Call them Gance Mullinorg. Not that their names—or their batting stances—aren't distinctive enough. But for the past 3½ seasons, Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg have formed a third-base tag team for the Toronto Blue Jays. Like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ("I Don't Know is on third"), they have become a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
"Platooning felt right, right away," says Iorg (rhymes with gorge), 30, who bats righthanded in the No. 8 spot against lefties. "It's a good thing, too. If we'd fallen on our faces they'd have gotten some regular third baseman a long time ago."
"Garth and I get along pretty well, so we can get a lot more done without the petty stuff," says Mulliniks, 29, who bats lefthanded in the second or third spot against righties. "Everyone wants to play every day, and really, we're not too far away from it."
Taken individually, Mullinorg are each line-drive-hitting, steady-fielding, come-to-play, converted utility infielders who wield the same model 34-inch, 31-ounce bats. Taken together, the duo was batting .315 with eight homers and 50 RBIs through Sunday. Ah, symbiosis! In the tight AL Eastern Division, where three contenders—Detroit, Baltimore and New York—are hurting at the hot corner, Mullinorg spells solidity for the front-running Jays. "I have to think it's an advantage for us," says Toronto executive vice-president Pat Gillick.
July 21, 1985
Gillick thought he had an answer at third in the spring of 1982 when he traded for Aurelio Rodriguez. But at 34, Aurelio had more vowels in his name than hits in his bat, and his range was gone. So, he was traded. New manager—and former third sacker—Bobby Cox reckoned Mulliniks and Iorg, then backups at short and second, had the hands for third and the heart for platooning. Mulliniks, at one time the Angels' shortstop of the future, had bounced from California to Kansas City to Toronto. Iorg was in the Yankees' farm system when the Blue Jays picked him in the 1976 expansion draft. Since Cox's brainstorm, the lefty-righty dividing line has been hard and fast. "They know me like a book," says Cox. "I look around when there's a pitching change, and one of them has a bat, waiting for me."
"The system is successful because it's consistent," says Iorg. Adds Mulliniks, "We know our roles, and we can't get selfish." Both figure the pie they're splitting is far better than the pine where they were sitting. Pre-Mullinorg, each averaged 47 games and 130 at bats per major league season. In the three full seasons that they've shared the hot corner, Mulliniks and Iorg have averaged 343 at bats and 123 games apiece. And their combined numbers are a .275 batting average with 44 doubles, seven homers and 75 RBIs a year. The pair is better than the sum of its starts, too, picking up for each other with a joint .287 pinch-hit average to date. "On this team it's not like you're pinch-hitting," says Buck Martinez, who was platooning at catcher with Ernie Whitt until he broke his leg and dislocated his ankle in a plate collision last week. "It's like it's your turn to play."
Mulliniks says he wanted to play ball since he was "old enough to know." His summer work was part baseball and part fruit—he harvested plums and cut and tied grapes near Woodville, Calif. (pop. 1,507) in the San Joaquin Valley. His father, Harvey, a former minor league pitcher in the Yankee system who was selling used Chevys at the time, knew Rance was a prospect. So father and son would go to a nearby schoolyard every day and tinker with Rance's stroke, often returning home to cold suppers.
Harvey taught 10-year-old Rance the principles of The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams, still one of Rance's baseball authorities. "Get a good pitch to hit and be quick with the hands," recites Mulliniks. He takes a back-weighted stance at the plate ("classic Charlie Lau," as Iorg describes it) and resembles a discriminating plum buyer at a fruit stand, sorting pitches for a ripe one. Last year Mulliniks batted .324, the highest mark in Jays history for anyone with 300 at bats, and a league-high .375 with runners on base. This year's he's hitting .312.
Iorg learned from no less skilled, if not so gentle, hands. Older brothers Dane, an outfielder with the Royals, and Lee, once a Triple A outfielder with the Mets, were Garth's idols as he grew up in Blue Lake, Calif. (pop. 1,201). The Iorg family competed constantly. A favorite pastime was a three-way, backyard Wiffle Ball game. "Every game ended with me and Lee getting into a fight," Garth says. Fortunately, the smaller Garth was quicker afoot: "I locked myself in the bathroom a lot."
Garth's posture at bat is a poor righthander's Rod Carew—bat flattened, right leg bent into a question mark. ("It's unique," says Mulliniks.) A free-swinging first-ball fiend, Garth has, with Rance's help, developed more patience this season. The payoff has been a .321 start after a disastrous .227 season last year, which threatened to break up Mullinorg.
The third basemen are each other's closest companions on the team. Both shun neckties and card playing and love hunting and fishing, which they'll discuss on planes and over dinners. When they get back to Toronto, they go their families' ways: Mulliniks to his wife, Jeannie, and son, Ryan, 7; Iorg to his wife, Patty, and their three kids—Jessica, 8, Isaac, 6, and Eli, 2.
At the ball park, they might warm up together before one retires to the bench to root for the other. As the innings pass, they eye the opponent's bullpen and chart substitution possibilities. Then, almost inevitably, the time comes for them to switch roles. As they pass each other—one leaving the dugout, the other retiring to it—the principle is unspoken but understood: E Mullinorg Unum.