- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2015

For as long as he can remember, Wilson Ramos has helped keep alive one of baseball’s oldest and strangest traditions.

When a pitcher records a strikeout with no runners on base, Ramos usually stands and zips the ball to third. The third baseman throws it to the shortstop. The shortstop throws it to the second baseman. The second baseman throws it back to third. And the third baseman tosses it to the pitcher.

For Ramos, throwing the ball “around the horn” after a strikeout sits somewhere between routine and ritual. Sometimes he throws the ball to first base instead. Sometimes the pattern of infield throws changes. But the practice itself is something Ramos has always done, from his childhood in Valencia, Venezuela, to his five seasons as the starting catcher of the Washington Nationals.

“From a long time ago, people do that in this sport,” Ramos said. “I don’t know why.”

Few players do — though everyone has a theory.

Ramos believes catchers throw the ball around the horn to keep infielders engaged in the game, fresh at a time when they would otherwise be stationary. Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant believes it’s designed to give the pitcher time to walk around the mound and re-focus for the next batter. Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman just shrugged when asked about it.

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“I think you just do it because they did it here,” he said with a grin. “I’ve never really thought into it at all, to be honest with you.”

The answer, at least from a historical perspective, is none of the above. According to Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, the roots of the practice go all the way back to 1869, and one of the first professional teams in the United States.

Before their games with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, two brothers named Harry and George Wright would perform intricate infield drills. George Wright, the team’s star shortstop, was particularly flashy, at times catching the ball behind his back to applause from the crowd.

“It’s a bit of showmanship, which was largely confined to pregame activity, and the fans loved it,” Thorn explained. “And that kind of showmanship continued particularly in Negro League baseball. … It was more characteristic of Negro League baseball than Major League Baseball in the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s.”

The term itself also has historic significance. Baseball was becoming popular during and shortly after the California gold rush, which drove many players, or their family members, to head west. A return trip across the country was treacherous at the time, so they would instead leave San Francisco and sail around Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America to New York or Boston.

Today, the term is used to describe a variety of infield sequences over the course of a game. A team can go around the horn after a strikeout, beginning at either first or third base depending on the catcher’s preference or where the batter is standing, or after a putout at first base with no runners on base. The term can also be used to describe a double or triple play that moves around the diamond from third base to first.

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Thorn said it is unclear when flashy pregame fielding drills entered the game and became the “around the horn” tradition that exists today, but he said its roots in entertainment are clear.

“I find it interesting that the practitioners of baseball are called ‘players’ as if they were theatrical hands,” Thorn said. “Baseball hands are not merely experts. They are also entertainers.”

How has this tradition survived nearly a century, even as the sport has evolved? Players believe it has simply been absorbed from one generation to the next. Zimmerman said his teams have been doing it for as long as he can remember, dating to his days of youth baseball in southern Virginia.

“It’s just that everyone’s always done it,” he said.

Bryant agreed.

“You just always grow up seeing that on TV, going to games, seeing that in person,” Bryant said. “Just growing up with that.”

That’s why it will likely continue. A new generation of catchers will watch Ramos throw the ball around the horn after a strikeout and mimic the practice. Another generation will then mimic theirs. And so one of baseball’s oldest and strangest traditions will live on, even as its roots are further obscured by time, overlooked even by those who practice it every day.

“Baseball, like everything else, is entirely a matter of context in time and place,” Thorn said. “When you find these strange survivors in the current game, it’s a complete delight.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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