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Ranking top 10 homer-stealing catches

March 19, 2017

When I was a kid -- and maybe you used to do something like this, too -- we would practice making home run-robbing catches. It wasn't exactly authentic. The walls were chain-link fences, and they were probably no more than four-feet high. And these weren't actual home runs we were

When I was a kid -- and maybe you used to do something like this, too -- we would practice making home run-robbing catches. It wasn't exactly authentic. The walls were chain-link fences, and they were probably no more than four-feet high. And these weren't actual home runs we were saving but were, instead, thrown balls. The idea was to throw the ball high enough to clear the chain-link fence and potentially end up in the Zepkin's yard (where it might end up in the Zepkin granary of lost baseballs) but low enough to be caught by a fantastic play.
We spent countless hours at this game, losing countless baseballs and tennis balls and punch balls. We also saved countless balls from the Zepkins' monstrous appetite for confiscation, each catch leading to huge celebrations, group hugs, pretend slow-motion replays and so on.
What we found was that the key to an amazing home run saving catch is ... timing. I don't mean timing on the fielder's part, though that is certainly a part of it. No, I'm talking about overall timing. Everything has to be just right. The ball has to be hit at exactly the right launch angle. The fielder has to be in exactly the right position and get exactly the right kind of jump on the ball. A great home run catch is a perfect storm, precise clockwork. It's a little miracle, really.
In this way a home run-saving catch is fundamentally different from what you might otherwise call a "great catch." The good people at Statcast™ have developed a wonderful system to classify great catches; they concern themselves with the amount of ground an outfielder covers and how much time he has to cover that ground. A great catch, by this definition, is one where the fielder covers a lot of ground and is at maximum speed about the time he gets to the catch. This catch by Billy Hamilton was the Statcast™ Play of the Year; it is mind-boggling how much ground Hamilton covered to get there.

A home run-saving catch, though, is different. Adam Jones' catch in Team USA's 6-3 victory against the Dominican Republic on Saturday in the World Baseball Classic doesn't impress on that front. He covered 100 or so feet in six seconds, never even reaching 24 feet per second. Jones, at full speed, can go almost 29 feet per second. Hamilton, on that play above, topped out at almost 32 feet per second. Jones was practically jogging on the play.
So it wasn't getting to the ball that made the Jones catch so dazzling. It was the pressure of the moment, the way he handled the wall, the perfectly timed leap, the beautiful choreography of the play. The fact that he basically saved the game for the United States doesn't hurt either.
With all that in mind -- timing, beauty, significance -- here then are the 10 greatest home run-saving catches.
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If you want to go outside of Major League Baseball, you have Masato Akamatsu's absurd Spiderman catch where he actually climbed to the top of the wall, Ken Griffey Jr.'s catch in Little Big League and Bugs Bunny's catch from the top of the Umpire State Building. But let's stay in the big leagues.
Honorable mention:
 Mike Trout denies Jesus Montero
Anaheim, Sept. 25, 2016

Trout has had a few home run-saving plays -- this one is probably the best. He had plenty of time to set himself up at the wall, he stepped twice on the wall to lift himself up, used his right hand to pull himself even higher and he caught the ball with half his body above the wall.
 Ichiro Suzuki denies Garret Anderson
Seattle, May 25, 2005

The thing that makes this once so much fun is that Ichiro actually overran the play -- he got to the wall too fast. Once he was there, he had to figure out how to actually catch the ball. Ichiro somehow turned his whole body and caught it right in front of his face.
 Jarrod Dyson denies Christian Yelich
Miami, Aug. 25, 2016

Dyson was a 50th-round Draft pick in 2006. He was blazing fast -- blazing fast -- and an extraordinary athlete, but nobody really knew if he could ever harness those athletic talents. Dyson never did get into full sprint and he didn't take the greatest route, but this one was pretty athletic.
 Mike Cameron denies Derek Jeter
Seattle, April 7, 2000

Cameron was a spectacular outfielder, and this is a great catch. I don't know that this was his best home run catch. But we need to have Jeter geting robbed of a home run because ...
 Jeffrey Maier denies Tony Tarasco
New York, Oct. 9, 1996

Yeah, sorry to include this one but ... how can you not? Jeter's fly ball would have been just that, a fly ball, except Maier reached over the fence to catch it. "Nice catch by the kid," announcer Joe Morgan admitted. Baltimore fans have still not gotten over this one, and you can't blame them.
* * *
No. 10: Ken Griffey Jr.
New York, April 26, 1990

This was a fantastic catch by Griffey -- a lot of ground to cover. He got a foot on the wall and he brought Jesse Barfield's ball back in -- but it is on this list because of the time and place. This was Junior announcing to the baseball world that he had arrived. The graceful way he caught the ball, the joyful reaction after the catch, the way he held up the baseball for all to see, it's a moment when baseball shifted a little bit. The age of Griffey had arrived. The fact that it happened at Yankee Stadium didn't hurt either.
As a side note: Griffey's catch had stolen what would have been Barfield's 200th home run. But Barfield only had to wait three more innings -- he hit his 200th homer in the seventh inning off Randy Johnson.
No. 9. Adam Jones
San Diego, March 18, 2017

It isn't the catch itself -- it's the scene: U.S.-Dominican Republic. The U.S. leading by just a couple of runs. Manny Machado hits the long ball to deep center. He's sure it's a home run. Jones gets there, leaps and catches the ball in stride with all those American flags in the background. Machado lifts his helmet to honor his Orioles teammates. It's pretty much perfect.
No. 8: Fred Lynn steals one from Disco Dan Ford
Minnesota, June 4, 1977

Gif: Fred Lynn Robs Homer 1977
The thing that makes this play so wonderful is that, unlike most of the plays that follow, Lynn did not dig his foot into the wall and launch himself upward. He raced back to the wall, turned his head to catch the ball in flight, looked back at the wall to see how far he can still run, and then just as gets to the wall, he planted both feet in the ground and leaped up.
Lynn's glove hand was soon above the wall, but the ball hadn't arrived yet. It seems, when you first see it, like he has mistimed his jump. Somehow, though, Lynn kept climbing, and as the ball arrived, he pulled it in and then the ball somehow stayed in his glove. Lynn was actually famous for keeping his glove supple and soft just so the ball would stick in there on plays like this.
"I scraped my arm, but it was worth it," Lynn told reporters after the game. "If the fence had been chain-linked, my arm would still be hanging there."
The play would become part of the "This Week in Baseball" intro for years.
No. 7: Torii Hunter robs Barry Bonds
All-Star Game, Milwaukee, July 9, 2002

Hunter was a master at the home run-saving catch. He was, of course, a great athlete and a great center fielder, but his particular skill was stealing home runs. Hunter's home run-saving catch against Bonds in the All-Star Game wasn't his best, but it's on on this list both because of the magic of the moment -- stealing a home run from Bonds in an All-Star Game in 2002 had all sorts of wonderful significance.
And also it allows you see the master at work. Hunter can tell that when he was 40 or 50 feet away from the play exactly how it would play out. He slowed down to prepare for liftoff. He took off just at the wall, and pulled the ball in, windmilling his left arm. Then he acted as if nothing happened, as he tried to stifle a smile. It's beautiful, and it leads to Bonds picking up Hunter in mock-anger.
No. 6: Glenn Braggs with clutch homer-saver against Carmelo Martinez
Cincinnati, Oct. 12, 1990

This wasn't a wow catch, but it was crucial. This was the ninth inning of the Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. Cincinnati led, 2-1, but Pittsburgh had the tying run on base (it was Bonds). Martinez hammered a long fly ball to right field; Braggs was playing very deep, so he didn't have far to run. Braggs worked his way back to the wall, and he seemed in control as he leaped up and pulled the ball back into the ballpark.
It's still not 100 percent clear if that ball would have left the park, but it probably saved the game ... and the Reds' run to the World Series.
No. 5: Otis Nixon takes one away from Andy Van Slyke
Atlanta, July 25, 1992

This was the catch that Team USA manager Jim Leyland immediately thought about when he watched Jones' play. It must have been nice for Leyland to be on the right side of a great catch.
In "The Catch," Atlanta led Pittsburgh, 1-0. The Pirates had the tying run at first base when Van Slyke hit the drive that absolutely looked like a home run as it came off the bat. Nixon had a fairly long run, but the ball was hit high enough that he was able to take a bunch of little steps as he closed in on the wall. He pushed his left toe into the wall, launched himself upward and took the home run away.
"That was a great catch, one of the best I've ever seen," Leyland said then.
"I used to watch Willie Mays," Nixon explained.
No. 4: Dewayne Wise steals Gabe Kapler's home run
Chicago, July 23, 2009

The thing that makes this catch so magnificent is the timing of it. Wise had to run a long way for Kapler's deep fly ball. The guess is that this one would score well on the Statcast™ great catch system, because he was pretty much at full speed when he hit the warning track. He jumped at the very last second, reached up with his arm and pulled it in. It would rank as a fantastic home run saver no matter the situation.
But it's No. 4 on the list, because this was the ninth inning of what would become Mark Buehrle's perfect game. "Under the circumstances," White Sox legendary announcer Hawk Harrelson would say in the blurry seconds after the catch, "one of the greatest catches I have ever seen in 50 years in this game."
No. 3: Jim Edmonds steals home run from Jason LaRue
Cincinnati, July 16, 2004

For pure baseball brilliance, this might be the greatest home run-saving catch of them all. It isn't quite as dazzling as the No. 2 choice and not as important as No. 1, but the thing that is so mind-boggling about this catch is that Edmonds clearly had it all the way. He had a marvelous sense of geometry, which is why Edmonds made some of the greatest catches of his era.
This one, Edmonds realized immediately that he had to just get back to the wall as fast as he could. He turned and ran straight toward the wall without even thinking about the ball. Then as Edmonds got close to the wall, he got his bearings and looked to see where the ball was. He used the wall to get up in the air, and then he plucked the ball out of mid-air, a catch so ridiculous that announcers at first thought he must have trapped the ball somehow against the outfield grass.
No. 2: Gary Matthews Jr. robs Mike Lamb
Arlington, July 1, 2006

It doesn't matter how many times you see this catch, it still looks like an optical illusion. This is because it is fundamentally different from every other home run catch you will ever see. If this had been a normal home run-saving catch, Matthews would have run toward the ball, lifted himself using the wall and backhanded the catch. It would have been magnificent, but it would have looked like other catches.
Instead, Matthews either did not have the time or he did not run the proper route to make that kind of backhanded catch. Instead, he went to the wall, and when he got there, he had his back to home plate. Matthews put his right foot into the wall, jumped up off it and only then looked to see where the ball was.
As it turns out, the ball was already over Matthews' head, there was no time to backhand it. So he did the only think he could do, he reached out and snagged the ball the way a wide receiver might when trying to make a ridiculous one-handed, fingertip catch. It is utterly impossible.
Fun story: Lamb already had a double, a triple and a home run in the game, so he needed just a single for the cycle. If Matthews had somehow lost the ball while bringing it back into the park, you wonder if Lamb would have stopped at first base.
No. 1: Endy Chavez steals Scott Rolen's home run
New York, Oct. 19, 2006

When you talk about the play itself, Chavez's fabulous catch might rank below Matthews and Edmonds' catch. When you combine the catch (and the double-play throw) with the moment, it's the greatest of all time. The score was tied 1-1, sixth inning, Game 7 of the NLCS. Rolen's ball seemed a certain home run, which seemed a sure ending to the game.
Chavez's catch was one of those moments that blew up the brain.
But like Jerry West's 60-foot shot to force overtime vs. the Knicks in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Chavez's catch ended up being for naught. The Mets lost the game, just like West's Lakers lost their game. Still, in the moment, it was magnificent, and it ranks No. 1 on our list.

Joe Posnanski is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year.