|Andrelton Simmons of the Braves is the best
defensive shortstop in the game today
For the casual fan of the game, the least appreciated and valued part of most baseball games is defense.
Until some egregious error is made that costs their team a run, or worse yet, a game, many fans simply do not value this part of the sport nearly enough.
Simply put, good defense is vital to a team succeeding over the long haul of a 162-game season, and can prove the difference in what are often tough, low-scoring playoff and World Series games.
Just as much as a massive homerun in a close game, or a key base hit at clutch time, or a pitcher striking out a batter in a pivotal moment with runners on base, a sensational dive, leap, catch, throw…sometimes all four together, can change the course of a game, a series, and a season.
Many of my fellow Phillies fans, who shared the thrill of the 2008 post-season run to a World Series crown, might have a hard time remembering some of the big hits during that series against the Rays. But every single one of those fans remembers “The Deke“, the Chase Utley defensive play that may have been the real difference.
The Phils were up 3-1 in the series and trying to win it at home, avoiding a return to Tampa where anything could happen. Game 5, tied at 2-2 after 6 innings, had been delayed by monsoon-like rains that had caused a suspension of play for two days.
The teams finally returned to action, exchanged runs, and went into the top of the 7th tied at 3-3. The Rays had shortstop Jason Bartlett on 2nd base as the potential go-ahead run with two outs as speedy 2nd baseman Akinori Iwamura stepped to the plate and shot a grounder up the middle.
With Iwamura’s speed, it looked to at least be an infield hit. Utley fielded, and turned as if to throw to try to get Iwamura at 1st base. Tampa’s 3rd base coach, Tom Foley, sensed an opportunity to take the lead at a pivotal moment and frantically waved Bartlett to the plate for the go-ahead run.
It was here that Utley made a play for the ages, the type of heads-up, hustling play that has defined the Phillies’ 2nd baseman’s career. Instead of throwing to first, Utley actually pumped his arm, and in the same motion turned and fired a one-hop throw to catcher Carlos Ruiz. “Chooch” fielded it and dove to tag out Bartlett, who himself was diving headfirst for the plate.
The Phils scored a lone run in their half of the 7th to re-take the lead at 4-3, and two innings later Brad Lidge dropped to his knees after striking out Eric Hinske to give the club it’s first championship in 28 years. As much as any other factor, it was the Utley play that keyed the victory.
|Jim Edmonds, June 10th, 1997, my personal fave|
Whether it was Willie Mays’ “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, Joe Rudi leaping against the left field wall in the early 1970’s, or Ozzie Smith diving into the hole in the 1980’s, Derek Jeter’s “The Flip” in 2001, or my personal favorite of all-time, Jim Edmonds’ version of “The Catch” in 1997, defense has not only sparked victories, but defined them.
The following are my own choices for the 2014 Major League Baseball Defensive Team and Player of the Year.
Best Defensive Team
Kansas City Royals
Defensive Player of the Year
Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta (shortstop)
Defensive Team of the Year
1B – Adrian Gonzalez, LAD
2B – Dustin Pedroia, Boston
SS – Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta
3B – Chase Headley, NYY
C – Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee
LF – Alex Gordon, Kansas City
CF – Jackie Bradley Jr, Boston
RF – Jason Heyward, Atlanta
P – Zack Greinke, LAD
On September 11th, 1976, the Montreal Expos were winding down the final weeks of both that ’76 season in Major League Baseball and their final season at Jarry Park. The following season they would move into the new Olympic Stadium, built for the Summer Olympics which the city had hosted that summer.
On that particular night, however, the team was on the road in Pittsburgh, and the 4-3 loss suffered at the hands of the perennial N.L. East power Pirates was the Expos 90th of the season. The night would be lost in memory but for one small tidbit. Starting in right field for the Expos on this night would be a rookie prospect by the name of Andre Dawson.
Dawson had been an 11th round draft pick of the Expos just a year earlier, the 250th player selected overall in that draft. Dawson would go 0-2 in that night’s game and would be lifted for pinch-hitter Jose Morales in the top of the 7th inning as the Expos rallied from a 4-1 deficit to cut the lead to 4-3. It would be one of the only times that Andre Dawson would be removed from any kind of Montreal rally for the next decade.
Dawson thus began to get his feet wet in the Majors that September with 85 mostly uneventful at-bats for a last place team. His batting average was just .235, and he hit no homeruns. In 1977, however, it was a different story. Dawson was a starter right from spring training, and ended up as the National League Rookie of the Year after posting a .282 average with 19 homeruns and 21 stolen bases.
Those Expos of ’77 improved by 20 wins over the previous year, and Dawson’s bat and centerfield play was only one of the reasons for the fans of the franchise to finally feel as if a winner might soon be coming to MLB’s only Canadian franchise. The franchise also had a 23-year old catcher named Gary Carter and 23-year old outfielder Ellis Valentine on board to build around.
This group of players would lead the team to it’s initial glory years, finishing with the franchise’ first-ever winning record by posting 95 victories in 1979 in what was the first of five consecutive winning seasons. That run was highlighted by the 1981 season in which the Expos made the playoffs for the only time in their history before losing the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Andre Dawson was one of the main reasons that the Expos experienced so much success into the early 1980’s. He regularly would hit .300 and was a consistent power/speed combination offensively while his strong glove and arm developed to the point that he led the NL in putouts for three straight years from 1981-83 and became a regular Gold Glove winner.
After a decade of mostly success in Montreal, Dawson became a free agent following the 1986 season. His knees had taken a pounding on the Olympic Stadium turf, forcing a move from centerfield to right field and taking a physical toll on him. One of the key requirements as he sorted through his free agent suitors was getting to play his home games on grass. For this reason he campaigned to sign with the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs general manager at the time was Dallas Green, who believed that Dawson was on the decline and did not want to sign him. Dawson and his agent presented Green with a contract offer that included a blank salary which the team could fill in itself at any figure that it deemed appropriate. Green took the challenge and filled the contract in at $500,000 with another $250,000 in incentives, a healthy pay cut from Dawson’s final Montreal season.
At 32 years of age and with his knees mostly shot, Dawson’s days as a centerfielder and speed threat were mostly over. But he had slid over to right field where his strong arm and excellent range allowed him to remain a Gold Glover. At the plate, Dawson exploded with the Cubs as one of the greatest power hitters in the game, and would end up being rewarded with a 5-year contract extension to stay in the Windy City.
In his very first season at Wrigley Field, Andre Dawson showed the Cubbies and Green that he was worth a full contract by putting up a season for the ages that resulted in his winning the National League Most Valuable Player award. He bashed 49 homeruns and knocked in 137 runs for a team that Phillies fans might find interesting included a 24-year old, 2nd year pitcher named Jamie Moyer.
In 1989, Dawson battled injuries to help lead the Cubs into the NLCS where they were beaten by the San Francisco Giants. He continued to put up consistently strong years for the Cubs, including a 1991 season in which he bashed 31 homers and drove in 14 runs. He would wind his career down with two seasons each playing for the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins, with his final game coming with the Fish on September 29th, 1996.
During his 20-year MLB career Andre Dawson had been an 8-time All-Star, including the winner of the 1987 Home Run Derby. He was a 4-time winner of the Silver Slugger for hitting excellence at his position. It wasn’t nearly all about offense for the all-around Dawson, however. He was also an 8-time Gold Glove Award winner. All of this to go along with the ’77 NL Rookie of the Year and ’87 NL MVP awards.
Finally, Andre Dawson was one of only 3 players in MLB history to finish his career in the 400/300 Club (at least 400 homeruns and 300 stolen bases) with the others being Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. After waiting the requisite five years, Dawson received just over 45% of a needed 75% vote in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.
In 2003, Dawson, who was nicknamed ‘The Hawk’ during his playing career, received his only World Series ring as a member of the Florida Marlins front office, and he currently serves that team as a special assistant to the team president. He had his #10 retired by the Expos before the franchise moved to Washington. It was announced just yesterday that he was finally elected to full enshrinement as a player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I watched Andre Dawson all throughout the 1980’s and into the early 90’s as one of the most dominant all-around players in the game during that pre-steroid era. In the first half of his career he had it all: power, speed, arm, defense. Later in his career he remained a consistent middle-of-the-order power threat. He won major awards, including an MVP for a last place team. In my opinion, Andre Dawson’s election to the Hall is a long overdue honor.