Keeping Score

The Story Behind The Sports Photo Of The Year

Stan Grossfeld, a two-time Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer from the Boston Globe, captured an iconic moment

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Stan Grossfeld / Boston Globe / Getty Images

Detroit's Torii Hunter falls into the bullpen trying to catch Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz's home run that tied the game in the eighth inning of game two of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park in Boston, Oct. 13, 2013.

During the seventh inning of Sunday night’s American League championship game, Stan Grossfeld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer from the Boston Globe, got up to stretch. He was shooting the game, from his perch high above the field-level seats at Fenway Park, on the first base side.

Things looked bleak for the home team. The Detroit Tigers were beating Boston 5-1 in Game 2, and already led the series, 1-0, after five Detroit pitchers one-hit the Red Sox in the opener. And if there’s one thing worse than dropping the first two games of a post-season series at home, it was the prospect of facing Detroit’s Justin Verlander in Detroit for Game 3. At that moment, a Tigers sweep felt very, very possible.

Grossfeld turned around, and saw a familiar face in the luxury box behind him; former Boston Red Sox outfielder Dave Roberts, the man who famously stole second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 American League championship series. In that contest, Boston was down 4-3, three outs away from elimination. The swipe put Roberts in scoring position, and he came home on a game-tying single. Boston later won that game in the bottom of the 12th, on a David Ortiz home run. The Sox won the next three games too, and the World Series, the team’s first since 1918. For that steal, Roberts is a Boston folk hero.

Grossfeld was in the ballpark that night too, and snapped a fantastic shot of Roberts sliding head-first into second. The two men had gotten to know each other a bit, so when Grossfeld saw Roberts, he shook his hand, and they exchanged a few friendly words. Grossfeld asked Roberts, who has survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma, how he felt. Roberts said all was well; he was still beaming from the huge ovation Fenway fans gave him earlier in the evening, when he threw out the first pitch. Roberts grabbed Grossfeld’s Unicef pen, and wrote down his email address on Grossfeld’s lineup card: Grossfeld still owed him a copy of the stolen-base print.

When Grossfeld turned around to get back to work, a thought crossed his mind, naturally. In Boston, Roberts is a living, breathing comeback story. “I always look for karmic signs,” says Grossfeld.

So one inning later, with Roberts on the mind, and Ortiz at the plate, Grossfeld was locked in. The bases were loaded, and Boston was still down four runs. “You just knew he could go deep,” says Grossfeld. “You’ve seen it millions of times.” Grossfeld honed his oversized 800 millimeter lens on Big Papi at the plate.  Ortiz connected. “I just whipped the camera around from home plate to right field,” says Grossfeld. “It was herky-jerky. The lens is like a big bazooka.”

As Grossfeld followed the ball towards the right-field wall, he noticed a cop in the bullpen, arms raised in celebration. “He was almost distracting, he was so pronounced there,” says Grossfeld. The fans were already going crazy. Then Torii Hunter came into the picture. Detroit’s ‘s center fielder chugged toward the wall, attempting to rob another home run. That’s kind of his specialty. “I jumped up,” says Grossfeld. “And when he jumped up to make the catch, I fired with the motor drive.” Click, click, click, click; Grossfeld’s camera can take up to 12 frames per second.

Hunter tumbled, head first, over the wall. The ball landed in the bullpen; tie game. Fenway erupted. “You never see a guy go ass over tea-kettle,” Grossfeld says. Hunter’s legs flailed above the outfield wall as he, like the ball, disappeared into the bullpen. Grossfeld kept shooting. “When you pull the motor drive down, a mirror goes up and down, up and down,” he says. When the mirror is up for that instant, the camera sensor is exposed to light, allowing the picture to be taken. But the mirror can obstruct, ever so briefly, a photographers view of what he’s actually shooting. “You wonder what the hell you’ve got,” says Grossfeld.

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In this case, Grossfeld thought he had something really good: Hunter’s legs fully extended as he fell over the wall, at the same time that cop raised his arms, thrilled. Agony and ecstasy, in outstretched arms, and upside-down legs. “I saw the legs starting to go over,” says Grossfeld. “I didn’t see them at 180 degrees. I didn’t see them straight up and down.” The mirror blocked Grossfeld’s view of that moment, which meant the camera probably recorded it. “It was a good sign,” says Grossfeld.  “I thought I had him.”

Grossfeld resisted the urge to immediately confirm his hunch. “There was too much going on,” Grossfeld says. “First of all, I was concerned about Torii Hunter. He’s a real gentleman, a real nice guy. And I could see people were waving for help for him, and you know, I wasn’t about to look at my pictures.” Grossfeld, who has worked at the Globe since 1975, took a few shots of Ortiz running around the bases. Plus, what’s the point of worrying? “Most people, with this digital stuff, look at the back of the camera,” says Grossfeld, 61. “I’m an old film guy, so sometimes I forget to do that. And I didn’t want to look at it. You either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, there’s nothing you can do about it. I see guys at NBA games sitting there, looking at the backs of their cameras, and something great happens in front of them. And they look like idiots. I don’t want to be one of those guys.”

After the inning ended, Grossfeld was ready to see what he had. “I was on a grating above the fans, and I looked down,” says Grossfeld. “I was nervous. If I dropped it, there went the picture.” He loaded the memory card onto to his computer, still worried that his “herky-jerky” camera wasn’t in focus.

It was. The now-famous picture of Boston police officer Steve Horgan, V-shaped arms aloft, and Hunter, V-shaped legs looking like a wishbone, sat on Grossfeld’s laptop. USA Today called the shot a “perfect sports photo,” Deadspin called it the “Sports Photo Of The Year,” and Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay compared it to the famous photo of Bobby Orr flying arcoss the ice. “The frame just jumped out at me,” says Grossfeld. “It just hit me.” He then transmitted the shot, into history.

After Boston won the game on a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth, Grossfeld drove home with his 16-year-old son, who was also at the game, and one of his son’s friends. “Oh my God, this thing is blowing up on Twitter,” Grossfeld’s son told him. On Monday, the accolades came pouring in. Red Sox owner John Henry — who will soon be taking control of the Boston Globe as well — called Grossfeld, and congratulated him for nailing it. “A family sent me a picture of two kids reenacting it in their bedroom,” says Grossfeld. “The one kid’s got his legs up, on his bed, over the bed post. The other kid has his arms up. People are reading into it. They’re seeing a V for victory, a W for win.”

“To be quite honest, I’m surprised with the reaction,” says Grossfeld, who won a Pulitzer Prize for news photography in 1984, for his work in Lebanon. He won another Pulitzer the next year, in feature photography, for his images of the Ethiopian famine and illegal aliens on the Mexican border. “I come from a news and human rights kind of background. I’ve made pictures all over the world. Getting so much attention sort of makes me feel weird, because things that are more important in the world, like famine, the Syrian refugees, no one cares about. But at a baseball game, they do.”

“The good thing is, the stuff I’ve done in my life, the Pulitzers and all that, it’s been on dying, war, misery,” says Grossfeld. “I like the fact that this is bringing joy to people.” In the wake of the marathon bombings, this lift is especially important. “It’s very much a ‘Boston Strong’ thing,” says Grossfeld. “Bostonians are so resilient. They deserve it.”

Grossfeld is about to board a plane, bound for Detroit, and the next three games of the series. Can any picture top the one he just took? “Oh God, no,” he says. “I’m getting way, way too much credit. I just want to go hide behind the camera again.”