Where have you gone, Honus Wagner? And you, Joe Cronin, Luke Appling, Travis Jackson, Cecil Travis, Lou Boudreau, Dick Groat, Ernie Banks and all the other good-hitting shortstops of yore? This is the age of specialization—any minute now the designated beanballer will be upon us—and today's shortstops are routinely told, "If you field well and hit .220, you'll make the club." The best glovemen at the position, Baltimore's Mark Belanger and Houston's Roger Metzger, are not even hitting that well. Their batting averages are .209 and .185, respectively. In the past 10 seasons only three of their brethren, Luis Aparicio, Denis Menke and Larry Bowa, have hit .300. They each did it after at least five years in the majors, and none of them did it more than once.
Given this background, there is scarcely a more unlikely circumstance in baseball than a shortstop—a youthful one, at that—having the fifth highest batting average in the National League. But last week, there was the Cardinals' 21-year-old Garry Templeton, the youngest regular in the majors, who began this season with 56 days of big league experience, hitting .321. And although his fielding tends to be erratic, it also is frequently spectacular. As a result, the Cards call him the best all-round shortstop in baseball. Their boast is becoming increasingly difficult to refute.
A natural right-handed batter, Templeton learned to switch-hit in 1974 in the Gulf Coast League and has since been the scourge of four higher leagues. He has a straight-armed swing as a lefty and a compact, wristy stroke as a righty. On those rare occasions when he slumps from both sides, he falls back on his 9.5 speed in the 100 to beat out infield hits. Last week he was leading the league with 17 triples, had 25 stolen bases and was only 10 hits and nine runs short of a 200-hit, 100-run season. ( Cronin, Wagner, Appling, Travis and Groat had one 200-hit year apiece; Banks, Jackson and Boudreau had none.) Templeton also has seven homers and 73 runs batted in, and some members of the Cardinals feel he will eventually hit 20 to 25 home runs a year. Others see him merely as a future batting champion.
In the field, Templeton stands in a strangely upright position. That stance is all the better, he says, for getting a good jump on the ball, which is critical on the AstroTurf at Busch Stadium. With his speed and eccentric defensive posture, he swoops down on grounders like a falcon after a prairie dog and he makes difficult plays behind second base look almost routine. He is also a fearless middleman on the double play and can play balls off his chest and still throw out the runner.
And unlike many young players who have received immediate acclaim, Templeton seems to have the disposition to become a long-term success. "I've never seen a player of any age with his temperament," says Lou Brock, who is 38 years old and in his 17th major league season. "Most players suffer from anxiety or tension. Not him. And his attitude is perfect. If you tell him something once, that's it."
"I don't worry about slumps," said Templeton as he spread lemon lotion over his 5'11", 170-pound body after a game in Montreal last week. "My father Spiavia, who played in the black leagues, told me I should use my speed from the left side. I can have a bad day and still go 2 for 4—if I hit the grounders."
Templeton is clearly a natural, which is a good thing because he has rarely lingered anywhere long enough to absorb much instruction. He has been vaulting through the Cardinal system since he was signed for $40,000 after graduation from Santa Ana ( Calif.) Valley High in 1974. The next year Templeton hit .264 at Class A St. Petersburg and .401 in 42 games at Double A Arkansas. The Cardinals called him up on Aug. 9, 1976, when he was hitting .321 at Triple A Tulsa. Unfazed by a 4 for 25 start in the majors, he went on to bat .291 in 53 games last season and become the youngest player to appear on the All-Star ballot. After 198 big league games, he has yet to go more than three in a row without getting a hit.
Templeton is typical of the "new" Cardinals. Even when Brock is in the lineup, St. Louis is the league's youngest team, averaging 24 years of age. The infield of Catcher Ted Simmons (28), Third Baseman Ken Reitz (26), Second Baseman Mike Tyson (27), First Baseman Keith Hernandez (23) and Templeton had 13 homers and 77 RBIs per man by the end of last week.
If they can acquire a power-hitting rightfielder and get respectable performances from Pitchers Pete Falcone, John Denny and Larry Dierker, who so far have won only 13 games among them, the Cardinals feel they can contend in 1978.
But they must also contend with their tendency to play just well enough to lose. Last week third-place St. Louis lost its seventh game in seven tries at Montreal's Olympic Stadium by failing to execute a double play on a grounder to the mound. The Cardinals' fundamentals are often fundamentally unsound.