Can Vic Davalillo, the minuscule and peripatetic Venezuelan who plays now and then for the Pittsburgh Pirates, be the victim of that most pernicious form of bigotry—size-ism?
The record would seem to indicate as much. In nine years in the major leagues, the 5'7", 155-pound Davalillo has hit and fielded like a Brobdingnagian—two .300-plus seasons, a .279 lifetime batting average, a Golden Glove award—but he is forever consigned to Lilliput and, therefore, overlooked. Nobody, it seems, wants a little man for long—not the Cleveland Indians, not the California Angels, not the St. Louis Cardinals.
"I seem to get traded all the time," says Davalillo, who has, in fact, been traded three times in the past four years. "I'm a little guy, and when you weigh 155 pounds you've got to work twice as hard as a guy who weighs 200 pounds.... For me to stay in the big leagues, I got to do it with bunting, stealing, hitting singles and staying in shape."
Davalillo bunts, steals, singles and shapes up with the best, but the fact remains that most Americans, big-league baseball managers included, prefer their heroes to be of heroic proportions. Runts are useful only as a diversion. Davalillo has been a splendid diversion. He can play all three outfield positions and even first base, a spot normally reserved for the big fellows. And since he began his career as a left-handed curveballer, he can, in a pinch, pitch. In a pinch, he can also hit. In 1970, while playing for the Cardinals, he tied a major league record with 24 pinch hits in a season. Overall, he hit .311 that year. But in 1971 he was traded to Pittsburgh, along with Pitcher Nelson Briles for Matty Alou, who is only slightly bigger than Davalillo, and Pitcher George Brunet.
August 27, 1972
"I do not know what happen," says Davalillo in his Spanish accent. "Maybe they want some bigger men. Maybe they think they can win the pennant with those two guys, and the Pirates think they can win with Briles and me."
The Pirates, of course, were right. They won the pennant, Davalillo hit .285 in 99 games and Briles pitched a vital shutout over Baltimore in the World Series. But Davalillo didn't grow between seasons, and when it came time for the Pirates to size up their prospects for 1972, he stood ready with bags packed. But in new Manager Bill Virdon, a 6-footer, he found a champion of the little man. Thinking big, Virdon saw a place for Davalillo on his team.
"Size is no liability to him," Virdon says of his ace utility man. "It is balanced out with his great speed, his sharp bat and the fact that he plays four positions. Actually, he has a lot of assets. Size has nothing to do with your ability to play the game of baseball."
Davalillo starts primarily against right-hand pitching, although he remains in the game when a lefthander relieves. He has prospered in the platoon system, hitting above .330 and stealing 10 bases in 11 attempts. And as a part-timer, he joins a distinguished company in the National League that includes the Dodgers' Manny Mota and his own teammates, Gene Clines and Rennie Stennet. All, significantly, are little men.
Davalillo is not displeased with being only an occasional starter. He feels useful. "Beel," he says of his manager, "is always using me. He never forget about me."
Under any circumstances, Davalillo plays a lot of baseball. When the regular major league season is over, he simply packs his spikes and moves to his native Caracas for winter ball. This, in fact, will be his 18th season in the winter leagues.
"Some say it keep me tired," Davalillo says, "but I say it keep me in shape."
The shape is the same—small—but at 33, Vic Davalillo is a bigger man in some respects than many of his contemporaries. He has developed a certain philosophy, for example, about the nature of his occupation. Some might call it cynicism.
"That first time, when I was traded by Cleveland," he said last week, "I worried a lot. I was thinking, when you do get traded you are a bad ballplayer. When they trade you, they maybe don't need you. Now I look around and see them trade guys like Willie Mays. Now, I am thinking different."
By baseball standards, that is looking at the big picture.