The decision to stop Alex Gordon at third base in the most pressure-packed moment baseball can provide — bottom of the ninth, two outs, home team trailing by one run in the seventh game of the World Series — stands as perhaps the greatest what-if moment in Kansas City sports history.
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The rewind: Giants center fielder Gregor Blanco misplayed Gordon’s base hit and the ball rolled to the wall at Kauffman Stadium, where left fielder Juan Perez complicated matters by mishandling it. Gordon kept running, not always at full go, until given the stop sign by Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele.
What if Gordon had kept motoring and tried to score from third?
The answer remains forever unknown. But the wondering will never cease.
In that spirit, the Rockhurst University baseball team took time from its preseason preparation — the Hawks open on Feb. 24 — to become players in a re-enactment.
The objective was to run the play several times to get an idea of what could have happened.
Now, these are Division II college players and not major-leaguers, an observation the Hawks made several times, especially when commenting on the arm strength of Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.
Also, the re-enactment didn’t include Gordon’s hit, Blanco’s misplays or the relay throw, which Crawford had to scoop off the outfield grass. We could try to run that circus act 100 times without a facsimile.
The players were set. Rockhurst shortstop Brett Marr, a sophomore from Warrensburg, was positioned in left center field, approximating the distance of Crawford when he took the relay throw. Marr’s back was to the infield, his glove on the ground with the ball.
The catcher, in the role of Buster Posey, is Jake Jones, a senior from Lake Quivira.
The first baseman, Matt Stacks, a senior from Lee’s Summit, moved into the cutoff position as Brandon Belt did that night. His job was to line up the throw from Marr. Had there been a play at the plate, the throw likely would not have been cut unless it was off line.
Seth Soto, a sophomore from Lee’s Summit, manned third base as Pablo Sandoval did, and in the role of Jirschele was Dalton Thompson, a catcher and junior from DeSoto. Instead of holding up the runner, he windmilled Burns home.
The runner, in the role of Gordon, was Patrick Burns, a speedy utility player from Kansas City. His duty started at second base, and the “Action!” call was his and the play’s starting gun.
Getting the timing down was tricky. It’s difficult to estimate where Gordon would have been in relation to the ball had he been running full speed through third base.
For our project, we asked Marr to turn and throw about the time Burns reached the bag. In most takes, Burns, in full speed and taking a route with every intention of rounding third, was past the bag when the throw left Marr’s hand. Two Kansas City Star photojournalists captured the action with five video cameras, including one each mounted on the helmets of the runner and catcher.
Back on Oct. 29, Royals fans sped through a range of emotions in a matter of moments: thrilled for the hit to keep the game alive, jaw-dropping disbelief that the ball bounced away from the Giants, prayerful for a AL Wild Card Game big-hit redux from Salvador Perez, crushed by the loss, and finally tormented by the what-if scenario.
“I remember thinking when it was happening I wanted him to send him,” Jones said.
In the re-enactment, the play was run six times. On the first, our timing was off and Burns was well past third base when Marr launched his throw. On the actual play, Gordon was slowing down and a few steps from third base when the relay throw got to Crawford.
“As soon as the ball came in I knew there was no chance for him to score at home,” Marr said. “Crawford’s got a great arm, and the chances of a bad bounce weren’t good enough to send him.”
The World Series ending would have been “embarrassing,” Jones said.
That idea was supported by the next five plays, which appeared closer to the setting we saw on World Series replays. In each case, Burns was gunned down by several steps.
“He wasn’t scoring,” Hawks coach Gary Burns said. “I’m a Royals lover from way back, but he wasn’t scoring this time.”
We’ll never know for sure.
But we have a better idea.