Pinch runners aren’t great players. It’s hard to be great when you spend the whole game sitting on the bench wearing a wool hat while the real players actually shuffle in and out of the dugout. The only job qualification is to be so completely useless that the manager doesn’t think twice about removing you from the game without sending you to the plate or into the field. In schoolyard baseball, there isn’t such a thing as a pinch runner. Why waste the manpower when you can just use ghost runners?
All that being said, I don’t mean it as an insult when I call Boston’s Dave Roberts the greatest pinch runner in baseball history. Sure, maybe he’s earned that lofty status because there’s no Manny Mota or Lenny Harris of pinch-running. When your only competition is Otis Nixon, victory is within reach. The typical pinch runner is a washout, a low-rent body double required to do little more than pump his knees really high when running in place and to run slightly faster than really, really, incredibly slow batsmen. (The Yankees’ Chuck Knoblauch, for instance, was relegated to pinch-running duty after going 0-for-12 to start the 2001 World Series.) Roberts, though, has been his team’s most valuable player. David Ortiz beat the Yankees with a 12th-inning home run in Game 4 and a 14th-inning single in Game 5. But Ortiz never would’ve gotten to bat if it wasn’t for Dave Roberts, pinch-running savant.
In Game 4, the unimposing benchwarmer came in after Kevin Millar walked with no outs and the Red Sox down by one in the ninth inning. With the bottom of the lineup set to face Mariano Rivera, Boston’s only chance was the stolen base. After nearly getting picked off twice, Roberts stole second, sliding in just ahead of Jorge Posada’s almost perfect throw. He then ran home with the tying run when Bill Mueller hit a hard liner right through the box.
By Game 5, the Yankees lived in fear of the graying base stealer. When Roberts came in after another Millar walk, this time with the Sox down by one in the bottom of the eighth, the game stopped. Tom Gordon stepped off the mound. He threw over to first. He met with Posada at the mound. He stepped off again. He threw over again. As Roberts simply stood there, Gordon grew so agitated that he threw three straight balls in the dirt to Trot Nixon. When Gordon finally had to throw one down the pipe, Roberts was running. Nixon singled, Roberts raced to third. He scored the tying run when Jason Varitek hit a sacrifice fly off Mariano Rivera.
In the playoffs, the pinch-running stakes are high. With each run precious, managers call on their jogging-in-place assassins nearly every game. Before Roberts, the world’s pinch-running corps hadn’t been up to this not-so-difficult task. The best performance in recent years was probably by the Diamondbacks’ Alex Cintron. In Game 1 of the 2002 division series, Cintron pummeled the Cardinals’ Scott Rolen on his way to third, separating Rolen’s shoulder and knocking him out for the rest of the playoffs. The Cardinals still swept the series, but the pinch runner had done some damage.
That’s about it for the highlights. In 2002, Slate’s Hugo Lindgren wrote about his fantasy that Angels pinch runner Chone Figgins “would go on a base-stealing tear, culminating in a spectacular dust-up at home plate.” Figgins, though, didn’t do much more than stand around first base. At least he didn’t screw up. In the 1934 World Series, the Cardinals tried using pitcher Dizzy Dean on the bases. He got hit in the head and had to be carried off the field. Sprinter Herb Washington was Oakland’s secret weapon in the 1974 World Series. Washington played a couple of years in the majors without ever hitting or taking the field—his only task was to run. In the ‘74 Series, Washington came into Game 2 with the A’s down by one in the ninth inning. He was immediately picked off.
In contrast to pinch runners of yore, Roberts has become something of agood-luck charm. After the Red Sox got him from the Dodgers at the trading deadline, they went 17-2 in games he started. They’re now 2-0 in the LCS games he’s played in. “It’d been a while since I’d been on the field. I just hoped my body followed my mind,” said the erstwhile outfielder after Game 4. If the Red Sox hope to come back and beat the Yankees, they’ll know who to follow. A pinch runner shall lead them.