Three Rivers crash still defines Ward
Turner Ward anticipated the trajectory of the baseball, given that Pirates right-hander Elmer Dessens had delivered a pitch low and away to right-handed batter Mike Piazza and braced for the impact of the impending collision as he raced toward the padded right-field fence.
It was a scene straight out of “The Natural.”
Ward did his best Bump Bailey impression, catching the ball before crashing through the fiberglass panel of the retractable wall and disappearing from plain view on May 3, 1998, at Three Rivers Stadium.
Only difference was, Ward lived to tell.
Ten years after making the play that won an ESPY and has immortalized Ward as a highlight staple during rain delays, it remains his signature moment.
“No matter where I go, people recognize me more for what I did on that play than anything I did in my career,” said Ward, now 43 and the hitting coach for the Double-A Mobile (Ala.) Baybears. “And that’s fine with me.”
Where the fictional Bailey was a star who ran through the wall only after being benched for not hustling – and died, as a result – Ward’s play was more in character.
“I certainly remember the play, because it was a bit surreal; you couldn’t believe that had happened,” said Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown, who called the play-by-play on Ward’s catch that day. “Of all the people that could have pulled that off, it was almost ironic, because Turner was kind of crazy and still is.
“An off-the-wall – no pun intended – kind of guy.”
Although Ward won two World Series rings with the Toronto Blue Jays and hit an inside-the-park home run later in the ’98 season, he doesn’t mind his career being defined by one play. In fact, he believes it best personifies the type of person and player he was by the mere fact that the Pirates were losing by nine runs at the time of an eventual 10-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I don’t think there’s any greater compliment to a player to be said than he knew how to play the game and he played the game hard,” Ward said. “That’s what I want people to remember me for. It takes no athletic ability to hustle and give great effort.”
With runners on first and third in the sixth inning, Piazza stroked a line drive deep. Ward knew that Piazza liked to pull to the opposite field and got a good jump on it as he headed for the fence.
“I knew I could hit the wall as hard as I wanted to because it was a padded wall,” Ward said. “I knew I was going to hit it and hit it hard, but all I was thinking about was the catch.”
An airborne Ward caught it in the palm of his glove hand and slammed into the wall, leading with his left shoulder. To his astonishment, the fiberglass cracked away from its wooden paneling. He landed so hard, hitting his right elbow on the concrete, that the sunglasses on top of his cap fell off.
“You never thought you could break through it,” Ward said. “They had already announced they were going to build a new stadium. I just started the demolition process early.”
One run scored on the sacrifice fly, but Ward had the presence of mind to return through the outfield opening and relay the ball. His right (throwing) elbow numb, he threw weakly across his body before a standing ovation from the crowd of 18,764. “The thing I’m most proud of,” Ward said, “was to crash the wall like that and still hold on to the ball.”
Ward now sees some of himself in his 15-year-old son, Tucker, and fondly holds on to the memories of a catch that remains one of the best in Pirates history. Last year, when he was manager of the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League, they had a Turner Ward “bobble-wall” night, a replica of him making the signature catch.
Ward even finds irony in how the play has given him an analogy when speaking to students about breaking through barriers in life’s obstacles.
“That catch,” Ward said, “opened a lot of doors.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review sports columnist. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .