High and Tight: Speed Kings - Rolling Stone
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High and Tight: Speed Kings

Tom Morello, George Thorogood, Scott Ian and more weigh in on our national pastime

billy hamilton high and tightbilly hamilton high and tight

Billy Hamilton of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos slides safely into third base.

Michael Chang/Getty Images

Stolen bases are like shred guitar solos – they require speed and dexterity, and they can be exciting as hell when properly employed, but they’re not exactly to everyone’s taste.

Legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver had a legendary distaste for the stolen base as an offensive weapon, far preferring to play “station to station” baseball (maybe he was a Bowie fan?) and wait for the three-run homer. Sabermetricians have long argued that the stolen base is overvalued as a statistic – that unless a player or team is successful in at least two-thirds of their theft attempts, the stolen base can actually be detrimental to a team’s fortunes.

Then again, anyone who ever rooted for Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman – five of the greatest stolen-base artists of all time – can attest to the sense of sheer exhilaration that comes from watching true speed kings (to borrow a phrase from Deep Purple) do their thing on the basepaths, where the mere threat of the stolen base can become as deadly an offensive tactic as the swiped bag itself.

While minor league baseball obviously doesn’t get the same kind of prime-time media coverage as MLB, one minor league story became a major one this year: Reds farmhand Billy Hamilton’s all-out assault on the single-season minor league stolen base record. Hamilton, who just turned 22 this week – and who just so happens to have the same name as the MLB stolen base king of the 1890s – successfully swiped a record total of 155 bags this season while playing for the Bakersfield Blaze and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. Touted as the most dynamic base-stealer since Henderson (and a possible candidate to be the first player since Coleman to steal 100 bases in a major league season), Hamilton was caught only 37 times, giving him a SABR-approved success percentage of .807. And unlike some of the super sprinters out there (the Dodgers’ Dee Gordon, for example), Hamilton seems to know how to get on in the first place; in addition to hitting a combined .311 for the two teams, he also posted a .410 on-base percentage in 605 plate appearances.

Unfortunately, the Reds didn’t call Hamilton up when the MLB rosters expanded on September 1st, so we’ll have to wait until at least next season to see what kind of havoc he can wreak in a major league setting. In the meantime, we decided to ask our esteemed panel of rock & roll seamheads: Would you like to have a guy with Hamilton’s skills on your team? Or are stolen bases simply an overrated offensive tactic, regardless of how many you can rack up? 

Name: Pete Yorn
Vocals, Guitar

It’s always a good thing to have a speedster like Billy. If he can get on base, he’ll be dangerous. He’s actually a perfect player for the Reds. 

alice cooper

Name: Alice Cooper
Position: Vocals

I’d rather have a risky player like Hamilton on 2nd with a few outs, than one who plays it safe on first with no outs. To me, it makes sense to have someone at your disposal who can grab those extra bases when they can, because a good portion of the time those players are going to try reach home even if it kills them. You’ve gotta respect players like that! 

Name: Scott Ian

Yes, I would absolutely want an offensive weapon like this on my team. Base-stealing is an underrated tactic and does much more than just advance a runner. It creates chaos for a defense and disrupts a pitcher’s rhythm – and from a fan perspective, it’s fun to watch.

joe pernice

Name: Joe Pernice
Band: Pernice Brothers
Vocals, Guitar

I would love to have a guy like that. I love stolen bases. Advancing the runner is the object of the offense. Why not use every tool available? Plus, as a spectator, it’s exciting to watch a steal attempt. A great baseball joy is watching the catcher’s near-perfect throw roll into center field as the runner starts for third.

Name: Handsome Dick Manitoba

Well, I would like to have a guy like that on my team, if he has a good OBP, can throw, field, and is a smart baserunner. Some guys are blazing fast, but not smart players. Feh – you can keep ’em. They are overrated! Speed is always an important factor. But speed with brains, knowing how to run, the art of base-stealing is what you look for in a player. Speed and no brains = mediocre addition. Gimme a player with great speed who is smart on the basepaths and knows the game. Forty to 50 stolen bases is quite enough for me!

Name: Ben Gibbard
Band: Death Cab for Cutie
Vocals, Guitar

Yes, of course! I certainly think the Reds should have called him up and used him primarily as a pinch runner down the home stretch and into the playoffs.  

Name: Ken Casey
Dropkick Murphys
Bass guitar, Vocals

He’s overrated. Catchers at the minor league level can’t throw him out, but he’d be just another speed guy in MLB.

Dale Earnhardt jr jr

Name: Daniel Zott
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Vocals, Guitars

I think getting on base and stealing are somewhat overlooked. Our Detroit Tigers were built as a power team, but since we’ve added some players who can walk and steal bases, we’ve become a more well-rounded team that scores more.

george thorogood

Name: George Thorogood
Band: George Thorogood and the Destroyers
Position: Vocals, Guitar

I think it’s very rare to get a Maury Wills, Vince Coleman or a Rickey Henderson. You gotta steal more than 100 bases a season in order for it to be an effective offensive attack. I think it’s a good offensive attack, I just think it’s rare.

Name: Tom Morello
Band: The Nightwatchman, Street Sweeper Social Club, Rage Against the Machine
Guitar, Vocals

I would love to have an incredible base stealer on the Chicago Cubs. I think that the fear that a great base stealer strikes into the heart of an opposing pitcher and catcher can tilt the balance of a game, and it adds a healthy amount of tension and excitement every time that player gets on base.

Name: Steve Earle
Vocals, Guitar

Speed in general is an asset on any team – it unnerves pitchers, and gives you the ability to manufacture runs when your big bats go quiet.

vinnie paul

Name: Vinnie Paul
Hellyeah, Pantera

Hellyeah, I’d like to have him on my team. Manufactured runs are hard to get, and a guy with these kind of skills can definitely help produce those kind of runs.

Name: Steve Wynn
The Baseball Project
Vocals, Guitar

As a guy who grew up watching the Dodgers win 1-0 games behind great pitching and the unnerving ability of Maury Wills to get on base by any means necessary – and then make his way back home via stolen bases, bunts and a sac fly – I’m all for having a stolen-base king on my team. But you gotta have great pitching and great defense to make that strategy work, and that doesn’t always put butts in the seats, so it’s hard to say if many teams would go for that style of play.

Name: Scott McCaughey
The Baseball Project, The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows
Guitar, Vocals

Stolen base attempts are exciting. And the amount of pressure a good base stealer can put on a pitcher shouldn’t be underestimated. I remember seeing Rickey Henderson work a walk in the 9th inning of a tie game and completely electrify an entire stadium. Everyone knew exactly what was going to happen, but the tension built with every pick-off attempt and throw to the plate, to the point where you had 40,000 people in a frenzy before anything had actually happened. Rickey completely took over the game. And, of course, he stole and eventually scored (all without a hit), almost as if everyone willed it to happen. It was amazing. I’d love to see more players bring what Henderson brought to the game.

Dan Epstein’s book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, is now available in paperback.


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