May 9, 2017
The Best of All Possible Jeffrey Leonards
Consider all the things you know about former All-Star and Rookie of the Year runner-up Jeffrey Leonard. Conjure his heavy-lidded frown into your mind. Remember his pejorative, self-accepted nicknames, HacMan and Penitentiary Face; summon the mental GIF of him loping around the bases on a solo home run, one flap down. Remember a man who spent 14 years in the major leagues and battled it to a draw.
Consider all this, and then consider that Jeffrey Leonard holds a forgotten and potentially unbreakable baseball record, one that you will never find in Cooperstown, or Baseball Reference, or even his own SABR biography. The only place you might find it, if you were so inclined, is on page 117 of the paperback Official Baseball Guide of 1980, published by The Sporting News.
Jeffrey Leonard is the only baseball player in recorded history to go 1-for-3 in a single at-bat.
The situation: August 21, 1979. Bottom of the ninth inning, Astros down 5-0 to the Mets, bases empty, two outs. Garbage time, except for Pete Falcone, who was working on a shutout. Leonard lifted a lazy fly to center field; Lee Mazzilli caught it with two hands, and the ballgame was over.
The remaining fans stood and filed out, the familiar postgame music sang from tinny speakers, the players headed toward their dugouts. Only, it wasn’t over. Before the pitch, Mets shortstop Frank Taveras, seeing a pebble on the infield or a loose shoelace or a glint underneath the eyelids of Jeff Leonard, called time, and the third base umpire had granted it to them. So the music stopped, the fielders were called back out of the dugout, and thousands of departing fans were left wondering why baseball was still being played.
Yet play they did, and this time our hero redeemed himself by singling to left. As he rounded first, both teams made a sudden discovery: there was no one there. First baseman Ed Kranepool was in the tunnel, wondering where all his teammates were. This time the Mets appealed, and Leonard was forced to bat yet again, with first base manned. He went to left again, but this time with too much air. The catch was made, and this time the game really was over.
Only, again, it wasn’t. The Giants protested the game, and the league found in their favor; Kranepool was given his notice, teams were instructed to play ball, and the Mets willingly pitched. So they had to restart the game the next night, already in progress, with Leonard back at first and the tying run still a batter away from being in the hole. Jose Cruz immediately grounded out and the game was over, truly. It was a matter of two minutes. The only victim was Falcone, who couldn’t finish his own start 24 hours later, and was denied the shutout.
Did Leonard have one at-bat or three? The answer is both, really. Only one at-bat is official, but the other two happened, and not only happened but did so under the most realistic possible circumstances, with every player on the field thinking that they were just as real.
It’s an interesting thing. No other sport willingly discards its actual history the way baseball does. Phil Bradley hit the first night homer at Wrigley Field, until it rained in the fourth and suddenly he hadn’t anymore. Mitch Moreland was probably given the ball after his first grand slam in 2011; one wonders what he did with it after his achievement got nullified. Extra innings are counted despite the fact that they aren’t equal opportunity, and many records are set or lost based on that randomized extra opportunity. It’s even more dramatic in football and basketball, where single-game numbers are more constant and the extra time of play skews numbers past generally recognized benchmarks.
It seems a little strange that we allow one but not the other, rare as the latter is. Sure, I get it. We don’t count aborted games because we never have, and baseball is nothing if not bound by its past. It’d be impossible to go back and re-establish statistics based on hearsay and newspaper accounts, and it’d be a nightmare if doing so actually changed something, altered a batting title or a tiny fraction of legacy.
I always think about the opposite situation, however. Imagine a 43-year-old Rickey Henderson, starting in left field on the final day of the 2001 season. It’s unclear whether he has a job next year, or ever; he has a 102 wRC+ with the Padres that year, but unfortunately for him wRC+ hasn’t been invented yet, and batting average has. Henderson leads off the bottom of the first the same way, a flare near the right field line 30 feet behind first for a double. The team pours out and crowds around him, Henderson hoists the plaque. And then it rains. And rains. There’s no makeup game; the TV schedule for the playoffs has been set. Henderson heads to Newark with 2,999 hits, and waits for a call that never comes.
It’s a drastic example, an almost impossible one. But this is the problem with a game so often built on soft rules: they always get tested, in the moments when we suddenly, desperately care about the milliseconds and millimeters.
As baseball’s knowledge, its tools, and its computing power expand, the primary limit to the granularity of baseball data is what we bother to count. It still drives me a little crazy that we don’t discern between pickoffs and caught stealing, and incorporate the former into a pitcher’s sum defensive contribution. It’s strange that we count fouls on a granular level but that there’s no easily searchable Foul% statistic. We don’t even track skypoints. We have enough people who enjoy baseball that we could create a modern Project Scoresheet for skypointing.
There’s a good reason we don’t have these: because counting statistics is demanding, exhausting work. It’s something that needs to be paid for, and so we generally get numbers for things that are worth money, i.e. wins. But maybe, at least for Jeffrey Leonard, it’s time to reconsider. Back in 1980, statistics were largely descriptive, and very concerned with officiality. Now, in the era of evaluative statistics, Leonard’s two outs, made under perfect baseball-like conditions, are every bit as meaningful as the single he gets credit for. If Billy Hamilton somehow hits a 480-foot home run in the first inning of a rained out game, that feat should absolutely be factored into projecting his future performance; it’d be insane not to.
You could claim that this is trivial, and it is. But when it comes to history, I tend to mistrust the single monopolistic voice. If Phil Bradley tells me he hit 79 home runs instead of 78, I’m not going to argue with him.