He's hot, but not a hot dog

With his batting average high among the league leaders and his fielding as slick as ever, Second Baseman Manny Trillo of Philadelphia is hushing up his critics
September 07, 1980

To truly appreciate the grace and fluidity of Philadelphia Second Baseman Manny Trillo, one has only to look to his left, where Charlie Hustle himself, Pete Rose, attacks his position. Rose has never been averse to hard work, which is good because without it he could never play first. He pounces on grounders, snatches throws and dives after anything that comes his way.

Trillo, on the other hand, never seems to have to dive for a grounder. From the moment the ball is hit, he glides into position, his plane of movement intercepting the baseball's, the throw to first all arm, whipped across his body with a Kent Tekulve submarine delivery.

But while Rose will never be accused of resembling Trillo afield, Manny has developed a pretty good imitation of Pete at the plate. Combined with his glove work, this has helped keep the Phillies in the National League East race, half a game out of first as of Sunday. On that day Trillo, 29, was batting .317, fourth best in the league.

Only 12 points separated the top five hitters, and Trillo was as surprised as anyone to be among them. "I always thought of myself as a .260, .270 hitter," he says. "After I started so good, though, I promised Billy [batting instructor Billy DeMars] that my average wouldn't fall down." In each of his five previous seasons Trillo has been among the league's hitting leaders in April and May, only to fizzle in the later months. This season he's been hot all year; his average has dipped below .300 for only three days all summer. In July and August, Trillo hit .337 and .330, respectively, 97 and 85 points above his previous highs for these months.

Trillo cites two reasons for his new staying power. In long sessions with DeMars he has learned to keep his left shoulder back when he strides into the ball so as not to commit himself prematurely. The second reason, Trillo feels, is the advantage of playing in Philadelphia after four years in Chicago's sunstruck Wrigley Field. At 6'1", 160 pounds, the willowy Trillo would wilt in the heat.

"It seemed like it was always 85° or 90° out there, and I was playing 155 games a year for four years in a row," he says. "I would get worn out. We had other infielders, but the Cubs said, 'Nope, you're the one who has to be out there every day.' "

But can you blame them? The cannon-armed Trillo won his first Gold Glove last year, and he's always ranked near the top of the league in double plays, partly because his submarine delivery forces runners to make premature slides to either side of second to avoid being decapitated by a throw.

Trillo defends his motion as a matter of self-preservation. "A player coming in with his spikes high could end a career by wrecking a knee or an ankle, but they do it anyway," he says. "I don't mind a guy coming in hard as long as it's clean, but if I didn't throw this way I'd be part of some outfield wall. Now the runners know they better go down quick."

Trillo says he has been knocked down turning the double play only three times in his career—by Atlanta's Gary Matthews, Houston's Enos Cabell and the Mets' Steve Henderson. "If they knock me down once they'll never do it again," he warns.

Apprehensive base runners notwithstanding, perhaps the most exciting play Trillo makes is on the routine grounder. After fielding the ball in his graceful manner, Trillo hesitates tantalizingly, as if he were searching for National League President Chub Feeney's signature before rifling it over to first to nip the runner.

While Phillie Manager Dallas Green kiddingly calls Trillo's deliberation "an excellent example of mental preparation," others haven't been as charitable. They have accused Trillo of being a hot dog or, worse, indifferent to the game. Actually, Trillo says he pauses so he won't overthrow first base; the appearance of cool just goes along with it.

Trillo's lithe body and supple movements have prompted teammate Tim McCarver to call Manny "Nureyev," after the great ballet dancer. But as it is with any artist, Trillo's work has sometimes been misunderstood.

"If I tried to play like Pete Rose or one of the old-fashioned guys, I would look very bad," he says. "It would be the same thing if they tried to play like me. Rose's style is not mine."

Trillo, who signed his first professional contract with the Phillies in 1968, is popular among the players, who recognize him not only as a fine athlete but also as an easy mark at cards. One of his best friends on the team, Rightfielder Bake McBride, says, "He's a great ballplayer and quite a gentleman, but what a lousy cardplayer. He's my No. 1 fish." In an ongoing gin game the two play on road trips, McBride has opened up a 9-6 lead, but Trillo is sure he'll make a comeback. "I'm determined," he says.

Trillo has been that way since his youth in Caritito, Venezuela, where he learned to play baseball at age 6 under the eye of the town's sports instructor, Romulo Ortiz. Trillo soon became the teacher's pet. "On weekends Romulo and I would drive to Caracas to see a pro team play," Trillo says. "I would have to watch everything that went on so I could explain it to everyone back home."

That alertness was necessary later, when his team's regular catcher was hurt and Trillo—all 60 or so pounds of him—moved grudgingly from shortstop to fill in. He cried during his first game behind the plate, but he came to love the position and was still a catcher when he signed with the Phillies at age 17. It was Green, his first manager, at Huron, S. Dak., who moved him back to the infield. Trillo made it to the majors with Oakland five years later.

Unfortunately, this was too late for Trillo to keep a promise made to Ortiz. "When I was little I talked about playing in the majors," Trillo says. "I told him that when I did, I would buy him a new car for taking me around so much, but he died when I was in Class A."

Now Trillo is the teacher, conducting off-season clinics back home, where he is a national hero. He has played ball in Venezuela every winter since 1967, but the grind of year-round baseball limits him to 30 off-season games.

Trillo says his courtship of his wife, Maria, was "the best play I ever made," but in truth he barely qualifies for an assist. They met when Trillo returned home after the 1973 World Series. That was a difficult time for him personally, because he was the player whom Charlie Finley had tried to activate when the A's owner attempted to put Mike Andrews on the disabled list after Game 2, a controversial episode.

"All I wanted to do was get home," Trillo says, "but this girl came up to me in the Miami airport and started talking. Then she sat down behind me on the plane and kept talking. I've been listening ever since."

The daughter of a wealthy Venezuelan businessman and niece of one of the owners of a South American baseball team, Maria put her expertise to good use in negotiating her husband's five-year $2.1 million contract last winter. Paul Owens, director of player personnel, called the bargaining "interesting and refreshing. Things never got hard-nosed or intense: they were like a series of little chats. Her arguments were intelligent and logical." And apparently very successful. "I'm very happy with the contract," Trillo says. "I got what I wanted."

But now he may want more. Owens says Maria, ever the diligent agent, has been calling up lately to schedule a few more little chats.

PHOTOA trio of Trillos: wife Maria, who's also his accomplished agent, Manny and daughter Aloha.