•Better gloves. Today's mitts provide better flexibility and fit.
•Artificial turf. In the 1990s there have been 11% fewer errors per fielding chance committed on turf than on grass. During this period shortstops have made 23% fewer errors on rugs than on grass. Of the five shortstops with the best fielding percentages in history (minimum 1,000 games), four have played mostly on artificial turf. In order of their defensive prowess, they are Bowa, Tony Fernandez, Smith and Spike Owen. The exception is Ripken, who ranks third. The best fielding teams in history—at least statistically—were turf teams: the 1988 Minnesota Twins committed the fewest errors (84), and the 1990 Toronto Blue Jays had the highest fielding average (.986).
•Improved playing conditions. Most outfield walls are padded, and fields are vigilantly maintained. "That started with Peter Ueberroth as commissioner in the 1980s," says Giants general manager Bob Quinn. "He liked to say, 'The field is your stage. Always make it look good.' "
•High-tech scouting reports. Satellite television, computers and advance scouts help define hitters' tendencies in greater detail. "You know where somebody hits the ball on two-strike counts and who swings early in the count," says the Montreal Expos' 60-year-old manager, Felipe Alou. "All of that is in black and white. We didn't know any of that when I played. We just positioned ourselves in the vicinity of where somebody usually hit the ball."
Says Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin, "I think guys today have more agility and flexibility. They make plays every night like diving flat-out in the outfield and crashing into walls that I don't think players in other eras made as often. Maybe the best fielders today are the best ever. But overall? I'm not sure defense is better than in the past."
This being a glove story, there must be a catch. This is it: While players catch the ball better than ever, they don't have the same instincts or grasp of fundamentals as their predecessors. "There's no question the players now are better athletes," says LaMacchia. "If a scout saw Hack Wilson or Yogi Berra today, he'd never recommend either of them. Lou Boudreau couldn't run, and neither could Luke Appling. They weren't real good athletes. But they had the instincts.
"Now you've got guys like [Kansas City Royals shortstop] Jose Offerman. He has all the physical tools, but he doesn't know how to play the game. Players today don't listen. They feel they know it all, so they don't work on fundamentals."
Players might be rushed more quickly to the big leagues today, but when they arrive, they are armed with an unprecedented amount of instruction. Today, a typical minor league team has a manager, two coaches and a roving instructor. "When I played in the minors," Alou says, "we had one manager and six baseballs for batting practice. Sometimes one or two of us didn't hit because all the balls were lost."
"Even 15 or 20 years ago, you had a minor league manager and that was it," says Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman. "Maybe some things were missed then. Nothing is missed anymore. Believe me, there are people working hard and covering all the areas. There are no excuses for people to get to the big leagues not knowing how to play. If a player gets to the majors and isn't fundamentally sound, it's his own fault."
Major league managers routinely pay lip service to defense. As Giants manager Dusty Baker says, "If you mess up three to six plays a game—say two errors, some double plays not turned, things like that—it's the same as letting the other team bat 10 or 11 innings to your nine." But front offices don't put their money where their mouths are: They reward offense and overlook defense. "We don't put enough value on defense," says Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette. "How many $3 million players are there because they play good defense? [Indians shortstop] Omar Vizquel (page 68) and [Marlins centerfielder] Devon White may be it. It's true we don't reward defense like we do offense."