Making a definitive list of the greatest defensive plays in the history of Major League Baseball is, for a variety of reasons, impossible. For starters, professional baseball was played in this country well over a century ago. Who knows what might have occurred in games when no cameras were running?
This includes World Series games and all-time classics.
Then there is the fact that different moments stay with people for different reasons. Perhaps one play in particular involves the club you’ve rooted for since you were a child, or maybe it includes the ball player who was your favorite as you grew up watching the sport.
What I can promise you about the following list is that it includes defensive gems that were impressive to pull off and remain, to this day, impressive to behold.
Here are 10 all-time great defensive plays in Major League Baseball history.
10. Asdrubal Cabrera: May 12, 2008
Only 15 players have, to date, been credited with turning unassisted triple plays. One even managed to do so during a World Series. The Cleveland Indians second baseman added his name to the list in the spring of 2008, when he put his quick reflexes on display.
With runners on first and second, a hit-and-run was ordered as the bat made contact with the baseball. Cabrera, positioned to potentially turn a double play, lunged to his right to catch the ball before it hit the ground. Cabrera then stepped on second base for out No. 2 before tagging out the final legal base runner, completing the triple play in a matter of seconds.
9. Orlando Hernandez: June 5, 1999
Pitchers aren’t always known for having the best of defensive skill sets. That’s rarely a big deal, as starters such as Hernandez take the field only once every 4-5 games (depending on the situation). “El Duque” was starting for the New York Yankees in a game against cross-town rivals the New York Mets when Hernandez flashed quick reflexes in snagging the ball with his glove.
The problem was that the ball landed in the glove with such force that it actually got stuck.
Hernandez, unable to remove the baseball from his glove, did not panic. He quickly ripped the glove off of his left hand before tossing the package – glove, ball and all – over to first base for the out.
8. Endy Chavez: NLCS Game 7
Everything about that night in Queens had New York Mets fans believing that they were witnessing what would be a night to happily remember for years and for decades to come. The Amazins were a win away from a World Series match-up that they should win. Shea Stadium was in the twilight of her career.
Of course this catch had to happen. Of course left fielder Endy Chavez would, with the game tied in the sixth inning, seemingly hover in the air to steal a home run while his back pressed against a sign that read “The Strength To Be There.” Was it all destiny?
It was not. The Mets lost the game in heartbreaking fashion, they’ve since moved on to Citi Field, and they have yet to return to the NLCS.
7. Ivan Calderon: Literally Climbs the Wall
There is a scene in the movie Major League II when Cleveland Indians outfielder Isuro Tanaka, a character that wouldn’t fly in films made in 2014 for a variety of reasons, climbs literally on top of the fence to keep a home run from landing in the stands. It’s somewhat humorous, if only because you’d never see it happen in an actual meaningful game.
Well, you may not anymore, at least.
Calderon was, due to the setup at the old Tigers Stadium, able to climb up the wall and then steady his body via the fence that was attached to the wall. Then, while standing with both feet on the wall, Calderon placed his glove over the fence to make the play and keep the ball from landing in the seats.
6. Ken Griffey Jr. April 26, 1990
Junior Griffey was, before injuries and age slowed him, perhaps the greatest athlete to ever play in Major League Baseball. He could hit for power. He was an elite base-runner. Griffey could do it all.
Griffey also happened to be a special talent in the outfield.
If MLB ever wanted to change the league’s logo to a silhouette of an outfielder rather than that of a batter, the organization could do a lot worse than Griffey’s extended body robbing Jesse Barfield of what the New York Yankees hitter had to believe was a sure round-tripper.
Griffey’s reaction after the grab is just as memorable. Flashing his trademark grin as he jogs toward the infield, Griffey could not wait to celebrate with his teammates. He had a true joy for playing the game, something missing in far too many professional athletes in 2014.
5. Gary Matthews, Jr.: July 1, 2006
Some home run robberies feature an athletic outfielder using his legs to propel himself over the wall so that he can bring the ball back into play. In other situations, the defensive player has to climb up the wall in order to get high enough to make the dramatic and run-saving catch. Sometimes, the player in question even has his back toward home when he completes the grab.
All three were true of Matthews on that July day.
This play was only ending one of two ways: With the ball landing over the fence for a homer, or with Matthews bringing the ball back into play. The then Kansas City Royals center fielder did well to time his jump to perfection so that, when at its apex, his glove would be exactly where it needed to be to snag the baseball from the abyss.
It’s a 10 out of 10 in degree of difficulty.
4. Jim Edmonds: June 10, 1997
Edmonds was a human highlight reel during his career, and you could argue that he could have a top-ten list dedicated to plays that only he made. While it didn’t change or affect the outcome of a World Series as did a similar grab, Edmonds’ was just as good, if not better.
Edmonds, playing in shallow center field, ran back into straightaway center to chase after a ball that had been hit to the deepest playable part of the park. Looking up as his feet were steps away from the warning track, Edmonds extended his body at the final moment to make the overhead catch as he crashed to the track.
3. Bo Jackson: “The Throw”
15 years after the fact, arguably the greatest defensive play of the two-sport superstar’s baseball career (and there were several) is still known simply as “The Throw.” Jackson raced toward the left-field warning track to retrieve a base hit as speedster Harold Reynolds made his way from first base. The combination of Jackson’s position on the field as he made it to the ball, Reynolds’ speed and where Reynolds was when Jackson grabbed the ball made this situation a no-brainer.
Reynolds would score with ease.
Except that he didn’t. Jackson’s throw, roughly 300 feet from home, hit the glove of catcher Bob Boone on a dime. Like a Pro Bowl quarterback connecting with a wide receiver, Jackson threw a perfect strike from where no outfielder should ever be expected to do so, and it remains an assist that will live on for generations. Skip to the end of the video above to witness one of the most remarkable plays you will ever see.
2. Derek Jeter: “The Flip”
Jeter has a resume of great defensive plays made throughout his Hall-of-Fame career. His most famous came in Game 3 of the 2001 American League Division Series when the New York Yankees were away to the Oakland Athletics.
Oakland’s Terrence Long doubled down the right-field corner, a hit sure to score Jeremy Giambi from first base. Right-fielder Shane Spencer missed the cut-off man with this throw, and Jeter, who had raced over to the opposite side of the infield in case of such a miscue, retrieved the ball. As Giambi raced toward home plate without ever sliding, Jeter flipped the ball backhanded to Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. Posada completed the tag, and the Yankees went on to a magical run that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks, a run that ended just one half-inning short of a World Series championship.
1. Willie Mays: “The Catch”
The Ken Burns documentary Baseball does a fantastic job of breaking down Mays‘ historic play made during the 1954 World Series just about frame by frame to highlight one major point:
Mays, playing center field for the New York Giants when the Giants were hosting the Cleveland Indians, should have never been able to make the catch.
The ball had been launched to the deepest part of the ballpark, approximately 460 feet from where its journey began. Mays had started out in shallow center field, and thus the only question as the crack of the bat was heard was if Mays could retrieve the ball in time to prevent an inside-the-park home run.
Mays sprinted back as soon as he realized the ball was headed over him, and, at the perfect moment, he raised his glove to make the over-the-shoulder grab. After completing the catch, Mays spun around to get the ball back toward the infield to make sure that Larry Doby, who started out from second base, did not score.
This wasn’t just an incredible play made by an athlete for the ages. It changed history. The Indians, favorites to win the Series, never recovered. The Giants swept Cleveland, and the Tribe still haven’t won a World Series since 1948.