez Ravine in April of 1994 was as extraordinary as it was banal. Pedro Martinez got Mike Piazza to pop out to Larry Walker in right field in the first inning of an April game and within a shortened season when there wouldn’t even be a World Series. At the time, they were just baseball players. They are now potential and future Hall of Famers. One will be a first-ballot selection, another will likely be elected in the next two years, and I can reasonably see the third as either being the victim of an overcrowded ballot and losing candidacy—or sneaking in somewhere around his 13th-15th year of eligibility. The pop out that resulted in the second out of an inning was a Hall of Fame moment not just due to the players involved, but because it was a story that lodged itself into the collective memory of baseball fans. Stories and moments accumulate to create baseball legacies just as much as statistics do. Viewed in context, they are counter-narratives that illustrate that great baseball moments, and the greatness of players, are told through the stories of exceptional athletes and flawed human beings. Take a look.