Sunday, August 05, 2001

Mazeroski pitches respect for defense

        COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Bill Mazeroski would like to believe he's made a breakthrough. He would like to think he's found a back door to the Baseball Hall of Fame and can prop it open for his fellow fielders.

        He hopes he signals a new appreciation rather than a one-time aberration. He wants defense to get its due.

        “I'm sure it is getting a little more re
spect than it was before,” Mazeroski said Saturday afternoon. “I think it deserves as much respect as pitching and hitting. It certainly hasn't gotten it.”

        Since the first balloting in 1936, the Hall of Fame has been top-heavy with hitters. If a guy could hit the ball hard enough, it didn't much matter if he had two left feet or a matching pair of stone hands. Cooperstown is kind to thick-necked lugs like Harmon Killebrew and Ralph Kiner. It tends to neglect the guys whose one dimension was defense.

        Mazeroski won eight Gold Gloves playing second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He participated in more double plays (1,706) than any middle infielder in history. Though he is remembered best for a single swing — the ninth-inning home run that won the 1960 World Series — his case for immortality is

        predicated on his fielding prowess.

        “I knew my bat wasn't going to carry me there,” he said.

        Twenty-nine years since his last major-league game, Mazeroski will finally take his place in baseball's pantheon this afternoon. His long wait reflects the prolonged indifference of the Baseball Writers Association of America and a lengthy lack of consensus by the Veterans Committee. It suggests that elegant fielders such as Dave Concepcion and Keith Hernandez should brace themselves for decades of disappointment.

        Mazeroski's induction class includes outfielders Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield and Negro Leagues pitcher Hilton Smith. Though Puckett and Winfield were both Gold Glove winners and were both elected on the first ballot, they were both better known for their bats. Puckett finished his career with a .318 lifetime average; Winfield with 3,110 hits.

        Bill Mazeroski was a .260 hitter and, consequently, a tougher sell.

        Baseball fans can fall back on dozens of objective statistics to evaluate offensive performance. Defense, however, requires a more discerning eye. It's tough to tell, sometimes, if an outfielder's assists total is the product of a strong arm or persistent testing. Errors say a lot about a fielder's reliability, but nearly nothing about his range.

        Mazeroski was a magician at second base, but it's hard to convey that with a statistical spreadsheet. He played in an era before every ballgame was broadcast, for a team that made infrequent appearances on the Game of the Week, with a style that had to be seen to be adequately appreciated.

        Mazeroski used his glove not so much to receive the ball, but to rebound it. To speed his throws, he learned to play a carom from the pocket of his glove to the palm of his right hand. As Mazeroski described the process during a Saturday press conference, Puckett looked at him as if he had begun to speak in tongues.

        “That's pretty good, man,” Puckett said.

        Defensive devotees have been encouraged by Mazeroski's enshrinement. They should expect shortstop/acrobat Ozzie Smith to be elected when he becomes eligible next year. Yet it might be misleading to call it a trend.

        When asked which of his contemporaries deserve consideration based on defense, Mazeroski named Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo and outfielder Vada Pinson, who played the bulk of his career with the Reds.

        Pinson, however, is no longer eligible for Hall of Fame consideration, having failed to attract at least 100 votes in any of his 15 years on the Baseball Writers ballot.

        Concepcion, a five-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, was named on only 74 ballots last year (14 percent). Hernandez, who won 11 Gold Gloves at first base, received 41 votes.

        “I'm in the Hall of Fame for my defense,” Bill Mazeroski said. “But what people know is, "You're the guy who hit the home run that beat the Yankees.' They don't even know I played second base.”

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Latest coverage of Hall of Fame inductions from Associated Press

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