Third base may be the hot corner for some, but for Graig Nettles of the Yankees it is center stage. He does not merely play the position, he choreographs it, with high leaps, spinning grabs, diving scoops. And against the Dodgers last week his show became a nationwide hit as he put on the best World Series performance by a fielder since Baltimore Third Baseman Brooks Robinson shut off Cincinnati in 1970. It was particularly impressive in contrast to the inept fielding of his opponents.
Nettles robbed Los Angeles of at least five hits and perhaps as many as seven extra bases and seven runs. The Dodgers' Rick Monday said, "There's no way to beat him. We could handcuff his right arm to his left leg and his left arm to his right leg, put a ball and chain around his neck and a blindfold around his eyes, and he would still make the play."
A 34-year-old native of San Diego, Nettles has been making the plays since he became a regular with Cleveland in 1970. Although that was the year Robinson starred in the World Series, it was Nettles who led the league in fielding. The following season he set major league records for assists (412) and double plays (54). Overall, Nettles has been atop his league in assists five times, putouts twice and fielding once; he holds the record for assists in a six-game Series, and for double plays in a four-game Series.
Despite these accomplishments and an impressive batting record that includes a home-run title, Nettles concedes that Robinson deserves to rank ahead of him. After all, says Nettles, Robinson was the master of his trade for 23 seasons, while Nettles has been at it for only nine. But he adds, "I can't imagine him playing any better than I have the last several years." In fact, Robinson did not. Although Brooks' showing against Cincinnati was spectacular, his catches were less pivotal because the Orioles were so clearly superior to the Reds in '70. It is also noteworthy that during the six seasons—1970-75—in which both Nettles and Robinson played regularly, Nettles led his rival in assists five times, putouts three times and fielding average twice.
Paul Blair, the Yankee outfielder who has played with both men, says, "I always thought that Graig was decent and nothing more, but after seeing him every day, I'd put him just behind Brooks. Robby went to his right better, but Nettles covers more ground to his left and has a better arm. I felt any play was possible with Brooks, and now I feel that way about Graig."
Nettles brings the same talents—quick hands, a nose for the ball and an arm of unfailing accuracy—to the position that Robinson did, but in at least one way Brooks was better equipped for the job. Nettles' 4-year-old glove, which he keeps using because he finds it "comfortable," has a deep gash in the pocket and a self-deprecating E-5 printed on the back.
Compared to other third basemen, Nettles plays deeper and farther off the bag. "For every ball that goes down the line, I figure there are 10 that go toward the hole," he explains. Nettles tries to give himself another edge by picking up the catcher's sign before every pitch. Then, as the ball heads toward the plate, Nettles moves a step to the left or right, depending on what kind of pitch has been thrown. With the extra step he can sometimes cut off a hit and save a run, which, he says, "is just as important as driving one in and an even bigger thrill."
With a keen, sometimes biting, sense of humor, Nettles is amused by the belated attention to his fielding. "I've been making plays like this ever since I was in Cleveland," he says, "but if you don't do it in the Series, you don't get the recognition. I'm not an overnight success."
To Nettles' thinking, defensive ability is too easily overlooked. "They should list the defensive leaders in the paper along with the hitting leaders," he says. "And I wish owners gave consideration to defense in salary negotiations."
Surely it would help Nettles' bargaining position. Although he has had 161 home runs and 540 RBIs since joining the Yanks in 1973 and his 32 homers led the league in '76, he has usually struggled at the plate in postseason play. As the Series headed back West, Nettles had only three hits in 21 at bats, but no one was suggesting he pay his own way. "Fielding gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I'm not letting the team down completely," he said. Indeed, the only ones feeling let down by Nettles were the Dodgers.