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Wax Bombers: Jesse Barfield

Each week I look back through my baseball card collection and remember past Bombers and memorable moments.

  • Player: Jesse Barfield
  • Set: 1991 Score
  • Card #: 414
  • Type: Base Highlight – Rifleman subset

As Sunday night bled into Monday morning, Rich Monteleone stood at the center of the charmless mausoleum known as the Kingdome.

Matt Sinatro lurked ninety feet away from ending the 14-inning slog thanks to a 1-out walk and an Omar Vizquel single. Greg Briley worked the count to 2-1 and Monteleone peered in at the right hand of Bob Geren, hoping to extend what would prove to be a meaningless battle in the fetid quagmire of the Yankees’ ’91 campaign.

On the next pitch, Monteleone caught too much of the plate and Briley pulled the ball on a line toward right field. Had he gotten under it another inch or so, it would have been caught for an easy line drive, doing no more damage than elevating Stump Merrill’s pulse in the Yankee dugout. Instead, Briley hit the ball with a top spin that drove the pitch down toward the plastic grass. The right fielder hurtled toward the ball as the thinned out crowd laid its foundation for a collective roar. He came within inches of a shoestring catch, so close that the short carom off the concrete carpet handcuffed him, ricocheting off his wrist and then his chest before returning to the ground. As the ball leapt around in right field, Sinatro thundered home with the what, under almost any other circumstance, should have been the winning run. Man on third, single to right, bobble by the right fielder. Don Zimmer could have trotted home standing up, had the ball not been hit at a rifleman.

Our cultural myths elevate heroes who employed impossible accuracy to devastating effect in moments of life-threatening, back-against-the-wall battle. Robin Hood putting one through the eye of one of Nottingham’s finest. Doc Holliday culling cowboys at the O.K. corral. Buddy the Elf fending off a pack of marauding snow ball bandits with his Gatling gun of a right arm. There is something electrifying about a pure offering finding its mark when anything less than a bull’s eye means certain peril–a moment of perfection in an imperfect world.

Had any other right fielder been roaming the space-age blades on that early morning, the Mariners would have walked off winners. But Jesse Barfield was out there, and as Briley’s single rebounded up from the ground, Barfield snatched it out of midair and in one smooth motion loaded a hypersonic missile into its launch tube. An elegant dance step allowed him to plant his left leg in a fraction of a second before unleashing a sizzling throw that hit Geren head-high and sent Sinatro to hell by a thousand feet.

Maybe Sinatro was held up by the ball’s trajectory and maybe Barfield benefited from the unnatural bounce off the Kingdome’s soulless nylon fibers, but it doesn’t diminish the highlight in the slightest. The M’s went on to win in 16 innings on May 5, 1991, when Briley’s 2-run homer banished Kevin Maas’ own dinger from headline to footnote, but who cares? Seattle won a battle between two eventual 5th-place teams, but the perfect throw lives on.

Barfield rode into town from Toronto 28 games into the ’89 season. After a 40-home run/108 RBI effort in ’86 that earned him a 5th place slot on the MVP ballot, an All-Star nod, and a Gold Glove, the Jays began to see diminishing returns at the plate and sent him to the Bronx for a young lefty named Al Leiter. Though he popped 25 homers in ’91, his batting average languished in the .230s and his strikeouts mounted, swelling to a gaudy 150 in ’90. But as the back of his 1991 Score card attests, Barfield could change a game with his arm and he proved it numerous times during his four years in pinstripes.

In ’89 and ’90 he led the league in outfield assists with 20 and 16, respectively, unsparingly employing the keys to a surface-to-air arsenal that could neutralize baserunners anywhere on the diamond. Like the Millennium Falcon in the moments before it rockets into lightspeed, the front of his 1991 Score card uses a radiating sunburst of light to illustrate the gathering potential energy around his cannon. On the back he grins broadly, beckoning the runner to test him. “Go ahead. I want you to.”

In ’91 he torched Chili Davis with a comet to Pat Kelly that elicited a roar of amazement from 18,233 in the Metrodome:

And in this undated video, which Barfield himself ranks as his 3rd best throw ever, he pirouettes on a dime in the Stadium’s right field corner before erasing a foolhardy baserunner at second base:

The arid wasteland of the early ’90s Bombers is often willingly forgotten, a deliberate amnesia made all the easier by its proximity to the dynasty years; but Jesse Barfield’s sweet sniper of a right arm, like Kevin Maas’ swing and Deion Sanders’ dizzying speed, is worth remembering.