Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Top 10 Yankee Third Basemen

Note: Bobby Cox once played third base for the Yankees, and he’s going to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But these two things are by no means linked.

Honorable Mention to Joe Dugan, 1922-28. “It’s always the same,” Jumpin’ Joe, the 7th-place hitter on the “Murderer’s Row” Yankees said. “Combs walks. Koenig singles. Ruth hits one out of the park. Gehrig doubles. Meusel singles. Lazzeri triples. Then Dugan goes in the dirt on his can.”

Actually, while hardly as fearsome as his teammates, Dugan wasn’t a bad hitter, batting .280 lifetime, and reaching 60 RBIs 3 times, not bad totals for a third baseman in his era. He was a slick fielder, and helped the Yankees win 5 Pennants (1922, ’23, ’26, ’27 and ’28) and 3 World Series (1923, ’27 and ’28). He also had the “honor,” along with Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Pennock, of being sold off by both Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics and Harry Frazee of the Boston Red Sox.

Had he still been with the Yankees when they started wearing uniform numbers in 1929, he would have gotten Number 7 for his place in the batting order. He closed his career with the 1931 Detroit Tigers, wearing Number 25, the only number he ever wore.

10. Mike Pagliarulo, 1984-89. A native of Medford, Massachusetts who grew up as a Red Sox fan, “Pags” used to wear a T-shirt that had “Boston Red Sox, World Champions 1903 1912 1915 1916 1918” on the back and the Yankees’ titles on the front. He was nearly as good a glove as the man he replaced, Graig Nettles, and, also like Nettles, he seemed to have that sweet lefty swing meant for Yankee Stadium. In his 4 full seasons in Pinstripes, he hit 94 home runs, and topped out at 87 RBIs.

Unfortunately, he went too far in mirroring Nettles’ biggest flaw: He didn’t make contact enough, striking out 510 times in what amounted to 5 seasons in The Bronx. He batted in the .230s, then dropped to .216 in 1988 and was at .197 in ’89 when he was traded, like Nettles, to the Padres. In 1991, playing for the Minnesota Twins, he had his best average, .279, and won a World Series. In that Twin infield with him was Chuck Knoblauch, just as he’d once been in an infield with Willie Randolph. So Pags is linked to both the 1976-81 dynasty and the 1996-2003 dynasty… but not closely enough: The Yanks got very close to the AL East title in ’85 and ’88, and made strong runs in ’86 and ’87, but he had to go to Minnesota to win a Pennant and a ring.

He started out wearing Number 46, then switched to 6, then to 13. All 3 numbers are likely to be retired by the Yankees in the next few years, but none for him. He now runs a baseball-themed website, dugoutcentral.com. His son Mike helped Dartmouth’s baseball team win the 2009 Ivy League Championship.

9. Billy Johnson, 1943-51. Batted .280 with 94 RBIs as a rookie on the 1943 World Champion Yankees, the Montclair, New Jersey native missed the next 2 years in World War II, then came back and helped the Yankees win the Series again in 1947, ’49 and ’50. A solid hitter, he was an All-Star in 1947. He started out wearing Number 7, then switched to 24. The former is retired by the Yankees, the latter might be, but neither for him.

8. Scott Brosius, 1998-2001. He was only a Yankee for 4 years, but what a 4 years, just 3 outs away from being 4 straight World Championships. A .203 hitter with an OPS+ of 53 in his last season with the Oakland Athletics, the Yankees sent the hopeless Kenny Rogers (the choking pitcher, not the country singer) to the East Bay for the Oregonian, to replace the man at Number 7 on this list. Joe Torre said he just wanted him to field his position and not worry about hitting.

Turned out, in 1998, it was pitchers who had to worry about his hitting: Not only did he give the Yankees yet another great glove at the position, but he batted a career-high .300, posted a 121 OPS+, hit 19 homers, had a career-high 98 RBIs, made the All-Star Team, hit 2 home runs in Game 3 of the World Series, including a 410-foot game-winner to dead center off the San Diego Padres' supposedly invincible closer Trevor Hoffman, fielded the last out of the Series the next night, and was awarded the Series MVP.

He was hardly done, even in October. The Yankees won again in 1999, aided in part by Brosius' only Gold Glove season and 2 homers against the Red Sox in the ALCS. He hit another homer in the 2000 Series against the Mets, and in Game 5 of the 2001 Series, he tied the game in the bottom of the 9th with a homer, leading to a Yankee win in the 12th. Although he was only 34 and had just batted .287, he retired after that Series.

He went on to become the assistant coach, and then the head coach, at his alma mater, Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. He is a member of his State's Sports Hall of Fame. He wore Number 18 as a Yankee, although it is unlikely to be retired for him, or anyone else, in the near future.

7. Wade Boggs, 1993-97. He was already a Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting for what he’d done with the Red Sox. This ranking is based solely on what he did with the Yankees. And what he did was help to bring the team back from its 1982-92 doldrums, including its 1989-92 dark age.

Upon arriving in 1993, he instantly became a good influence on the team’s young hitters, and the Yankees finished 2nd, their highest finish since ’85. He batted .302, .342, .324, .311 and .292 in his 5 seasons in Pinstripes. He was the starting third baseman on the 1996 World Champions, won both of his Gold Gloves as a Yankee, and made 4 of his 12 All-Star appearances as a Yankee.

Overall, he batted .328 lifetime, with a 130 OPS+, 3,010 hits including 578 doubles, reached postseason play 6 times, winning 3 Pennants and a World Series – and that doesn’t count the 1994 season when the Yankees had the AL’s best record when the strike hit and didn’t get to find out what would happen. The image of him puffy and pink with tears in the Shea Stadium dugout after the Red Sox blew the 1986 Series will live forever; the image of him equally pink with joy on the Stadium mound in ’96, and then riding that police horse along the outfield track, is what should really be in our minds. As Worcester, Massachusetts native Denis Leary says, “If you had told my father that, one day, Wade Boggs would win the World Series with the Yankees, his head would have blown up.”

He returned to his native Tampa Bay, and became the Devil Rays’ first retired number, 12, which he also wore with the Yankees, rather than the 26 he wore with the Red Sox. The Yankees may never retire 12 for him, but a Plaque in Monument Park would be nice. After all, Reggie Jackson is there, and he, too, played 4½ seasons as a Yankee starter.

6. Gil McDougald, 1951-60. Yet another cog in the Yankees’ old-time San Francisco connection, he was AL Rookie of the Year in 1951, ahead of teammate Mickey Mantle. A 5-time All-Star, he played 10 seasons, winning 8 Pennants and 5 World Series (1951, ’52, ’53, ’56 and ’58). Although just 32 years old, he retired after the 1960 season, expecting to be left unprotected in the expansion draft and not wanting to play for a considerably lesser team. He wore Number 12 throughout his Yankee career, and was later the baseball coach at Fordham University.

5. Frank Baker, 1916-22. John Franklin Baker was nicknamed “Home Run” Baker due to 2 homers he hit for the A’s in the 1911 World Series, off New York Giants, and fellow future Hall-of-Famers, Rube Marquard and then Christy Mathewson. And he did lead the AL in homers 4 times… peaking at 12. It was the Dead Ball Era. Still, his career OPS+ was 135, meaning he was 35 percent more productive a hitter than the average player of his time.

A member of Connie Mack’s first A’s dynasty, 1910-14, he sat out the 1915 season in a contract dispute, and, having already broken the dynasty up, Mack sold him to the Yankees for $37,500 – as sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar would say, these were Woodrow Wilson dollars. The year off hurt Baker, but he did hit .308 for the Yankees in 1918 and help them win their first 2 Pennants, in 1921 and ’22.

4. Clete Boyer, 1959-66. Debuting in the major leagues with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, the same year Brooks Robinson debuted with the Baltimore Orioles, it was impossible for Clete to win a Gold Glove as long as he stayed in the AL – and, in fact, he only won 1, and that was in 1969, with the Atlanta Braves.

But, at his peak, he was every bit as good a fielder as Robinson, his performance in the 1961 World Series nearly as amazing as those of Robinson in the 1970 edition and Graig Nettles in 1978. He used to dive for balls, come up only to his knees, and throw runners out. He wasn’t a great hitter, not topping 20 homers until he was traded and went to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a.k.a. the Launching Pad, but he did hit 162 homers, 95 as a Yankee, and probably would have hit a lot more had he not been a righthanded hitter aiming for Death Valley at the pre-renovation old Stadium. A member of the Yankees’ 5 straight Pennant winners of 1960-64, he won World Series in 1961 and ’62.

In 1964, he and his brother Ken, Captain of the St. Louis Cardinals, became the only brothers to both homer in a World Series game. Their brother Cloyd pitched for the Cards a few years before Ken got there, and was briefly Clete’s teammate on the A’s, near their hometown of Alba, Missouri. Clete wore Number 6 through most of his Yankee career, and it will be retired, though not for him.

3. Robert “Red” Rolfe, 1934-42, plus a one-game callup in ’31. He’s not in the Hall of Fame or Monument Park, but in an interview in 1980, Mel Allen called him the best third baseman he’d ever seen. Mel was biased (there’s a shock), because Rolfe was the Yankee hot-corner man when he became “the Voice of the Yankees” in 1939.

But Rolfe was a fantastic fielder, who would have won several Gold Gloves had the award been around then. He also batted .289 lifetime, with 4 .300 seasons. He led the AL in triples in 1936 and in hits, doubles and runs in 1939. He helped the Yankees win 6 Pennants (1936, ’37, ’38, ’39, ’41 and ’42) and 5 World Series (all but the last). Oddly, he retired after the 1942 season, only 34. And it wasn’t to serve in World War II, either, but to become baseball coach at Yale University. He was a Dartmouth graduate, and later served as their athletic director and as manager of the Detroit Tigers. He wore Number 2 throughout his Yankee career, and it will be retired, though not for him.

2. Graig Nettles, 1973-83. He was the last player obtained, from the Cleveland Indians for Charlie Spikes, by the CBS regime before George Steinbrenner and Gabe Paul took over – and, with their Cleveland connections, it may have been a setup. But he hit 71 homers in 3 full seasons playing in what was usually called “Cavernous Cleveland Stadium,” so what could he do at Yankee Stadium with its short right-field porch?

It took a while to find out, as he hit “only” 22 homers in ’73, but he hit another 22 in ’74 and 21 in ’75, despite playing in pitcher’s park Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium was being renovated. In the refurbished Stadium, with the RF pole being 310 feet from home plate and straightaway right just 353, Nettles hit 32 homers in ’76 to lead the AL. He hit 37 in ’77, although it wasn’t enough to lead the League with Jim Rice hitting 39. He had a .248 lifetime batting average that is lower than that of any nonpitcher in the Hall, but he hit 390 homers and had a 110 career OPS+.

It’s for his fielding that he’s best known. His stops in Game 3 of the ’78 World Series saved the Yankees’ bacon, and that was just what he did when the whole country was watching. He made plays like that all the time when it was only the Tri-State Area watching on WPIX-Channel 11. Starting his career when Brooks Robinson was still around, and playing at the same time as Aurelio Rodriguez and George Brett, limited him to 2 Gold Gloves, but he was at least as good a fielder as the former and better than the latter. In 1984, the Yankees traded him to the San Diego Padres. Playing for his hometown team, alongside former Yankee teammate Goose Gossage, he helped them win their first Pennant. It was his 5th career Pennant, after 4 with the Yankees (1976, ’77, ’78 and ’81) and 2 World Series wins (1977 & ’78).

Should he be in the Hall, despite that .248 average? Baseball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame Monitor has him at 63 out of 10, and their HOF Standards has him at 31 out of 50. Their 10 Most Similar Batters is loaded with really good third basemen and others who weren’t quite good enough to get in: Darrell Evans, Gary Gaetti, Ron Santo, Dale Murphy, Brian Downing, Chili Davis, Don Baylor, Ron Cey, Joe Carter and Robin Ventura. Of those, a case can be made for Santo and maybe Evans.

But, until recently, Nettles was the greatest third baseman in Yankee history. Though it should be noted that, when he was traded, the Yankees retired his Number 9 not for him, but for Roger Maris. And he has never received a Plaque in Monument Park. No Hall of Fame, no Monument Park, no number retirement. Just a “Yankeeography” and a big cheer every Old-Timers’ Day.

1. Alex Rodriguez, 2004-present. Someone check on Lisa Swan of Subway Squawkers (link to the right), just to make sure my choice of A-Rod as the all-time Yankee third baseman hasn’t shocked her into unconsciousness or hysteria.

What can I say now? Sure, he’s had his difficulties in the postseason, but he’s been with the Yankees for 7 seasons, they’ve reached the postseason 6 times, and he was the biggest reason the Yankees won the 2009 ALDS and ALCS, and he came through in the World Series as well. No one can say he was “just along for the ride.”

Whether he will become the game’s all-time home run leader with 763 or more, we don’t know. But he’s a very good bet to at least reach 700, and get 3,000 hits. Even with the little revelations about what he did back in Texas, that probably won’t hurt him any more than it hurt George W. Bush. Barring a genuine ethical/legal calamity, he’ll make the Hall of Fame. The Yankees will retire his Number 13, and he will get a Plaque in Monument Park.

See what a difference winning one World Series can mean?

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