The Best Play

I’ve never liked the term “routine double play.”

If you’ve been in a key situation where there’s a fast runner on first and the ball is hit towards you at short, you understand what I’m talking about. Turning a double play is a multistep process, and each move must be performed with perfect efficiency.

Of course, I can forgive you if you didn’t find many of the double plays I turned during my career all that exciting. My style of play was never the most flamboyant, especially when compared with Ozzie Smith. Me attempting a backflip in the infield probably wouldn’t have ended well.

I was always on the bigger side for a shortstop, and because of that, I had to take a much more methodical path to the ball a lot of the time. For example, if a ball was hit in the hole, a smaller guy might be able to scoot around it, and then catch and throw the ball on the run. I wasn’t that quick, so I’d have to make a sharp angle directly towards the ball, backhand it and then make the throw to first base. It wasn’t flashy, but it also wasn’t easy. I probably practiced it a million times.

I made a lot of plays during my career that I’m proud of, but the best play I’ve ever made might also have been one of the easiest. It’s one I’ll never forget because my life changed forever the instant the ball fell into my glove.

I’ll always remember how my season ended in 1982. I was sitting in the dugout, watching the Milwaukee Brewers celebrate.

We had been three games back of the Brewers at the start of our four-game series. Won three in a row to tie them in the standings. We had to win one more game to make the playoffs. But then Robin Yount hit two home runs and a triple and that was it. Season over.

As we sat there watching Milwaukee team celebrate their playoff berth, I think every single person on our team, down to the last man, was thinking about how far we could have gone if we’d just won one more game. We had gotten off to a slow start and had had to play catch-up all season long. I started thinking about each series we’d played that year. One more hit at the right moment could have changed everything. Then we’d have been the ones celebrating.

We carried that disappointment with us into the following season. There was a different feel about the team — a certain focus but also wisdom. Now we fully understood the importance of each and every game. We weren’t going to let our fate come down to one game again.

What you learn after playing for a long time at the major league level is that on any given day, any team can beat any other team. In fact, any team can clobber any other team. That’s just the nature of the game when every team has such talented players. But becoming a winning team isn’t about individual games. It’s about developing a mentality, from the top of an organization to the bottom. If you play winning baseball, you might lose to some teams when they have a good day. But the key is to only lose games because the other team beat you, not because you beat yourself by giving away at bats or making errors.

In 1983 we didn’t beat ourselves too often.

My rookie year in 1982, I went 3 for 5 on Opening Day. I’ll never forget that.

Then I only got four more hits in my next 55 at bats. I’ll also never forget that.

Naturally, I started worrying about getting sent down. It was extremely humbling. Of course, those negative thoughts only made things worse. Eighteen games into my first full Major League season, I had a .117 batting average. Not great.

While I was slumping, Earl Weaver would meet with me in his office just about every day to try and lift me up. He’d tell me that I’d proven I could hit in Triple A ball, so there was no point in him sending me down. Then he’d tell me to keep swinging, and to just play the hell out of third base. That advice – to focus on what I was doing on the field in the middle of a slump – turned out to be very helpful during my career.

More often than not, whenever I made an error, I’d get a hit in my next at bat. If I struck out a few times, I’d be more likely to make a nice play in the field. Whatever I was struggling with, I tried to excel in another area to balance it out. I always viewed baseball as a constant internal battle within myself. You have to keep your emotions low when pressure is high, but play with passion when pressure was low. It’s not about focusing on perfection so much as on consistency.

I eventually turned things around in 1982 and ended up winning Rookie of the Year. I won it against a pretty tough field of competitors too. Gary Gaetti hit 25 home runs for the Twins, and Wade Boggs batted .349 for the Red Sox. It was exciting to win the award, but heading into ’83, all I heard about was the sophomore slump — and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t on my mind. It’s a real thing. Everyone at the major league level is constantly scouting and learning about the competition, which is why you’ll sometimes see guys have one big year and then cool off once the league adjusts to how to hit or pitch against them. The great players figure it out and thrive, but some guys never quite recover. I was determined to make sure I wasn’t a one-year wonder. So I followed my dad’s advice.

He always said, “This is a game of adjustments and readjustments.”

Fortunately, I came into the season ready to change the way I played to counter what teams had seen of me on film. I had a pretty good understanding of what teams might try to do to me, and so I used that against them.

We didn’t let the 1983 season come down to one game.

Our team won 98 games during the regular season, and took at 3-1 lead against the Phillies in the World Series.

I was only 3 for 18 in the Series. I think I got robbed of a couple of hits. I wasn’t contributing offensively as much as I wanted to, so I made up for it in the field. I was doing absolutely everything I could to make a play.

We took a 5–0 lead into the bottom of the ninth in Game 5, and when we got in a position to win it, I was hoping so badly that the ball would be hit to me. Now, I didn’t want it to be a grounder that I had to toss to first base. I wanted that ball.

How I caught it wasn’t particularly notable. It was a little humpback line drive. When it came off the bat, everything kind of went into slow motion. I know my eyes got really big. I think I grabbed it out of the air more than I caught it, then I immediately started running to the mound to celebrate with my teammates.

We were playing in Philly, so the crowd was kind of subdued, but we didn’t notice. We were completely in the moment. Not long after the final out, some fans ran onto the field to celebrate with us. That would never happen today, but hey, it was the ‘80s. I remember that in all the commotion one fan was tugging at my glove, trying to get the ball.

No chance. I still have it to this day.

Looking back, the most memorable part of that play was probably that surreal feeling as the ball came towards me. It’s kind of indescribable to see a lifelong goal floating towards you in the air. As soon as the ball popped into my glove, I was a world champion.

It doesn’t get much better than that.