When an outfielder ran through a wall
Minor Leaguer McCray recalls claim to fame 24 years after ubiquitous blooper
He introduces himself as "Crash," not because he was a career Minor Leaguer like the other famous Crash of "Bull Durham" fame, but because his best-remembered moment on the field arrived in the form of, quite literally, a crash.
You might not recognize Rodney McCray by name alone, but surely you've seen his blooper-reel highlight. It's basically the Grand Poobah of bloopers, unforgettable for several reasons: it was daring, it was dangerous and it looked really, really painful.
Fortunately, the star of the blooper not only lived to tell about it, but he suffered nary a scratch after it happened 24 years ago in Portland, Ore.
"There are worse things to be remembered for," McCray said with a smile.
McCray was playing for the White Sox Triple-A affiliate, the Vancouver Canadians, on May 27, 1991. The team was playing the Portland Beavers at Civic Stadium (now Providence Park, a Major League Soccer venue). McCray was supposed to have the day off, but an injury to an outfield teammate pressed him into duty.
The wind was blowing straight in, McCray remembered, turning sure home runs into playable fly balls. Portland's Chip Hale, 24 years from debuting as the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, hit a long fly ball to right-center field, and McCray, aggressive and quick, went full bore in chasing it down.
Keeping his eye on the ball wasn't an issue. Taking it off long enough to gauge how close he was to the wall? That's another story.
"Hale was ... a little slap hitter, a contact hitter," McCray recalled. "He hit the ball, and I'm watching, watching, and boom. Through the wall."
Most Minor League outfield walls are billboards, and this was no exception. What made this wall unique was that it was slightly unhinged, swinging back and forth instead of being nailed down with no give.
"The wall was like a doggie door," McCray said. "It was one-inch, old plywood. It gave way like a doggie door, and I landed on the other side of the fence."
Hale recalled that he was struggling mightily at that time and got the hit-and-run sign from his manager, who was coaching third base that game. The ball would presumably be hit somewhere on the ground. Instead, it was elevated and just kept going, right in McCray's direction.
Recalled Hale: "I was running to first, watching it, of course, and thinking, 'He's got to stop! He's got to stop! He's going to run into the wall!' And as soon as I hit first, I saw his face -- at the same time as the ball hit his glove -- hit the wall and it just exploded."
Hale saw the ball dribble back his way and knew he needed to keep running. But he was mostly just concerned about McCray.
"Obviously, hoping he was OK, but also trying to get as far as I could," said Hale, who ended up with a run-scoring triple. "Just when he was laying there, I was just really worried about him. He was a tough guy and he hit it between the bars."
Immortalized in Cooperstown
McCray walked away from the incident unhurt. He also escaped with something else -- instant fame.
It's hard to find a blooper reel that doesn't include McCray's crash, including one on continuous loop at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
McCray was in Cooperstown last summer to attend the induction of his former teammate, Frank Thomas, and he showed his son the outfield wall crash highlight.
"We got to experience it together," McCray said. "It was pretty cool."
McCray embraces the fact that the crash being is as close as he'll get to Hall of Fame immortality.
"Being a career Minor Leaguer and getting just two years in the big leagues, that's my claim to fame," McCray said, laughing. "Somehow, I make it to the Hall of Fame. There's a lot of guys that say, 'Hey, I played baseball.' But I'm in the Hall of Fame. Somewhere, somehow, I got in there. It's really cool."
He has also been immortalized with his very own bobblehead. In 2006, the Portland club contacted McCray and said it would like to have a Rodney McCray bobblehead day, to commemorate the crash of 1991.
The club also renamed the outfield wall after him -- McCray Alley.
McCray, who in his post-playing career served as a coach for the Lansing Lugnuts in 1998 and more recently spent a couple of years as the Dodgers' Minor League baserunning and outfield instructor, lives in Houston and spends the majority of his time coaching kids who play in travel baseball leagues. He has three teams of 14- and 16-year-olds.
"I'm always going to have a passion for teaching the game in some form," McCray said, adding that he also works part-time at a law firm.
Since he goes by the nickname Crash, it's safe to say McCray is fine with the attention that he's received over the years because of that remarkable play 24 years ago.
Running through the wall, after all, can be viewed as a badge of honor.
"It dictated what kind of ballplayer I was," says McCray, who swiped 400 bases across 10 Minor League seasons. "That's the way I played the game -- very aggressive. I played hard, a go-getter."
Not a bad way to be remembered.