How The Worst Swinging Strike in Baseball History Broke the Game

Major League Baseball’s playoffs begin tomorrow night, and even if you don’t know anything about the sport, you probably know one basic fact: the batter — the guy with the baseball bat in his hand — is trying to hit the ball, while the pitcher — the guy throwing the ball toward the batter — is trying to make him miss. If the pitcher makes a good pitch and the batter doesn’t swing, that’s a strike. If the batter swings and misses the pitch, that’s also a strike. Three strikes and the batter is out.

The resulting strategy is clear: if you’re a pitcher, you want to throw a pitch that is hittable but still hard to hit. And if you’re a batter, you don’t want to swing at clearly unhittable pitches. 

Which is why the scene below makes no sense.

The pitch is spectacularly bad — it’s so far away that the catcher (the guy wearing #38) barely tries to catch it. And yet, the batter swung anyway, and unmistakably so. It’s almost as if the batter wanted to strike out — and the pitcher was doing everything he could to prevent that from happening.

No, wait, not “almost as if.” That, actually, is exactly what happened. And the players were doing the right thing (maybe). Because at this moment, the rules of baseball broke.

The GIF above took place on September 27, 1992, in a game between the New York Yankees (the team pitching above) and Toronto Blue Jays (the team batting). It was a lost season for the Yankees — they came into the day seven games under .500, and probably wouldn’t have had much of a crowd on hand had it not been their last home game of the season. The game started off brutally and got worse; the Yankees gave up three runs in the first inning and four more in the second. The Blue Jays scored nine runs in the first three innings while shutting out the Yankees. In the top of the 5th inning, the score was 9-0. The Blue Jays Alfredo Griffin came to the plate and Yankee pitcher Greg Caderet was on the mound, as seen in the GIF above. But it didn’t really matter — it’s almost unheard of for a team to come back from a nine-run deficit and still win the game. The game was practically over.

Practically, but not officially — and that mattered a lot. Baseball’s rules state that “a game is considered a regulation game — also known as an “official game” — once the visiting team has made 15 outs (five innings) and the home team is leading, or once the home team has made 15 outs regardless of score.”  And then, the heavens themselves provided the Yankees with a miracle. It began to rain.

By the time Griffin came to bat at the top of the 5th inning, the rain was coming down hard enough to warrant a delay. But the weather was so bad that it was unlikely that the teams would be able to resume that day. If the game hadn’t resumed that day, it would have been considered a rainout and retroactively canceled — it would have been as if the game never took place. In hopes of avoiding that result, the umpires let the teams play on, as they often do. Cadaret’s first pitch to Griffin wasn’t all that hittable, but Griffin flailed wildly at it, uncharacteristically for him. At this point, Cadaret realized something was up — Griffin was swinging at garbage in hopes of striking out. By getting through the inning, both players realized, the game would be on its way to becoming official. That was good for Griffin’s Blue Jays but bad for Cadaret’s Yankees. Griffin, despite how baseball usually works, was trying to strike out.

Cadaret realized that he had to also play the game backward — he had to do whatever he could to not strike out Griffin.  Cadaret bounced the next pitch (which Griffin didn’t for some reason swing at) and then tossed another pitch well outside which Griffin lunged at and fouled off. With two strikes, this game of chicken was about to reach its finale.

Cadaret’s next pitch was way, way outside, as seen in the GIF above. It floated to the backstop, so far out of reach of catcher Matt Nokes that Nokes barely made an effort to grab it. Griffin, though, was unperturbed. He swung violently at the impossible-to-hit pitch, twisting his body so much he almost fell out of the batter’s box. The only person who remained stoic was home plate umpire John Shulock, who didn’t even bother to watch the ball as it made its way to the backstop. (Want to see it all for yourself? Here you go.) The whole thing was a farce.

But it also created a really big problem. The batter wanted to get out. The pitcher didn’t want him to. Baseball’s rules aren’t designed to account for this — and they couldn’t handle the situation.

The problem? While Griffin’s wild swing at Cadaret’s wild pitch was, indeed, the third strike, the play wasn’t over. Because of a quirk of the rules, if this were a normal situation, Nokes would have to complete the strikeout — he would run after the ball and throw it to first base, hoping that it would arrive before a sprinting Griffin did. (If you’re not familiar with baseball’s rules, just take my word here; this rule is esoteric and would take too long to explain.) But nothing about this situation was normal. Griffin, who wanted to be out, ran to the dugout instead of trying to safely reach first base. Nokes did go after the ball and throw it to first baseman Don Mattingly, but Mattingly, not wanting to record an out, refused to step on first base. 

The game was at an impasse. Yankee manager Buck Showalter charged out of the dugout to argue. He could have argued that Griffin had forfeited the base and should therefore be called out, but that would have made no strategic sense, as that would put the game closer to completion — and the Yankees closer to a loss. Rather, Showalter complained that the teams were playing in a downpour.  The umpiring crew finally capitulated; they called Griffin out and then ordered the tarp be put on the field.

The rain — surprisingly — let up in time for play to resume, making the comedy of errors all for naught. The Jays ended up winning 12-2. After the game, Showalter called up Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston to discuss the Griffin-Cadaret Maneuver, as this should hereafter be called; both skippers apologized to one another.

But the flaw they found? It wasn’t addressed — AL President Bobby Brown didn’t take any action against either team. For more than twenty years, the loophole remained. The reason it was ultimately closed? The COVID-19 pandemic. As MLB’s website explains, “prior to the 2020 season, if a game was terminated early due to weather before becoming official, the results up to the point of the termination did not count and the game was started over at a later date. But as part of MLB’s health and safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, all games cut short due to weather before becoming official were resumed at a later date, rather than started over from scratch, during the 2020 campaign.” That change still persists today.

Bonus fact: On October 4, 1992, the Blue Jays were back in the news again for their ridiculousness. It was the Jays’ last game of the regular season, and the team hosted a “Fan Appreciation Day” which included a lot of giveaways. Before the 7th inning, the PA announcer told the crowd that they were giving away a car — and not just any car. The car was owned by rookie outfielder Derek Bell — and Bell wasn’t so eager to give it away. Per SB Nation, “Bell’s tricked-out Ford Explorer was — without his knowledge or consent — given away as a prize. As seen in this video, a very concerned (and probably upset!) Bell watches as Blue Jays star outfielder Joe Carter drives his car onto the field as the winning fan’s seat number is called out over the PA system. (The car wasn’t actually given away, in case you were worried for Bell.)

From the Archives: Why Every Baseball Game Breaks the Rules: Home plate is mathematically impossible.