Walk-off homers: A magic like no other

Walk-off homers: A magic like no other

Walk-off homers: A magic like no other
It was Sept. 16, 2007, Angels at White Sox, Jim Thome Bobblehead Day at U.S. Cellular Field, and the real Jim Thome remembers it to this day for the hit of his life.

That is what a walk-off home run can do for you.

"I mean, walk-off homer, 500th homer," said Thome, who now has 604 total homers and is tied for the all-time lead in walk-off versions with 12. "To have your teammates greet you at home plate on your 500th was pretty special.

"It was a Sunday afternoon. [Dustin] Moseley was pitching, the count got to 3-2 and I got a fastball out over the plate. A man on. That one was very special. Very."

After five fastballs each 91-92 mph, Moseley threw over to first twice to hold on Darin Erstad, who had led off the ninth with a single. Then Thome broke the 7-7 tie by crushing one to center. Never mind that the White Sox still had the worst winning percentage in all of Major League Baseball at that moment. There were three curtain calls. A walk-off homer is magic.

It has become Major League Baseball's signature highlight, and there is nothing in sports like it. Opening Night arrives Wednesday with the defending World Series champion Cardinals visiting the Miami Marlins, and a new season dawns with a couple of MLB.com tributes to the walk-off homer, building our thirst for that next moment when a party is thrown at home plate.

All-time walk-off homer leaders
Phillies slugger Jim Thome is tied with five Hall of Famers for most walk-off homers in the modern era (1900-present), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
No. Player
12 Jimmie Foxx
12 Mickey Mantle
12 Stan Musial
12 Frank Robinson
12 Babe Ruth
12 Jim Thome

Watch the new MLB.com video compilation of every walk-off homer hit last season, or visit Chelsea Market in New York, home of MLB Advanced Media's headquarters, and view the new "Art of the Walk-Off" exhibit, which was unveiled on Monday. Celebrating Opening Day through the intersection of iconic imagery and mobile video, the collection, courtesy of Getty Images, features 50 iconic shots of the game-ending homer -- each equipped with QR code or text messaging technologies to instantly watch the art come to life through a mobile video highlight on the visitor's smartphone.

All 30 Major League clubs are represented in this collection, which is on display through April 15 at Ninth Avenue and 15th Street in Manhattan. Included among the subjects are many of the most renowned walk-off home runs from such players as Mickey Mantle, Ichiro Suzuki, Bobby Thomson, Derek Jeter, Carlton Fisk and David Ortiz.

The walk-off homer is as old as baseball, but it somehow gradually has grown in spectacle, celebration and grandeur -- bigger every year. Last season, Nelson Cruz of the Rangers hit the first postseason walk-off grand slam, in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Tigers. Not long after, David Freese joined Cardinals lore by ending the classic Game 6 of the World Series with an 11th-inning blast, prompting FOX broadcaster Joe Buck to say: "We will see you tomorrow night."

It is always so sudden -- either sudden satisfaction or sudden sadness. Fans remember that pregnant pause as Toronto's Joe Carter's home run reached beyond the SkyDome wall in 1993, ending the year in baseball in such an unfamiliar way at the time. Only Bill Mazeroski had done it before, snapping a 9-9 tie in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series by hitting a leadoff homer off Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry in the bottom of the ninth at Pittsburgh.

Reds outfielder Jay Bruce said during Spring Training that he never will forget the feeling of jacking his own walk-off on Sept. 28, 2010. Fastball from Astros reliever Tim Byrdak, middle-in, see you later, Great American Ball Park goes nuts, Reds clinch postseason berth for first time since 1995, Bruce flips helmet after rounding third and mob scene at home.

We can't get enough of those.

We are ready for more in 2012.

"In 2010, it was really, really special," Bruce recalled. "My first thought was, 'We did it.' All that work we put in from Spring Training and the off-season finally paid off with that one swing. It was all worth it there. My first home run in the Major Leagues was a walk-off. It was shocking. It was unbelievable and a great feeling. It was the best feeling I've had in baseball up to that point, really."

The MLB official rules state in Rule 4.11(c): "A game winning home run is allowed to complete before the game ends, even if it puts the home team ahead by more than one run."

Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley is usually credited with coining the term "walk-off" to describe a fate that befell him during the 1988 World Series opener. Kirk Gibson hobbled off the bench for the Dodgers in Game 1, got behind a quick 0-2, battled through a full count, and expected a back door slider. Sure enough, Eck decided to ditch the fastball, and Gibson won the game with the famous "Miracle Homer." Oakland, a heavy favorite, would lose the series.

Ironically, Eckersley's first such known usage happened at the start of that same season. San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote in an article about the reliever's unusual way of speaking: "For a translation, I go in search of Eckersley. I also want to know why he calls short home runs 'street pieces,' and home runs that come in the last at-bat of a game 'walkoff pieces' ..."

In 1993, Eckersley supposedly used the term to describe the lonely stroll from the mound after giving up the winning run. Two seasons later, Yankees reliever Steve Howe allowed a game-ending homer and said, "It was a walk-off pitch. You throw the ball and walk off the mound." Such usage became gradual, not always accepted early on, but now sport cliche.

Of course, there are also walk-off singles, walk-off walks, numerous ways to end it suddenly. But nothing compares to the walk-off homer. It is the tenor's "Ave Maria," the storm's rainbow. And what feels so wonderful for the celebrant feels equally awful on the other side. Go back to Bruce, who has experienced walking off the field as a fielder.

"It's kind of like the wind is let out of your sail," he said. "Obviously, there's no defense for that. Everyone out there -- the pitcher, the infielders, the outfielders, have worked their butts off for three-plus hours trying to pull it out. And when that happens, it's a letdown. But you can also look at it as the start of a new one. You get to start over the next day and earn it again."

Some of baseball's greatest memories were inscribed with walk-off homers, and two of them are forever followed by the words of the great Jack Buck. The same broadcaster who said, "I don't believe what I just saw!", after Gibson's homer implored Cardinals fans after Ozzie Smith's 1985 National League Championship Series winner to "Go crazy, folks, go crazy!"

Smith said he never had a more personally satisfying hit.

"I think up until that time people looked at me notably as just a defensive player," the Hall of Fame shortstop said. "That one hit kind of changed the way people looked at me. It made people start to look at me as more of a complete player as opposed to a one-dimensional defensive player. That would be the one that stands out, the one people talk a lot about when I'm out -- about that home run. Especially Cardinal fans, they talk about where they were. In your life, there are certainly things that happen and you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing at that particular time. That, for me, was certainly it."

For Thome, the most memorable hit of his career was not the end of the walk-off homers. He did it again for the Twins on Aug. 17, 2010, becoming the first person to end a game at then-new Target Field in that fashion. The 445-foot long ball he crushed off White Sox reliever Matt Thornton in the bottom of the 10th that night sent fans into delirium and, according to Elias Sports Bureau, tied him for most walk-off homers in the modern era (1900 to the present) with Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson and Babe Ruth.

"It's just amazing to see your teammates standing there," Thome said of the feeling rounding third and joining the party. "It's like a movie script. It really is."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. MLB.com reporter Mark Sheldon contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.