Sports Nut

Letter From the Playoffs

On Endy Chávez’s catch in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the NLCS.

Endy Chávez

When Endy Chávez caught that ball in the sixth inning, I thought, “Oh, my God!” A few seconds later—after Chávez caught that ball, in front of the 358 sign in left-center, with his right hand three feet above the wall, his splayed body and the barely ensnared baseball forming something like an upside-down exclamation point—I yelled out, “Oh, my God!” I yelled a few more times when Chávez touched the ground again and threw into the infield to double Edmonds off first base, keeping the score 1-1, keeping the Mets in the game. And then I thought, Chávez just made the greatest play I’ve ever seen.

Then, Fox showed the catch again. In the sports world circa 2006, miracles turn into highlights. On instant replay, we scrutinize the phenomenal, probing it for defects from the front, the back, and the side. In slow motion, the ball and glove are barely moving as they converge. Chávez’s wrist bends back grotesquely as the baseball rolls up and over the lip of his glove. But the ball stays, rolls back even, falls back into the webbing. They queue up the footage another time and another, and U2’s “Elevation” roars in the background. An ad behind home plate reminds us to “think outside the bun.” This is what a great catch looks like. Folklore, with a gordita on the side.

Here’s what a great catch used to look like: “I wrenched my eyes from Mays and took another look at the ball, winging its way along, undipping, unbreaking, forty feet higher than Mays’ head, rushing along like a locomotive, nearing Mays, and I thought then: it will beat him to the wall.” That’s Arnold Hano, writing about Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. That was the game where the Giants’ Willie Mays ran down a liner by Vic Wertz, caught it backward and over his head, and flung a pea back to the infield to keep the Cleveland runners from scoring. It’s the greatest catch in baseball history, according to pretty much everyone who cares about that sort of thing. The Giants won the game and won the series. The catch became “The Catch.” Willie Mays became Willie Mays.

Hano’s book-length account of Game 1 of the 1954 Series, A Day in the Bleachers, describes Mays’ catch for nine beautiful, suspenseful pages. “Mays simply slowed down to avoid running into the wall, put his hands up in cup-like fashion over his left shoulder, and caught the ball much like a football player catching leading passes in the end zone,” Hano continues. And then: “He had turned so quickly, and run so fast and truly that he made this impossible catch look—to us in the bleachers—quite ordinary. To those reporters in the press box, nearly six hundred feet from the bleacher wall, it must have appeared far more astonishing, watching Mays run and run until he had become the size of a pigmy and then he had run some more, while the ball diminished to a mote of white dust and finally disappeared in the dark blob that was Mays’ mitt.”

In the age of the human growth hormone, the long ball has lost its romance. But watching Endy Chávez pull back a home run reminded me that baseball can still induce nostalgia and awe, that it can turn a cynic into a dime-store aesthete in the time it takes an outfielder to hover above the warning track. Mythmaking came a lot easier 50 years ago. But Endy Chávez can still make a catch like Willie Mays.

So, when Endy Chávez caught that ball in the sixth inning, I thought of Mays and Hano. I Googled A Day in the Bleachers. I found that Hano is 84 years old, living in California, still watching baseball. I found his phone number and decided to call once the game was over. I was elated. And then the Mets lost the game and lost the series. The catch became known, at least to me, as that catch in the goddamn game where Heilman gave up a home run to Yadier freakin’ Molina. Endy Chávez, suddenly, resumed being Endy Chávez.

I called Hano anyway, and he was home. He had watched the game, he said, though macular degeneration makes it harder for him to see the television. A charming man and a brisk talker, Hano tells me how lucky he feels to have witnessed some of baseball’s greatest moments. He was at Dodger Stadium when Sandy Koufax threw his first no-hitter. In 1956, he won a limerick contest sponsored by Sears—rhyming “nation” with “sensation,” he recalls—and got flown out to the World Series, where he watched Don Larsen throw a perfect game. And, in 1954, he decided to buy a bleacher seat at the Polo Grounds, a seat with a good view of Willie Mays.

So, I ask, what did you think of Endy Chávez’s catch in the sixth inning?

“It was a great catch and a wonderful throw at a critical moment,” Hano begins. “Unfortunately, it’s a catch you see so often that it’s almost a stereotype. [Jim] Edmonds makes it and [Mike] Cameron makes it and [Torii] Hunter makes it.”

He explains that the great Mays backtracked to the 460-foot mark in the Polo Grounds. “He outran the ball, he caught it with his back to the stands, and he whirled to make the throw.” When Chávez caught the ball, Hano says, he was 360 feet from home plate. “I don’t want to downgrade this play, it was a marvelous play,” he says. “It may be that the stands are a little closer today and therefore you can make that catch.”

Besides, Hano adds, the Mets didn’t win. “To that degree, there is a considerable difference.” The long ball might have lost its romance, but it still wins games. Chávez’s catch had already become a historical footnote. Hano and I talk baseball for a few more minutes—the catching Molina brothers, the new stadiums in Pittsburgh and San Diego, the epic badness of this year’s National League—and then wish each other well. He will keep his catch, and I’ll keep mine.