In pretty much every sport, defense gets overlooked. With rare exceptions, no sports fans go to games because they are looking to see stellar defensive play. Lebron James, a three time NBA MVP, is widely acclaimed for his all-around athleticism and basketball abilities. He has been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team for four seasons running, starting back in 2009. But no Cleveland Cavaliers/Miami Heat fan has bought a ticket to see James’ rare ability to guard players at all positions; these fans buy tickets to see King James score the 27.6 points per game he has averaged over his career. The same can be said for baseball. Now that the steroid era has come to a close, things may be a little different now, but generally, baseball spectators aren’t nearly as interested in watching a well-executed double play as they are in seeing sluggers like Ryan Braun and Josh Hamilton hit a ball over the leftfield wall. Offense is frankly sexier. No doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some exhilarating and outstanding defensive plays during the long existence of Major League Baseball. Here are five of the greatest catches the game has ever known.
The New York Mets were not expected to do well in the summer of 69. Why would anyone? During the team’s eight year history, they had never finished better than second to last in the National League standings. The Amazin’ Mets of 1969 somehow managed to make it all the way to the World Series however. It wasn’t because of Ron Swoboda’s defensive play. The outfielder had a reliable bat, but a pop fly in his direction was not an automatic out. He stepped it up in game four of the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles though, when Brooks Robinson hit a line drive into right. Swoboda extended his body so that he was completely horizontal and made a spectacular, and improbable, diving catch that staved off an Orioles rally. The Mets would go on to win the game and the Series.
Kevin Mitchell, 1989
Unlike Swoboda, Kevin Mitchell was known for having an outstanding glove. But for one in 1989, the season that he won his sole MVP award, the San Francisco Giants outfielder didn’t even need his glove. In an early season game against the St. Louis Cardinals, legendary shortstop Ozzie Smith hit a deep ball into leftfield. The fact of the matter is that a majority of outfields would have caught this ball, but not the way Mitchell did. Mitchell picked up a little too much steam while chasing down Smith’s long ball, and he overran it. How did Mitchell remedy this? He simply reached out his bare right hand and snagged it with that instead. If the catch didn’t make that play memorable enough, Mitchell couldn’t stop himself and ran into the stands.
The career of hall of famer and all-time great Ken Griffey Jr. is filled to the brim with outstanding plays at the plate and in the outfield. The Kid won a whopping 10 Gold Gloves and was named to Major League Baseball’s all-time Gold Glove team in 2007. The Seattle Mariner demonstrated his superlative defensive abilities in his second season in a game against the New York Yankees. Jesse Barfield got a good chunk of Randy Johnson’s legendary fastball, and it looked as though Barfield’s 200th career home run had arrived. The young Griffey had other plans. Running a long way at outrageous speed, Griffey jumped and collided with the left-center wall. It was unclear if the ball went over, that is until Griffey stood up and removed the ball from his glove. Thus, his nickname “The Yankee Killer” was born.
No one would ever find Gary Matthews Jr. on any list of the great defensive players in baseball history. But in his final season with the Texas Rangers in 2006, Matthews got away with quite possibly the greatest home run rob anyone has ever seen. In an interleague match with the rival Houston Astros, Mike Lamb hit the ball to centerfield. Anything short of a home run was implausible. But Matthews made a vertical leap that would make even Michael Jordan jealous, stuck his glove over the eight foot wall and came away with the snag. Even Lamb applauded the remarkable grab from home plate.
Willie Mays, 1954
Duh. I’ve been doing this list in chronological order up until now, but you have to save the most legendary catch for last, and this is it. There’s not much that can be said about this one that hasn’t been said already. Simply put, the Say Hey Kid’s no-look catch while sprinting towards the warning track during the ‘54 World Series is one of baseball’s most iconic moments, ranking with Babe Ruth’s pointing to the outfield and the shot heard round the world.
What do you guys think of our picks? Did we miss any big catches? Let us know in the comments!