It's possible that Robin Yount, who is now the finest shortstop in baseball, won't be named the Most Valuable Player in the American League, especially if Milwaukee fails to protect its Eastern Division lead (through Sunday, two games over the Orioles), but in press boxes around the league he's unquestionably the favorite. One argument in his behalf is repeated over and over: He's a shortstop who can hit. And, as Oscar Gamble, the New York Yankee outfielder, says, "He hits with power. It's amazing that a shortstop can lead the league in slugging percentage."
Yount, who turned 27 last week, has been in or close to the league lead in slugging percentage most of the season, and in total bases, too. These are power categories, the statistical realm of the big hitters, the musclemen—usually outfielders and first basemen, sometimes third basemen and catchers, occasionally a second baseman, almost never a shortstop. Ernie Banks led in both categories once, before he was switched from shortstop to first base. (Did you know that Banks played more games at first than he did at short? Does this make him a first baseman in the eyes of the great god of baseball statistics?) Rogers Hornsby did it once early in his career, before he was switched from short to second. Honus Wagner, who towers like Mount Everest over all other shortstops (see box, page 39), did it several times back in the first decade of the century. Vern Stephens and the above three Hall of Famers are the only shortstops to finish as high as second in both slugging percentage and total bases in the same year.
At the end of last week, Yount was second in the league in batting (.333), first in base hits, first in doubles, second in runs scored and third in triples; he had 24 homers and 101 runs batted in. He also had 80 extra-base hits (45 doubles, 11 triples and 24 homers). Eighty extra-base hits in one season is a considerable but seldom-noticed batting achievement. When George Brett hit .390 two seasons ago he had 66 extra-base hits. Carl Yastrzemski has never had 80 in a season. Ty Cobb never did either. Neither did Wagner or Roberto Clemente. Nor Pete Rose. Reggie Jackson has done it once. But this is the second season of more than 80 for Yount, who had 82 (49, 10, 23) in 1980.
Shortstops just aren't expected to hit like that, particularly slick-fielding shortstops, and Yount is among the slickest. Rick Burleson of the California Angels and Alan Trammell of the Detroit Tigers are generally considered the two finest fielding shortstops in the American League, but Yount is very close to them. Some observers say he's better. He has excellent range, good hands, a powerful arm and the awareness of situation that moves superior fielders to moments of inspiration. In a game in New York recently he ran, his back to the infield, far into left centerfield after a twisting pop fly. He seemed unlikely to get to the ball before it dropped, but he stabbed at it at the last moment and grabbed it somewhere near his right elbow. The catch was accomplishment enough, but then Yount, turning with the impetus of his effort, threw back to second base and doubled off a surprised base runner.
Earlier in that series he had been shaded toward second base with a man on first and Jerry Mumphrey, a fast switch hitter batting left, at the plate. Mumphrey hit the ball sharply toward the hole between third and short. Yount, sprinting to his right, speared the ball backhanded on the dead run and somehow managed to fire it back to second base in time for the forceout—and Second Baseman Ed Romero still had time to relay the ball on to first to nip Mumphrey. Ed Lopat, the old Yankee lefthander of the Casey Stengel era, was still talking about Yount's gem a day or so later. "A shortstop can't make a better play than that," Lopat said. Pitcher Don Sutton, who came to the Brewers from the National League in August, said, "He took a base hit and turned it into a double play."
Yount's grace in the field is evident, but at bat he doesn't look like a power hitter. He's tall and lithe—6 feet and 170 pounds—and he doesn't bludgeon the ball. But he has surprisingly muscular arms for his lean build, and he has a quick bat—he puts wood on the ball. He tends to boom hits to right center and left center, which helps explain the number of doubles and triples he gets. "He hits from foul line to foul line, the way Steve Garvey does," Sutton says. "He'll spray one down the rightfield line, he'll gap one to right center, then he'll jerk one to left." He's fast, too, though he doesn't steal many bases. When he's running all out, rounding the bases en route to a triple, his speed is breathtakingly evident.
In sum, he's a marvelously talented athlete who does everything well on the ball field and who elicits glowing praise from other baseball men. "Oh, Robin Yount!" bubbles George Bamberger, the manager of the New York Mets, who was Yount's manager in Milwaukee in 1978, '79 and part of '80. "There's a kid who can run, throw, field, hit, hit with power—what else is there? And he's a 100-percenter. I've never seen him let up. If somebody told me I could pick any shortstop in baseball for my team, I wouldn't hesitate, I wouldn't think about it for a second. It'd be Robin Yount."
Frank Howard, one of Bamberger's coaches, who was with him in Milwaukee as well, is even more extravagant in praise of Yount. "He's as complete a ballplayer as there is in the game," Howard says. "Plus, he's a super person. He has the respect of all his teammates and everybody in baseball. There aren't many Jack Armstrongs left, but in my mind Robin Yount is a Jack Armstrong of the 1980s, an ail-American boy. Let me put it this way: If your daughter came home with a Robin Yount, you'd be so grateful you'd light candles for the rest of your life." Sutton says, "He's a great guy to have on the club. He's funny. He keeps things loose in the clubhouse."
To outsiders these aspects of Yount's personality aren't readily apparent. He's polite and pleasant, even cordial to strangers, but he maintains a reserve. He's gracious and patient with the determined lady in Milwaukee who is head of the Robin Yount Fan Club, but a couple of years back he did decide he was too old to attend any more of the club's birthday parties for him. Some players savor publicity and use it to gratify egotistical needs; others are afraid of it and retreat into silence. Yount once told a reporter, "Publicity doesn't make that much difference to me. I don't especially like it, but I understand there is a need for it in baseball." He was 18 years old then, in his second month as a major-leaguer, and his attitude hasn't changed.
Such precocious maturity was characteristic. The youngest of three sons—Robin is five years younger than the second Yount son and nine years younger than the oldest—he has always acted older than his years. His mother, Marion, says, "He had that 'little man' attitude. I can't ever remember him being a 'little boy.' "