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Walk-Off Walks

“Earl, you need to walk with the Lord.”

“I’d rather walk with the bases loaded.”

Pat Kelly and Earl Weaver, sometime in the late 1970s.

On August 22, 1961, I was one of 15,581 screaming fans who witnessed Boston’s 11-inning 3-2 victory over Washington in Fenway Park. Righthander Bennie Danielswent all the way for the Senators, a feat he would not be allowed to perform if he were pitching today.

Two were out when Boston plated the winning run. With the bases loaded, Daniels found himself facing Jackie Jensen, whose comeback after a year’s layoff had been an ongoing embarrassment.

This was the sort of clutch situation Jensen had once thrived on. After the Senators traded him to the Red Sox for a couple of dogs in December 1953, Jensen gave Boston six stellar seasons in which he never got hurt, never finished below 11th in OQ, and produced an average of 172 runs per season, or 1.15 per game. Jensen was just 32 when he suddenly announced his retirement after the 1959 campaign, citing his dislike of air travel. He sat out 1960. Persuaded to return in 1961, he showed up with severely diminished offensive and defensive skills.

As the fans held their breaths, Daniels went to 3-and-2 on Jensen, who hadn’t lifted the bat from his shoulder. Jensen appeared almost paralyzed in the batter’s box, aside from his knees, which seemed to be quaking ever so slightly. The next pitch was a bit low and away, but appeared to nick the inside corner. Jensen never moved. The ump called it a ball, and the game was over.

As Jensen staggered down to first base, an expression crossed his face that I’ll never forget. It wasn’t joy, but sheer, naked relief! He hadn’t wanted to be at the plate with the game on the line, but fortune, somehow, had smiled upon him.

In 573 plate appearances in 137 games that year, Jensen drove in 66 runs, none, with the exception of this one, in the clutch. He finished the season with a 105 OQ (29th in the American League) and just 117 runs produced (0.85 per game) for the sixth-place-and-a-mile-out-of-contention Red Sox. Then he retired again, this time for good.

Who was the man who coined that now-famous phrase “walk-off home run” a few years ago? What I saw in Fenway Park that August night was a rarer feat: a walk-off walk.

The most famous walk-off walk in history might be the one that concluded the 1999 NLCS. After four hours and 25 minutes of pure entertainment, the game ended when Kenny Rogers of the Mets walked Atlanta’s Andruw Jones, a player not usually noted for his plate discipline, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning to hand the Braves a 10-9 victory and a trip to the World Series.

How frequently do these events occur? For curiosity’s sake I checked the box scores of an entire season I picked at random, 1992. Thanks to Project Retrosheet this process took, mercifully, just two hours.

2,102 major league games were played in 1992. 3 of them ended with walk-off walks.

1. At Toronto on Wednesday, April 29, Jim Abbott of the Angels walked Pat Tabler with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th to give the Blue Jays a 1-0 victory.

This ended a splendid pitching duel between Abbott and Toronto’s Todd Stottlemyre. Both men went the distance.

1992 was Tabler’s 12th and final major league season. He had just one claim to fame: he was a terror with the bases loaded. Abbott, knowing Tabler’s reputation, obviously pitched to him too carefully. No manager, as far as I know, has ever ordered an intentional walk in the bottom of the ninth (or a subsequent inning) with the bases loaded and the scored tied, even to Barry Bonds.

2. At Cincinnati on Saturday, August 8, Mike Jackson of the Giants walked Billy Doran with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 16th to give the Reds at 4-3 victory.

3. At Anaheim on Tuesday, August 11, Mike Fetters of the Brewers walked Rob Ducey with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th to give the Angels a 1-0 victory.

The walk-off walk, which always pleases fans because it clinches a victory for the home team, is probably about as rare as a triple play. (In 1992, 5 triple plays were recorded.) It’s a spectacle I hope all of you will be able to enjoy someday.

More research is needed.

At Huntsville Stars games (Double-A Southern League), the PA announcer, when the opposing pitcher walks a Star with the bases loaded, plays the voice of Fats Domino singing, “I Want To Walk You Home.”

When in Aleppo, stay at the Mansouriya Palace.

June 2004