The Walkoff Awards
By Lydia Cruz
Special to FOX Sports
Baseball, more than any other sport, relies on the calming nature of ritualism and repetition. You see it in a batter’s systematic approach to the plate, a pitcher’s calculated fidgeting between throws, and the affect-free delivery of postgame comments. You never want to get too high or too low, players will tell you. The aim is to maintain a steady pulse from game one through 162.
Into this world walks 2020, a year in which everything is atypical. Nothing grips tighter to tradition than baseball, but not even MLB could evade deviation. From the truncated, 60-game schedule, to the Tolstoy-length health and safety protocols, seven-inning double headers, starting extra innings with a runner on second, and the expanded hunt for October, everything looked different.
In the video above, Lydia Cruz opens the envelopes to congratulate the winners for the 2020 Walkoff Awards, honoring baseball's best off-beat moments from a very unique season.
The serendipitous side of change is novelty. We were blessed with oddities we’ll likely never see again. This is a celebration of some of those moments – from the more common, yet always thrilling bat flips, to the socially-distant celebrations and inanimate cheering sections that defined the strange beauty of baseball in 2020.
Best Bat Flip, Launch Angle: Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
Like any geographic rivalry worth its salt, the Crosstown Classic usually promises fireworks, especially when both teams are playoff bound. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras delivered some pyrotechnics when he launched a three-run opposite field shot in the final series against the White Sox. The ball traveled a modest 377 feet before careening off empty seats in right. The 104 exit velo hardly begged for attention.
However, it was his bat flip, with a launch angle somewhere between Splash Mountain ascent and Space Shuttle launch, that stole the moment. It’s sacrilegious to say anything caught more air than Jordan in Chicago, but this certainly came close.
Best Bat Flip, Switch-Hitter: Ji-Man Choi, Tampa Bay Rays
Everything about Ji-Man Choi is delightful. From his acrobatics at first base, to his dugout celebrations, to his expert trash can-stomping troll of the Houston Astros after advancing to the ALCS. Choi also has an inexplicably wonderous slash line of .667/.733/1.667 against generational arm Gerrit Cole.
Choi gave up switch hitting in 2015, but made 12 plate appearances as a right-handed hitter this season. The first resulted in a strikeout. The second? A 109.9 mph line-drive home run tatooed to left-center. Now it’s difficult to mash baseballs. Exponentially more so from both sides of the plate. So when someone adds an ambidextrous bat flip to the mix, it borders on downright disrespectful, and only proliferates the legend that is Ji-Man.
Best Bat-Flip Evolution: Luke Voit, New York Yankees
Voit smacked a regular season-leading 22 dingers for the Baby Bombers. Not bad for a former 22nd-round pick. Nearly as fun as watching his homer tally swell, was observing his bat flip evolution, which played out like a predictable, yet thoroughly enjoyable rom-com. The kind where the protagonist transforms from understated, awkward nerd, to the outright bombshell we knew they were all along.
Voit began with humble bat drops, then graduated to muted same-side flips. He followed up with a few stare-and-admires and a couple of carries up the line. Then more emphatic flips, longer soak-and-stares, and finally, oppo flips chalk full of all-out-swag. At this point in the film, our hero lands the object of his affection, the home run title, capturing all our hearts in the process.
Best Bat-Flip Collective: Fernando Tatís Jr., San Diego Padres
Even in a truncated season, Fernando Tatís Jr.’s joy refused to be abbreviated. The 21-year-old did his best to cram 162 games worth of excitement into a nine-week season. El Niño swatted 17 homers in 2020, and each bat flip managed its own highlight-reel moment.
Selecting his bat-flip body of work ultimately came down to three criteria. First, the flips had to feel organic and natural. Wood theatrics can’t be forced. Next, I looked for versatility. We all love ice cream, right? Enough to eat vanilla 17 times in a row, no complaints. But who among us would turn down more flavors at our disposal? And well, Tatís is the bat-flip Baskin-Robbins. Finally, I wanted someone whose home runs generated more than just viral videos, but also hope for the sport. Tatís makes fans out of youngsters with a bevy of options and waning attention spans.
Keep styling your own bat flips kids (away from fragile furniture). You could be the next injection of joy whose nightly play we can’t miss.
The Padres didn't limit their bat flipping to the regular season. Manny Machado spiced up the Dodgers-Padres rivalry with this epic flip following a homer off Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 of the NLDS.
Best Bat-Flipping Unit: San Diego Padres
First of all, don’t @ me Dodgers fans. Your crew’s bat-flipping prowess is remarkable. LA hit a league-leading 118 homers this season and most of them were followed by bat acrobatics. But the Dodgers also have a World Series trophy to raise, so they won’t miss this accolade.
Fernando Tatís Jr. inspired an entire generation of future bat flippers with his inspiring work in his 17-homer season for the Padres.
While the Friars hit fewer long balls than the Dodgers, Braves and White Sox during the regular season, their lineup generated enough power to fuel the most obscenely decadent display of holiday lights. From Manny Machado to Wil Myers, to El Niño, Trent Grisham and Eric Hosmer, Slam Diego created open wounds with their offense. Then used bat flips to heap in salt.
Best Socially Distant Win Celebration: Washington Nationals
Fresh off their World Series victory, the Washington Nationals didn’t have much to write home about in 2020. They finished 26-34, mired in fourth place in the NL East, despite impressive years from Trea Turner and Juan Soto. The Nats did provide us with an early preview of socially distant celebrations however, when they recorded their first win July 25.
After roughing up the Yankees 9-2 at home, outfielders Victor Robles, Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor met in center to celebrate, and after an initial miscue, the trio quickly hit their air high-fives in sync. It was one of those perfectly human moments that make otherwise superhuman athletes mortal. These men can hit triple-digit fastballs and catch the unthinkable, but, hey, they’re still susceptible to flubbing a new cheer.
Best Socially Distant Walk-Off Celebration: Atlanta Braves
The ninth inning walk-off win is the Steven Spielberg of game endings. It deserves to be seen in high definition, by as many people as possible. On Aug. 17, Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson capped off a four-run, ninth-inning comeback over the Nats with a two-run shot to center.
It was the kind of blockbuster finale that cues a fall of celebratory dominoes. Music begins to swell, lights throb, the hero rounds the bases and begins his approach to home, where a mob of giddy teammates waits to drench him in neon electrolytes, rip his jersey and cavort like the children baseball still occasionally makes of us. In 2020, though, several of these storybook endings got a creative rewrite, as teams attempted to maintain social distancing measures.
On this particular Monday night walk off, the soundtrack and pulsating strobes looked familiar. But when Swanson jumped on home plate, hands straight in the air, no swarming ensued. His teammates instead waited in a semi-circle from a respectful distance. They, too, raised their arms in elation and for several seconds, together yet apart, separate yet united, the entire squad bounded up and down in unison. All the while exchanging invisible high-fives and very visible thousand-watt smiles in this beautifully awkward display.
Someday we’ll return to the traditional celebratory walk-off cascade, but thank you, Atlanta, for scripting this unique ending.
Best Caught-On-Mic in an Otherwise Quiet Stadium Moment: Seattle Mariners
Baseball fans are never accused of being the 26th-player. Their participation in games is far less active than other sports. But there’s no doubt their presence was missed this season. MLB debuts were made without thunderous applause and there were bows for legendary accomplishments – like Miggy’s 2,000th hit as a Detroit Tiger, taken in front of empty rows. Teams did an admiral job augmenting games with piped-in noise, but there’s just no replicating the authentic roar. There’s no replacing the emotional heartbeat that thousands of captivated fans create.
Without the soundtrack of the crowd, new sounds emerged. Sounds that were previously hidden by yelling vendors, heckling fans, and the palpable buzz of excitement. Now, we became privy to player conversations and brutally honest, in-game reactions. At times it felt uncomfortable, like involuntary eavesdropping. Other times, it was legendary.
Like in July, when Mariners utility man Dylan Moore launched a three-run HR off Angels reliever Mike Mayers. We heard one of his teammates call, “HOMER!” before he even made it out of the box. What an adorably genuine moment we might never hear again.
Best Celebrity Cardboard Cutout: Tom Hanks, Oakland Athletics
Speaking of once-in-a lifetime auditory experiences, how often do you get to hear a two-time Oscar winner hawking hot dogs at your local ballpark? Only in 2020. The Athletics were arguably the most creative team when it came to cultivating their inanimate audience. They also nailed the perfect celebrity cameo.
Tom Hanks was born in Concord, California, a quaint city about an hour northeast of Oakland in predictable traffic. When he wasn’t starring in school plays as a teen, he logged hours selling peanuts at Oakland Coliseum, helping satiate A’s fans. Not a bad time for it, either. In the early 1970s, the Athletics reigned supreme with a roster chalk full of future Hall of Famers – guys like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Rollie Fingers. If you have to labor under the unforgiving California sun, watching back-to-back-to-back World Series champs probably makes it bearable.
Nearly four decades later, Tom returned to the ballpark. The A’s dug up a photo of young Hanks as a vendor and immortalized it in cardboard. The actor even donated his vocals to the project. Mixed in with the crowd noise, you could hear him selling hot dogs on game broadcasts. Bravo, Oakland, for turning 2020 lemons into a brimming box of chocolate.
Best Cutout Troll: Chipper Jones and Son Shea, Citi Field
Mets fans, I apologize off the top. You’ve suffered enough. Avert your eyes and skip ahead. The most epic cardboard troll happened at your expense.
Chipper Jones and his son Shea (and the ESPN crew who engineered the cutouts) locked up the win, after making an unforgettable opening weekend appearance at Citi Field. Chipper terrorized several teams over his 19-year career. He hit over .300 against 13 different clubs. But the torment he reserved for his NL East rivals was special. His trips to Shea Stadium became a waking nightmare for Mets fans, and they tried their best to rattle him by chanting, “LARRY! LARRY!” – his real first name.
Mets catcher Mike Piazza even joined the heckling on occasion, though it did little to hinder the future Hall of Famer. Chipper even named his son after the road ballpark he loved so much. Mets fans probably thought they were free of this particular torment when Jones hung up his cleats in 2012. Not so fast, New York. Cardboard Chipper had one more appearance in mind.
Hopefully, the Citi Field crew had a chance to pipe in a couple of “LARRY!” jeers one last time.
Best Astros-Related Cutout Troll: @SandLot408
No one benefited from empty stadiums this season more than the Houston Astros. They avoided daily, public admonishment from baseball fans upset over the club’s sign-stealing scandal that broke publicly last November.
Dodgers fans felt particularly victimized by the Astros transgressions in recent postseasons. One group of LA faithful was so eager to boo that they bought a block of 800 tickets to the Angels home opener against Houston almost as soon as they became available. This of course, was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Only cardboard, plush, or otherwise inanimate fans would end up attending games during the regular season. The Astros received a momentary reprieve.
But at least one creative Oakland fan managed to get in his shot via cardboard cutout. Orbit, the Astros mascot, could be seen sitting in a trash can, giving off serious Oscar the Grouch vibes, somewhere in the Coliseum. I don’t have this kind of follow through when it comes to making dinner, let alone heckling – I tip my cap to you sir.
Best Cardboard Cutout Interaction: Philly Phanatic
There’s no way I could wrap this list without mentioning my favorite bipedal flightless bird, the Phillie Phanatic. When it comes to mascot absurdity, this green wonder stands pear-shaped in a category of his own.
No one could blame a mascot for phoning it in this season. No live crowds, fewer dance numbers, less physical and mental performance required. But the Phanatic clearly spits in the face of off-days. No real fans? No problem. He spent opening weekend high-fiving cutouts, attempting group cheers, trying to start the wave, and generally refusing to believe in the laws of physics or inanimation.
He even heckled a visiting cutout by obstructing his view and pelting him with silly string.
In a year full of too much sadness, it was a moment I watched with pure joy.
Absurdity is a perfect note to end on, seeing as this season provided it in droves. Thanks for reliving some of the more unforgettable moments with me. Until next year, friends.
Lydia Cruz is a Fox Sports contributor. She is an eight-year veteran of Seattle morning radio, and her work has appeared on Seahawks.com and Mariners broadcasts. She loves scoring baseball games and Ken Griffey Jr. for N64 .