Willie James: INSIDE THE PARK

Seeing an inside-the-park home run is one of the most exciting plays for the fans, and I think the reason they are so exciting for fans is because everybody can relate to running as fast as you can. A lot of people dont know how it feels to hit a home run out of the park, but everybody runs. So, when you are coming around third, you can almost hear and feel the crowd. Is he going to make it? Is he not going to make it? There was always the excitement. When I was running the bases, what I wanted to hear were the fans. I wanted to hear them screaming and all that. I remember the first one, but two others against the Yankees were the most memorable. The first one was almost like an accident because I dont think the White Sox knew I was that fast. It was in 1979. There was a man on third, and I was just trying to hit the ball into the outfield. I think there were no outs or one out, and all I wanted to do was get the ball up in the air. I was looking for a high pitch because high pitches are the ones youre going to get up into the air. It was a high fastball, and I just got on top of it. It went into the gap, which is also a little unusual because most inside-the-park home runs didnt come when you hit them into the gaps. It got through to the fence, and I just kept running. When I got to third, they waved me in, and I kept going. There were two against the Yankees – the first was at Royals Stadium. We were in the 13th inning. I was leading off the 13th against Ken Clay.

That turned into a walk-off – or in my case a run-off -win for the Royals. But the one I really remember was in Yankee Stadium against (Ron) Guidry. First inning. First pitch. When I went to the plate to open that game, I knew I was going to be swinging on the first pitch. I didnt care where it was. His first pitches were fastballs. He threw this one right down the middle. To me, the best pitch in the world to hit was the first one in the game. Most pitchers want to throw a strike. They want to throw it right down the middle. So, I hit it and I just took off. I had triple on my brain. This one was also a little unusual because it was to left-center in the old Yankee Stadium where there was just so much room back there. Left-center was the deepest part of that ballpark. They just couldnt converge on it. I think it was Lou Piniella in left and Bobby Murcer in center. The third base coach waved me in, and I just kept going. Then, the thing is when you are getting to home plate, how do I slide? You know its going to be close, right? So, what you do is watch the catcher. This is Rick Cerone, and you just watch him to see which way he is going to move. So, that was pretty cool.

Most of my inside-the-park home runs were down the line. Gappers usually didnt have inside-the-park potential because you had two outfielders going after the ball with the idea of holding the guy to a double or triple. At Royals Stadium, we used to call the corners Death Valley. There was that little lip underneath the padding where it came down to the warning track. The ball would get in there and just scoot around and hug the wall. The outfielder would try and play it like most other places and take an angle thinking it would hit and bounce out to him. Instead, it would just keep scooting. Once the ball got down into the corners I knew I had a shot. I would usually watch where it hit as Im running down to first, and a lot of them were to left field. The reason why is when I was batting left handed, they would play me shallow in left and back in right. Left handed, I would hit it the opposite way and when you hit the ball away from you it comes off and bounces away from the fielder. Because it was in left, I could watch the ball as I ran toward second, I could see if it had taken off. I knew exactly where the ball was. Once I hit second, I could tell whether I was going to make it home or not. If the outfielder still had his back to me, there was no way he was going to get the ball going away, pick it up, turn and throw. Im at full throttle coming around second. So, I never even relied on the third base coach. If you ask any of the third base coaches, they would never tell me to go. They might try to hold me up, but sometimes I just kept running through the stop sign. For some reason I had an instinct about it that probably started in high school.

We didnt have any fences at my school, so you had to run the bases to get the home run anyway. It was really weird because it always seemed like if I needed another five yards I could go just a little bit faster. It was almost uncanny to know that you could shift into another gear. I wouldnt even be tired or winded. Thats the other thing about an inside-the-park home run. You gotta have wind and stamina to just keep going. There was one thing I liked doing. I liked running. I think there was only one time I got thrown out, and that was in the latter part of my career with the Cubbies. It was about wind and stamina. I was playing, but not full-time. The Cubs field (Wrigley Field) has a crown on it for drainage, and when you hit third base you go downhill a little bit when you round the baseline. Then you have to go back uphill a little bit to get to the plate. Boy when I was coming uphill, I was saying to myself, I dont think I have enough strength to get there. So I tried to sneak my foot in there, and they tagged me out. I got booed. I mean the Cub fans booed the crap out of me. Thats when I knew those things arent going to happen too many times again. What an exciting play, though. Man!

Willie James: INSIDE THE PARK

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