Los Angeles Angel Of Anaheim Does Amazing Baseball Thing, For Naught
1:38 PM EDT on March 31, 2023
The Angels led the Athletics 1-0 when Oakland's Jace Peterson, leading off the bottom of the fifth inning, turned on Shohei Ohtani's 2-0 pitch and socked it into right field. The Oakland crowd, such as it was, made a moderate crescendoing ohhhhh as it arced out: Not the roar of a sure dinger, but the one that means ho ho HO, we might just have something here. It made a sharp crack off Peterson's bat and certainly looked mean, the kind of ball that could be a standup double if it went into the gap or up the baseline—but it was not going into the gap or up the baseline. It was going almost but not quite directly toward L.A. (of Anaheim) right-fielder Hunter Renfroe.
Maybe all of this—the crack of the bat and the sound of the crowd, the low hard angle the ball took on its way into the outfield—scrambles Renfroe's brain for just a moment. Or maybe the ball describes a subtly weird arc that he can't pick up at first, and he thinks he's looking at a hook headed over his left shoulder rather than a slice heading over his right. I'm being generous, here, because for all but the final 0.1 seconds of what happened next, Renfroe appears to be making a big ol' dog's breakfast out of the whole thing. He gets a bad jump, for one thing, then rotates to his right and takes a couple of steps back toward the wall, and then changes his mind—wrongly. He rotates back around to his left, even as the ball arcs the other way, toward his right. The mistakes compound each other: Because of the bad jump and the change of plans he now has to run pell-mell just to keep up with the ball's flight, even as it becomes immediately clear that he is facing the whole wrong way.
Renfroe is a right-handed thrower; his glove is on his left hand. You can see the problem here, in the above screenshot: If his body were flipped the other way, Renfroe could just stick his glove-hand up in front of him, like you do, and catch the ball, but of course his body is not flipped that way. If he sticks his glove-hand up in front of him, like you do, he will accomplish nothing other than waving hi to the fans in the right-field corner while a dang triple lands behind him. He is running in one direction, looking in a second direction, and also now somehow needs to get his left hand around to the other side, to a glove-sized region in three-dimensional space behind him, 90 degrees from the vector of his movement and 180 degrees from the direction he is facing, where a very fast-moving baseball will be for a fraction of a moment, a fraction of a moment from now. Adding to his constraints, he has just made a compelling argument, not even two whole seconds ago, that may not be Earth's very smoothest or most instinctive judge of objects moving through space at high speeds.
The dancerly, agile way of handling this problem would be for Renfroe to rotate his whole body to his right on the run, the reverse of the way he initially did when he made the wrong choice to change direction, managing, now at a dead sprint, the tricky mechanical challenge of flipping his hips without tripping his right foot with his left foot and falling onto his ass. This is the only way to get his body around without taking his eye off the ball. Were Renfroe a particularly dancerly, agile type of guy, though, he probably would not be in this mess in the first place. Alternatively, if he were an owl, he could make the shorter and more intuitive rotation the other way, and simply finish the play with his head on backward. Unfortunately he also is not an owl. There is no time to ponder this cruel fate! One dang way or another, the man simply must get his glove to where the ball will be, one zillionth of a second from now!
I would like to pause here for a moment. One of my favorite features of baseball is that it values the different types of athletic ability relative to each other in ways it shares with no other sport. So that a guy like, for example, Manny Ramirez could have a legitimate claim to being one of the genuinely great baseball players of a generation despite manifestly possessing no natural facility for, well, running. I don't just mean that Manny Ramirez was slow, although he was. I mean that Manny Ramirez was poor at running. Like, relative even to reasonably normal people, to say nothing of other professional athletes, he was a bad runner. His body did running crappily, and unnaturally, at any speed. Again we are talking about running: perhaps the most basic and fundamental athletic activity that there is for human beings, the thing literal infants start rehearsing from their backs before they've even developed the ability to hold their heads upright.
It didn't really matter that Manny Ramirez ran more or less like someone had removed his legs the night before and replaced them with ones made of concrete, and moreover put them on backward. The athletic abilities that mattered for him, that made him an awe-inspiring baseball player, were in his hands and arms, his impossible reflexes, his kinesthetic sense—his preternatural ability, in short, to get his hands to a precise place in three-dimensional space, arranged just so, moving very fast, timed to a point so brief that for a normally configured person it might as well not exist. That's what hitting a pitch is, after all, and it's what baseball players are superhumanly good at.
Which, I think, is why Renfroe, for as clumsy an absolute goon as the first couple seconds of this play may have made him appear to be, was then able to do this:
Great googly moogly! I have watched this catch, conservatively, 70 times this morning; it never gets less amazing. It's not enough for Renfroe simply to have gotten his hand to where the ball was going to be at that moment—though even that, just the part of this where he had the wherewithal and coordination to get his hand to that place, behind him, while running, while turning his head, while rotating his entire upper body, while taking his eye off the ball, within what certainly seems like one millisecond, is astonishing. After all it would have been no good to get his hand there palm-down, like hitting a backhand in tennis. He had to get his hand there with the glove positioned just so, elbow turned outward weirdly, for the ball to plop into it. Any result other than the ball and Renfroe's glove meeting perfectly and Peterson will have just hit a triple (or Renfroe will have committed a three-base error, if the scorekeeper wants to be a dick about it).
If you gave me a million tries at this maybe, maybe, one time in there, through no particular abundance of dexterity, I could accomplish getting all the bones in my hand broken by the ball smashing into the back of it. Maybe three or four other times I could avoid punching myself in the ear and falling down. He didn't even fall down!
Here is a funny chart:
A phenomenal athletic play like this one—borne out of what initially was a boner, redeemed astoundingly at the absolute last moment by the very guy who first appeared to be barfing down the front of his own shirt—has a totally different appeal from a more straightforward moment of genius. To see an athlete's absolute brilliance juxtaposed so clearly against their wretched human clumsiness, to see ballet blossom all at once out of some Lt. Frank Drebin-type shit, casts the former into uniquely sharp relief. A person can do that! It's breathtaking.
The Angels lost anyway. Of course they did. Shohei Ohtani, the greatest baseball player perhaps ever, pitched six outstanding scoreless innings, struck out 10 A's and allowed only five to reach base, and got himself on base twice as L.A.'s designated hitter, and Renfroe made one of the greatest outfield catches I've ever seen, and the Angels entered the bottom of the eighth in the lead, and they lost anyway, 2-1. Send SEAL Team Six to extract Ohtani from this team. Exorcise the club from the majors. Raze its stadium and salt the earth where it stood.