April 21st, 2012
Brandon Crawford’s spectacular play to end Tuesday’s game against the Phillies put me in mind of a Sunday night about ten years ago in Cleveland.
Omar Vizquel was playing for Cleveland. First inning, runner at first, ground ball deep in the hole at short. Omar goes far to his right, backhands the ball and makes one of these jump pivots. He’s in mid-air spinning like he’s in the ballet. And from midair he fires to second just in time to get the runner. I remember thinking, “Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a play like that.’’
So the other night, it’s a similar situation. Runner at first, ball hit deep in the hole. The batter is Victorino. Not only a very fast runner but he’s batting left-handed so he gets a step-and-a-half advantage. Crawford goes far to right, makes a spectacular dive and backhands the ball. Ideally you want to get that guy at second with the shorter throw – like the play Omar made in Cleveland. But the runner, Pierre, got a good jump so that wasn’t a clear option. So Crawford – with lightning-quick reflexes — leaps to his feet, snaps the ball hard to first and gets Victorino.
I was astonished. I don’t think you can see a better play than that.
I remember when Cal Ripken made the move from third base to shortstop. It was 1983, my first year in Baltimore broadcasting the Orioles. Mark Belanger had just retired. Belanger was one of the great defensive shortstops of all time. Cal asked the Orioles to bring him into spring camp.
For two weeks Belanger lived at Cal’s condo on Key Biscayne. I asked Cal, “So you want to get all the inside tips from Belanger about how to play the position?’’
“Well, yes,’’ Cal said. “I want to know everything he knows about the position. But what I really want is to grill him on every single hitter in the American League. At the dinner table in the condo every night, I go through every player, and he tells me where he plays those guys and what they’re liable to do with different pitches.’’
Because Belanger had sort of an encyclopedic mind like Cal did.
For Cal, positioning was everything. He wanted to know where batters were likely to hit the ball based on their past performance. So that’s what he was picking Belanger’s brain about. Cal told me he grew up watching Belanger and that it seemed like Belanger never made a dive for a ball. He didn’t have to dive, Cal said because he was already in the right position – the point being that if you have to make a dive to stop a ball, your chances of throwing the runner out are almost nil.
One winter Cal and Ozzie Smith – the best shortstop in the AL and the best in the NL at the time – were on the same All-Star team traveling to Japan. All the players were meeting up in Los Angeles, then flying from there. Cal and Ozzie realized they were both arriving a day early and arranged to meet at Dodger Stadium. They threw batting practice and hit grounders to each other.
Cal hit a ground ball to Ozzie’s left. Then he hit it to his right. Then he hit one hard right at him. Then he’d hit three in a row to his left so Ozzie wouldn’t know which way it was coming. He was running Ozzie through his paces be wanted to see for himself how Ozzie did what he did. He had only seen Ozzie on TV and the occasional All-Star team. He had never had this kind of access to him. And Ozzie was doing the same thing to Cal.
Cal wasn’t Ozzie and never could be. There were other shortstops who could run circles around him or leap right over the top of him. He wasn’t flashy. His game was knowing each hitter’s tendencies and how to position himself based on what pitch was coming next.
Watching Crawford, we’ve seen him do things that take your breath away. At the same time he’s made a lot of errors already. For young shortstops, there are going to be errors because they’re still learning how to play plus the game is faster at the Major League level. Remember, Crawford was only in A ball at the start of last year.
But the ability is clearly there. Cal and the Wizard are both Hall of Famers, among the best shortstops to ever play the game. It would be unfair to compare any young shortstop to them. But we know that Crawford is helping the Giants win with his glove right now. If he gets the bat going too, then he’s got a chance to be around a long time.”