Hometown rookie hits a wild, first home run
By KEN HOFFMAN Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 29, 2010, 5:11PM
Will Rhymes waited his whole life to hit a major league home run.
Then a blind umpire made him wait even longer.
The result was the strangest, longest (in terms of time, not distance) first home run in baseball history.
Last week, Rhymes, a rookie for the Detroit Tigers, came to bat in the sixth inning with the Tigers trailing the Kansas City Royals and reigning Cy Young Award pitcher Zack Greinke, 5-4. There were two outs and a runner on first base.
The count was 0-1 when Rhymes lifted a fly ball to deep right field. With two outs, the runner on first took off. The ball was going, going …
The ball appeared to hit the top of the wall in right and bounce back on to the field. The umpire did not signal home run, so Rhymes kept running full steam and chugged into third with a stand-up triple. Tied game.
It’s not like he’s got that home run trot thing down pat.
Rhymes played seven years in West University Place Little League, from T-ball to the “majors” (age 12). He never hit a home run. All through Poe Elementary, Lanier Middle School and Lamar High School — no homers. He never put one over the wall at Wallin Field.
Today, with kids wielding juiced-up bats, homeowners who live behind Wallin Field have to buy home-run insurance to get their windows replaced.
Last spring, when Rhymes was giving batting instruction to the A’s in the West U Juniors Division, he was smashing the ball over the fence like Babe Ruth. He’s also 27 years old.
On the other hand, his name is a complete sentence – Will Rhymes. He should be a rapper.
Now he’s standing on third base in Comerica Park in Detroit – the first West U Little Leaguer ever to make the big leagues – and his manager Jim Leyland is screaming to the umpires, “That was a home run!”
Rhymes didn’t think it was a homer. It wasn’t like he had any past experience to go on.
“I knew I hit the ball hard, but the ball doesn’t travel very far in Detroit. As I was running to first, I saw Mitch Maier, their right fielder, tracking it. I thought, ‘Wow, he’s got a chance of catching this!’ At first I thought he did catch it. Then I saw the ball rolling on the field, and that was great, so I kept running. I was happy to get a triple. I thought it hit off his glove or the top of the fence. A triple is pretty good for me, you know,” Rhymes said.
Leyland wouldn’t let up. Check the tape – it was a home run!
Since 2008, Major League Baseball has allowed limited instant replay – one of the calls that can be challenged is a home run. Did the ball clear the fence? Or did it hit off the top of the wall and stay in play? Did a fan interfere with the ball?
The official call on the field was a triple.
Here’s how instant replay works in baseball. A Major League Baseball official in New York, sitting in front of more televisions than NASA’s Mission Control, reviews different angles of the play and sends them back to the stadium, where the umpires look them over. The final decision belongs to the umpires.
Meanwhile, Rhymes was standing on third base, his helmet off, fussing with his hair like it was prom night.
“My hair comes out from behind my ears, so I have to tuck it back. It’s a little out of control. It’s just a nervous habit,” he said. His hair has become his trademark in Detroit.
His Tiger teammates felt confident it was a home run. There is a video monitor in the dugout, and they saw the local station’s instant replay before the umpires reviewed video from New York. The ball clearly sailed over the fence, hit a railing and bounced back onto the field.
Third base coach Gene Lamont told Rhymes, “Get ready to shake my hand – the umpire is going to walk back on this field and say you just hit your first home run.”
Instant replay isn’t exactly instant, but it’s pretty fast in Major League Baseball. Rhymes stayed put on third base for about one minute (“It seemed like an eternity,” he said) while the umpires checked the video for “clear and convincing evidence” that Rhymes’ ball cleared the fence.
The video is available at www.mlb.com. Do a search on “Rhymes’ first career homer.”
“You never know, but my teammates were screaming at me that it was a homer. Finally, the umpire gave the home run sign, and I ran home. It was surreal.”
It was more than surreal; it was historic – the only time a player’s first home run was the result of a video overrule of an umpire’s decision.
Rhymes’ face lit up in a smile has he jogged home. The next batter, Johnny Damon, gave him a high five. When Rhymes walked into the Tigers’ dugout, the other players gave him the silent treatment – baseball tradition – then mobbed him.
“I could see it happening. I was laughing, debating to myself, ‘What should I do?’ I thought about giving a high five to myself. I took off my helmet, and they jumped on me. It was very special.”