“It is the clutch situation of the season. They say The Jet’s lost a step or two, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some fireworks here. The Jet’s got a suicide lead and—and there he goes he’s stealing home! They don’t see him! I don’t believe it! He’s stealing home! He’s stealing home and they don’t see him! I don’t believe it! They don’t see him–the pitch!
There’s the throw! He’s in the dirt and he’s—safe! Safe!
Safe! Safe! Safe! I don’t believe it! The Jet stole home! The Jet stole home!”
Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez juuuust beat the tag 25 years ago, sending his childhood friend Scotty Smalls into a fit of euphoria, when The Sandlot slid into theaters on April 1st, 1993. It was a perfect ending to a classic movie about friendship, baseball, and innocence.
But what the hell was The Jet doing? What was the game situation when he took such a risky move, especially for a player who was so much older than you realize? What was at stake? What were the chances he’d be safe? Was the attempt worth it? And was he really…gulp…out? To answer these vital questions we studied the tape like a trip to the World Series was on the line, looked at real baseball stats to figure out the odds, and tried to answer whether or not the ump got the call right.
The Game and What Was on the Line
You can study the two “present day” Sandlot scenes that start and end the movie like the Zapruder film (which I have) and they’ll offer just as many clues to who killed JFK as they do specifics about the game. Here’s what we know for sure: it was a day game–that ended well before nightfall–between the Dodgers and their arch-rivals the Giants at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
That is literally it. It’s a beautiful warm day, which in Southern California roughly covers the entire baseball season from the start of April to the end of October. The biggest clue to when it takes place is the first thing broadcaster Smalls says at the start of the stealing home scene: “It is the clutch situation of the season.” Except he doesn’t just say “the” he says “thee.” We all know pronouncing it “thee” is the universal way of saying something is “the ultimate, super serious, totally definitive” situation, which points to this taking place very late in the season. And it if it matters, it appears there are playoff implications for the Dodgers.
It’s definitely not a playoff game though because there are no special markings around the park like you see in the post-season, and these two teams couldn’t have met in the playoffs in ’93 unless it was a special tie-breaker game for the division, which Smalls would have mentioned (this will also be important later). He might be an over-the-top, huge, unprofessional homer here, but you don’t get to call games for the Dodgers unless you are talented and understand the situation, so he would have mentioned it.
So what year does the game take place? The movie was released in ’93, but at the start of the MLB season, which would normally make us want to say this took place in ’92. But when you look at the Dodgers schedule for both years the last time they played the Giants at home in ’92 was on September 13th, with 19 games still to go on the schedule. But they did end the ’93 regular season at home against themGiants with four games, starting from September 30th to October 3rd. So we’re going with ’93 because it fits better with Smalls comment about this being “thee” clutch situation.
We’re not considering ’91 when the Dodgers were in a classic, heated playoff race during September that came down to the end of the season, even though it fits so many of our criteria (especially this game) because of Smalls’ lack of details. For Smalls, Benny’s steal of home is all about Benny and not the team. I don’t care if that was his son, he would be yelling about the playoff race too. You could argue this means the Benny game was early in September or late August even, which is why Smalls is less specific, but choices have to be made, people. Based on what we have, this isn’t big enough for what happened in ’91. The scene feels more like, “the team has an outside, small chance at the playoffs and this kept it alive.”
But don’t bother looking at their actual place in the standings in MLB in 1993 anyway, because while we’re using real schedules the teams are clearly fictional/alternate reality versions. We know because when The Jet runs in, we see the Dodgers 3rd base coach is named Wills, and a Wills has never coached for Los Angeles Dodgers. Also there was never really a Jet, so let’s call that settled.
As for the actual game, the Jet comes in with a runner on first and it’s the bottom of the 9th (more on that in a second). Benny’s in for his speed, so the best bet is there has to be less than two outs so he can tag and score on a short fly ball, otherwise there’s a lot less value in using him here. It’s possible there are no outs, but the infield isn’t playing in to cut down a runner at home. They are staying back hoping to turn a double play, which points to one out.
It has to be the bottom of the 9th because of what happens after he steals home. One, Smalls loses it–completely–in a way that has to be bigger than just his childhood friend having an amazing late career moment in an important game. Also the Dodgers dugout empties and they carry The Jet on their shoulders. Short of someone like Cal Ripken Jr. having an all-time career achievement, that only happens when a game is over, meaning he just ended a tie game.
However, the entire organization doesn’t empty on to the field, so Benny definitely didn’t secure a playoff spot, and this doesn’t seem to be the last game of the season. An early day game is likelier to be on a weekend, so the best guess at a date is October 2nd, which was a Saturday in 1993. That makes it game 161 out of 162, and at the very least these Dodgers needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, even if chances were slim.
Risk vs. Reward
Strangely, this a much less complicated issue than when the game was played, but only because people much smarter than I am have done the work answering this question for actual Major League Baseball players. Our best guess is that there was one down in the inning, which means even if he was called out the Dodgers wouldn’t lose the game and the inning would continue. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t dumb. A runner on third base is more likely to score with one out than a runner on first or second with two outs. The Dodgers only need one run here to win the game, so there’s no value to the other baserunner for us to care about.
So we want to look at Benny’s chances of success and his expected value here. This is a “straight” steal of home, meaning we aren’t interested when someone runs home after a wild pitch or passed ball, or the catcher overthrows the pitcher. In 2016 Shane Tourtellotte of FanGraphs did yeoman’s work to determine how often those succeed. Usually only the fastest players even try to do this, with the rest of the attempts usually coming from players who think the pitcher isn’t paying attention. Benny’s likely situation is highlighted.
“I found that, with one out, steals of home had a success rate of 79 out of 408, just 19.4 percent. With two outs, the rate was 104 out of 291, or 35.7 percent.”
“What some dub as the most exciting play in baseball sees an even bigger split based on the number of outs in the inning. With zero outs in the inning, an 87% success rate is required. With one out, a 70% success rate is required. Finally, with two outs only a 34% success rate is required.”
YIKES. Benny dramatically decreased the Dodgers chances when he broke for home.
As Bryan Grosnick of Beyond the Box Score said when he looked at Tourtellotte’s results: “Don’t try to steal home with no outs. Also, don’t try to steal home with one out. Seriously, guys. Even with a slight tactical advantage (element of surprise, the right runner at third, or a misstep by the pitcher), the odds aren’t in your favor.”
Some would argue Benny was being a selfish “Glory Boy” by trying to have one final moment in the spotlight, probably because he was 42 years old and on his way out of the league. He’s around 12 or 13 as a kid in the summer of ’62 when the movie takes place, so over 30 years later he’d be in his early 40s. That’s amazing longevity, and still being fast at the age is almost unheard of, which makes me think he was hanging around as a September call-up, when MLB rosters expand from 25 to 40 men. It’s crazy he tried to steal home there though.
The one defense for what he did is that based on Smalls’ freak out in the broadcast booth, the Giants’ pitcher wasn’t paying attention and the wily old veteran saw an opportunity despite “losing a step or two.” Still, the risk doesn’t seem worth it due to the overwhelming odds he’d be thrown out, which would decrease the Dodgers win expectancy.
Did the Ump Blow The Call?
A Dodgers fan: “Benny was absolutely safe! Know how I know? The ump called him safe, and that’s all that matters.”
Okay, calm down imaginary Dodgers fan getting all worked up over this fictional game. We just want to know if after 25 years of celebrating The Jet’s glorious moment whether there’s a chance Benny was the beneficiary of a fortuitous call. We only have one angle to go with, and the ump who made it was likely in the right position (there’s little time to react), but that’s not the perfect angle to make that call.
Here’s the ump with Benny sliding at him. This angle doesn’t give us the right depth to see when the glove touches Benny.
If the catcher did tag his arm right here Benny should have been called out.
It’s not definitive either way, but you know what we do know? The call was “safe.”
As far as we’re concerned, as people who have loved The Sandlot for 25 years, it was “thee” right call.
But what do you think? Was Benny’s steal of home selfish or brilliant? Step up to the plate in our comments section with your thoughts.
Images: 20th Century Fox