Of the three basic components of baseball—pitching, hitting and fielding—only one is practiced with greater skill today than ever before. Pitching? Please. That discussion begins and ends with two words: Colorado Rockies. Hitting? Another swing and a miss. Major league players struck out more often last year than in any other season, despite a strike-shortened 144-game schedule. No one has hit .400 since Ted Williams, 55 years ago, and Roger Maris's home run record has stood virtually unchallenged for 35 years, longer than Babe Ruth's mark endured.
This is a glove story: Boy meets ball, boy gets ball. In no other aspect of the game but fielding has the evolution of equipment, playing conditions and overall athletic ability translated into such an unequivocal upgrade. Last season fielders committed one error for every 52.9 chances, a 30% improvement from 1975. And shortstops, who play the most challenging position, averaged one error every 34.4 chances, making them 33% more reliable than shortstops of 20 years earlier.
To even the best glovemen of, say, 40 years ago, today's state-of-the-art fielder would have seemed like something out of science fiction: a 6'4", 220-pound shortstop, who is armed with computerized scouting reports of hitters' tendencies and a large, economically designed glove of fine leather, gobbling up grounders on fields—some of which are carpeted—groomed more neatly than an Augusta fairway and who Hubs as few as three plays over a 162-game season.
That robostop, Cal Ripken Jr., has handled more consecutive chances without an error (431 in 1990) than anyone who has ever played the position. Likewise, no one has ever handled more errorless chances consecutively at second base (484 from June 1994 to July 1995) than Roberto Alomar. Talk about your heavenly alignments: This year they will play next to one another in the Baltimore Orioles' infield, forming what should be the best double play combination of all time.
In Chicago the Cubs start the only right side of an infield in history in which both the first baseman (Mark Grace) and second baseman (Ryne Sandberg) have won at least three Gold Gloves. In St. Louis the best fielding shortstop of all time, Ozzie Smith, has returned for a 19th season with the Cardinals, though he may lose his starting job to a younger gloveman, Royce Clayton. In New York the Mets will start a shortstop, Rey Ordonez, who already promises to be as good as or better than Smith, even though he has yet to play a major league game. In San Diego the Padres will start an entire outfield of former Gold Glove winners: Rickey Henderson in left, Steve Finley in center and Tony Gwynn in right. The reigning Gold Glove catchers, four-time winner Ivan Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers and Charles Johnson of the Florida Marlins, are not yet 25 years old. It turns out the game is in good hands.
"I think players catch the ball better than they ever did," says Buddy Kerr, 73, a slick shortstop for the New York Giants from 1943 to '49, who now scouts for the Mets. "They have more speed and quickness and the advantages of better gloves and fields. Marty Marion was a great shortstop, but I don't think anyone was better than Ozzie. And I can't believe anybody was better at second base than Alomar."
Two veteran Toronto Blue Jays scouts, Bobby Mattick, 80, and Al LaMacchia, 74, were discussing second basemen in spring training this year when they decided that Alomar was the best ever at the position. "Tony Lazzeri and Charlie Gehringer were good second basemen," LaMacchia says. "They were good in the area they covered, but they didn't have the range Alomar has. That's the big difference between a guy like him and the guys from the old days. They didn't have that quickness."
Unlike the main hitting and pitching records, most of the significant fielding records have been set in recent years. With the exception of third baseman Brooks Robinson (1955 to '77), the career fielding-average leaders at each position all have played exclusively in the post-1961 expansion era: catcher Bill Freehan, first baseman Steve Garvey, second baseman Sandberg, shortstop Larry Bowa and outfielder Terry Puhl.
Similarly, the consecutive errorless games records have been set in the past 11 years, with one exception: third baseman Jim Davenport, who played 97 games without booting a ball from July '66 to April '68. The other marks are held by catcher Rick Cerone (159 games), Garvey (193), Sandberg (123), Ripken (95) and outfielder Darren Lewis (392).
Those players had advantages not enjoyed by. say, Pee Wee Reese, who once made 47 errors in a season for the Brooklyn Dodgers; or Alvin Dark, who committed 45 errors for the pennant-winning 1951 New York Giants; or, especially, by John Gochnaur, the Cleveland Indians shortstop whose modern record of 95 errors in 1903 is likely never to be broken. Those advantages include the following: