Two years ago, I wrote one of my very favorite submissions to this website: How To Celebrate A Walkoff Error, in which I closely examined where the teammates on the bench chose to mob up after a batter in a huge spot did something bad (hit a routine out) only to end up accomplishing something great (runner scores walkoff run on botched defensive play). The tendency to congratulate the hitter, instead of the runner, baffled me, but ultimately I concluded that this was akin to the principle of felony murder.
So here’s my understanding of felony murder: If you commit a felony and somebody dies, it’s felony murder. It doesn’t have to be premeditated, it doesn’t have to be intentional, you don’t have to have pulled the trigger or even known that the trigger was pulled. Once you start committing a felony, a whole bunch of unexpected stuff can happen, and you’re responsible for it.
That seems to be the idea here. With 100 percent confidence I’ll assert that hitting a round ball with a round bat is not actually the hardest thing to do in sports, but it’s definitely hard. Players appreciate that it’s hard. Once you do so, a whole bunch of unexpected stuff can happen. And you get credit for it! This is why we’re all punching you!
The felony murder explanation was tested this weekend by the St. Paul Saints in the American Association.
What we see here is a batter who didn't even do the barest minimum–hitting a baseball; or, even more minimal, not swinging a bat, a task that I have successfully completed going on 7,000 days in a row–yet got mobbed all the same. What's going on here? There are three explanations, I think.
1. This is straight up ironic mobbery. The celebration is actually a bit over the top even for a true walkoff win, relative to league standards. Consider this St. Paul Saints walkoff from 2014:
There's a strong scrum, and somebody dumps something on the hero's head, but the whole thing lasts 15 seconds before movement toward the dugout. The force of the celebration never diverts the group past the infield.
Then there's this Saints walkoff, on a home run,
the celebration of which lasts only 11 seconds before the Saints begin moving toward the dugout.
But in the Walkoff Strikeout, I count 22 seconds before the group begins moving back toward the dugout, and only after the batter, Gretz, is chased rabidly into the outfield. He's also doused with many bottles of water, a can of Red Bull, and two entire gumbuckets, which is like 1.5 percent of an indy-team's entire budget. Maybe this is because the game itself is more dramatic—it was a 10-inning win, and the Saints had to score twice after giving up a run in the top of the 10th—but it certainly looks like there's a bit more whimsy than pure excitement here. Just look at how Garrett comes over at around the 45-second mark to give him an extra hug: It's clearly the Drunk Bro Comfort Hug, not the That Field Goal Covered The Spread Hug.
2. They really are celebrating Gretz for his wise decision to run to first base. Of course, everybody would have run to first base, given even the most basic knowledge of baseball rules. Considering Gretz was standing in the batter's box holding the bat with the thick side up, I'm guessing he has the most basic knowledge of baseball rules. But "everybody would have" doesn't make it any less true that Gretz did, and in doing so, he did a job. Still don't get why the guy who did his job by running from third to home and scoring the winning run didn't get credit for doing his job, but maybe…
3. …there's just something that feels weird about celebrating a baserunner. Can't figure out why, and it's obviously not the geography of the celebration, as you can see from the perfectly acceptable celebrations that happen after walkoff home runs.
I want to say conclusively that it's straight-up irony, but look at the runner crossing home on this play. There's no hesitation. He turns and goes toward Gretz, which further implies that everybody else was running straight at Gretz, no confusion at all. I think the size of the celebration is clearly ironic, but the orientation of the celebration–toward Gretz–was not at all.
So I'm mostly settling on explanation 2, which requires, then, its own explanation: Why?
1. The felony murder explanation, except I misunderstood the instigating event (the felony). It's not hitting a baseball. It's attempting to hit a baseball. Baseball players know that simply standing in the batter's box is a tremendously dangerous act, physically (baseball to dome) and emotionally (possibility of failure while everybody watches). Gretz got the nerve to face those dangers, and because he did a good thing happened.
2. Baseball prefers that to reward people based on results instead of process is a more powerful way of incentivizing good behavior. If a job gets done, you cut a check. There's no place for style points (or demerits) in a utilitarian utopia like baseball.
3. Choosing which teammate to mob would create an ambivalence that would make everybody uncomfortable and create a snubbed teammate. If there is no choice–if tradition dictates celebrating the man on first, no matter what–there is no snub. Nobody's feelings are hurt when their superior achievement is passed over for Gretz's—that's just the way it works. This is the basic tenant of most baseball culture and player development: To make as much of the game as automatic as possible. Your brain is a liability.
Of course, this doesn't settle the most pressing question in this situation: How does the dropped-third-strike rule, the dumbest rule in baseball, still exist?