The slowest man in the majors
Chris Snyder is chasing one of baseball’s oldest records, although "chasing" might not be the best description. Let’s try that again: Chris Snyder, a catcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates, is lumbering his way toward baseball infamy — he has never stolen a base.
With 2,118 trips to the plate spanning eight-major league seasons, Snyder ranks fourth all-time for most career plate appearances without a stolen base, according to Stats Inc. Not only that, he’s on pace (pardon the expression) to creep his way up the list this summer. He needs just 71 plate appearances to eclipse Aaron Robinson, a catcher who retired in 1951, and 106 to plod his way past Johnny Estrada, another catcher who last played in 2008.
The twist is that Snyder would love nothing more than to erase his name from this list for eternity. All he needs is one steal — easier said than done.
"That’s the hot topic around here, man," Snyder said. "Everyone’s talking about how slow I am: teammates, umpires, the coaches, everybody."
Russ Nixon, a catcher who spent 12 seasons in the majors, from 1957-1968, has the ignominious distinction of holding the record: 2,714 career plate appearances without a stolen base, though not for lack of trying. He attempted seven stolen bases over his first five seasons — and failed all seven times. He played out his final seven seasons, with the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins, without attempting another.
The sad plight of the slow baserunner underscores an increased emphasis on speed, especially in light of what Houston Astros manager Brad Mills referred to as the "post-steroid issue." Through Saturday, teams were combining to attempt .95 steals per game this season, the most since 1999. "I think there’s more focus on it from just about everyone," Mills said.
That includes Snyder, who said he has been begging the coaching staff for the "green light" to run. "This is the year," he said, although he also seems acutely aware of his limitations. "I mean, I’m 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. Over the years, I’ve learned what kind of player I am. So I’ve learned, for example, when I can take an extra base and when I can’t." Quick pause. "I can’t more times than not."
As for acquiring that elusive steal, Snyder has been thrown out on both of his career attempts — though he came absurdly close as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. In a game against the San Diego Padres, he was the backside runner on an attempted double steal with teammate Chris Young. But then disaster, just a few feet short of second base. "I face-planted," Snyder said. "Lost it, tripped, fell. And I would’ve had it, too."
Players who are not particularly fleet afoot tend to remember their stolen bases. For them, steals are baseball’s version of the lunar eclipse. "Oh, yeah," said Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee, who does not consider himself a speed demon. "I got one. And if I remember correctly, it was standing up."
When the Brewers visited the Cincinnati Reds on May 18 of last year, McGehee was 581 plate appearances into his career without a steal—which, if not exactly Snyder-esque, was still a source of mild angst. So when he singled to advance teammate Ryan Braun to third base in the top of the eighth, McGehee saw an opportunity: Second base was open, and McGehee knew catcher Ryan Hanigan would be reluctant to throw with a runner at third, 90 feet from home plate. So McGehee took off and made it safely, the first and only stolen base of his career. "It was legit," he said. "They covered second base and everything. The catcher caught the ball. The whole nine yards."
Well, except that Hanigan never bothered to throw to second. (Defensive indifference is seldom called in close games, and the Brewers were leading, 3-1.) But why get bogged down by details? "At the time, it was the highlight of the year for me," said McGehee, who went on to finish with a .285 batting average, 23 home runs and 104 RBIs.
Considering that situations like this arise on occasion, when teams basically concede bases, it almost makes what Nixon did—and what Snyder is doing—all the more remarkable: How is it possible not to pick up a stolen base after hundreds, or even thousands, of at-bats? Sometimes it just takes a while.
With this in mind, we present Cecil Fielder, a prodigious power hitter who rumbled his way around the diamond with the dexterity of a dump truck. Fielder, who retired in 1999, went the first 4,360 plate appearances of his career without producing a single stolen base—the longest such stretch since at least 1974, which is as far back as Stats Inc.’s play-by-play records go. "It just wasn’t my job," Fielder said with a hint of resignation in a telephone interview. "Little guys steal bases. Big guys hit taters."
It all came to an end on April 2, 1996, after he drew a ninth-inning walk for the Detroit Tigers in a game against the Minnesota Twins. Fielder said he had been lobbying manager Buddy Bell for an opportunity to steal, and he figured he could take advantage of the Metrodome’s speedy artificial turf.
So with teammate Melvin Nieves facing a full count, Fielder bolted for second. Nieves struck out and catcher Greg Myers fired a throw that beat Fielder to the bag—except the ball ricocheted off Fielder’s helmet. "I should have been out," he recalled. Instead, he was safe. He raised his arms in triumph. The crowd gave him an ovation.
"That was monumental for me," said Fielder, who disputes accounts that it was a botched hit-and-run. "No way. It was a straight steal."
After the game, the Twins presented him with second base—the actual base—for him to take home. It remains one of his most prized pieces of memorabilia. Fielder said he passes it around to family members as part of an informal joint custody agreement. "My mom, my sister—everybody wants to touch the stolen base," he said.
Kevin Cash, a journeyman catcher who plays in the Texas Rangers organization, has no such mementos, having never attempted a steal over bits and pieces of eight seasons in the majors. "I know I’ve picked up a couple in spring training, but those don’t count," he said.
Like Snyder, Cash said he often has found himself resisting the siren song of the steal. The temptation is strong. "There have been times when I’ve been on first and I’m like, ‘This pitcher’s not paying any attention to me whatsoever,’" Cash said. "But you feel like an idiot when you get thrown out by five feet."