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Pivot Physics
Tom Verducci
March 26, 2001
To solve the problem of turning two, a middle infielder must study the aerodynamics of the toss, the mass of the incoming runner and the angles at which to cross the bag
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March 26, 2001

Pivot Physics

To solve the problem of turning two, a middle infielder must study the aerodynamics of the toss, the mass of the incoming runner and the angles at which to cross the bag

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PICK SIX

Hard Sliders

White sox shortstop Royce Clayton, who also has been with the Giants, the Cardinals and the Rangers, ranks the runners he considers most adept at breaking up double plays.

1.

Johnny Damon, A's. A speed guy, he gets to second so fast that he can hit you no matter what you do to avoid him.

2.

Reggie Sanders, Diamondbacks. Quick, knows how to get in your way—and hits the bag hard.

3.

Shawon Dunston, Giants. Some guys, without giving details, told me he was dirty. Not true—I think he just plays hard.

4.

Tony Graffanino, White Sox. A real baseball player. This is one of the little things he does that others won't.

5.

Craig Biggio, Astros. Strong and quick, and as a second baseman he knows all the angles.

6.

Jeff Bagwell, Astros. Has slowed down a bit, but still one of the strongest around. He and Biggio—it must be a Houston thing.

Cincinnati reds shortstop Barry Larkin was fielding grounders thrown to him by one photographic assistant and then throwing the ball overhand to another in a Sarasota, Fla., studio last month. The scene was repeated many times over until one of the grounders happened to bounce one small step to Larkin's left. This time Larkin flipped the ball underhand. "Sorry, man," he said of the toss. "That was just instinct. Ball to my left, I flip it."

Fifteen minutes later his partner in pivots, second baseman Pokey Reese, was pretending to turn two in front of the camera. After five routine takes Reese suddenly jumped after throwing the ball to an assistant, even though there wasn't a base runner within miles. "Sorry, man," he said. "Instinct."

Larkin and Reese make up one of the finest double play combinations in baseball. Whatever chemistry they have, however, is due more to nature than nurture. Even on the concrete floor of a photo studio they react with the improvisational �lan of jazz musicians taking turns at soloing. The DP is made more on instinct than well-rehearsed choreography. "We don't practice it all that much," Reese says about turning two with Larkin. "Once in a while during the second or third round of batting practice, we'll field the ball and turn two. That's about it."

"Practice is overrated," says Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, whose pairing with second baseman Roberto Alomar would seem to be the perfect glove story of synchronicity in making the double play. "Basically it's all reaction and instinct, like playing basketball."

We may like to believe in the mellifluous poetry of Tinker to Evers, but turning two is more about the individual skills of the middle infielders than the familiarity between them. (The Chicago Cubs never led the National League in double plays during the eight seasons that Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers manned Chicago's middle infield, a sober fact never captured in rhyming verse.) Those individual skills can be highly polished, especially for Alomar, whose footwork is so good around the bag he claims never to have been hit hard by a runner. Never? "Never," he insists.

Willie Randolph, now the New York Yankees' third base coach, was involved in more double plays (1,547) than any second baseman except Hall of Famer-elect Bill Mazeroski (1,706) and Cooperstown enshrinee Nellie Fox (1,619). Randolph amassed this total despite working next to 31 shortstops during his 13 seasons with the Yankees and myriad partners in five years with five other clubs. In fact, the longest-running double play act these days is shortstop Deivi Cruz and second baseman Damion Easley of the Detroit Tigers, who go back only to 1997.

No one appreciates the best double play combinations more than the pitchers who are their beneficiaries. "The double play is the pitcher's best friend, because you get two outs on one pitch," says Indians righthander Dave Burba. "But it's really important because it shifts momentum. It defuses a threat immediately. A double play with the bases loaded or with runners on first and third just sucks the life out of the other team's inning."

As critical as twin killings can be, they have a small historical profile (other, of course, than Franklin P. Adams's ode to Tinker and Evers and Frank Chance). Try naming one—just one—famous ground ball double play. Only two World Series have ended in a double play, and only one in a classic 6-4-3: In 47 a Rizzuto to Stirnweiss to McQuinn twin killing sealed a 5-2 win for the Yankees over the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 7. The Yankees won the World Series last year without turning a double play in five games against the crosstown-rival Mets, thus becoming the first such DP-free world champions since the 1969 Mets.

Mazeroski is the patron saint of the double play. In addition to his record for most career twin killings by a middle infielder, he holds the single-season mark (161 in 1966). "He was the best, and I've seen them all," says Yankees scout Gene Michael, a former shortstop and teammate of Mazeroski's. "Alomar is good, but he doesn't come close to turning two like Maz. The ball would hit this part of Maz's hand in the glove"—Michael points to the pad where the left index finger meets the palm—"and bounce off, rather than going deep into the pocket. He was so quick."

Think of the second base bag as baseball's Temptation Island, where intruders will get down and dirty trying to break up two. Middle infielders can combat the sharp spikes and rolling blocks thrown their way with such weapons as quick footwork. "That's where it starts," Alomar says. "When you hear a guy has quick hands, like [ Seattle Mariners second baseman] Bret Boone, it means he has quick feet. Quick hands come from quick feet."

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