Glove Affair A new man at third has dressed up the Mets' infield, turning a good defense into a great one--and New York into a playoff contender

September 05, 1999

Robin Ventura is a player of impeccable timing. The New York
Mets could be playoff-bound for the first time in 11 years
largely because Ventura, in his first season with them after
coming aboard as a free agent, has brought a knack for
delivering a hit or a comical line at precisely the right
moment. "He's probably the best signing in the history of the
franchise," says Mets reliever John Franco.

Fans at Shea Stadium staged their own Iowa straw poll last week,
casting their postseason ballots a month early. "MVP! MVP!" they
chanted after Ventura broke open a scoreless game against the
Houston Astros with a two-out, two-run single. While Ventura
will be hard-pressed to beat out the front-runner, Astros first
baseman Jeff Bagwell, if he does he'll be in select company.
Only two players signed as free agents have won the MVP while
leading their new team into the postseason: Kirk Gibson of the
1988 Los Angeles Dodgers and Terry Pendleton of the '91 Atlanta
Braves.

Ventura has had a similar sudden impact, only with better
production already than Gibson and Pendleton had their entire
seasons. At 32 Ventura is having a career year: He was batting
.306 through Sunday with 28 home runs, 104 RBIs and a .344
average with runners in scoring position. Just as important,
Ventura, a five-time Gold Glove winner, has turned what was a
solid New York infield into one that may rank among the best
ever (box, page 60).

Through Sunday the Mets held a three-game cushion over the
Cincinnati Reds for the National League wild-card berth and had
become one of the few teams to cause the East Division-leading
Braves to perspire as the season headed into September. Even
after winning 10 straight games, Atlanta was only 3 1/2 in front
of New York. That the Mets could be in that position with
pedestrian starting pitching is a tribute to infield defense
that's tighter than a mason jar.

Ventura's signing allowed heady Edgardo Alfonzo to gladly move
from third base to second, where he replaced the underwhelming
Carlos Baerga. With shortstop Rey Ordonez showing more
reliability to complement his gymnastic flair for the
spectacular and first baseman John Olerud providing his usual
steady play, New York gives away almost no runs. With an infield
that makes up in agility and surehandedness what it lacks in
speed, New York had allowed only 17 unearned runs, all but
assuring that it will break the season record for fewest
unearned runs allowed, 31, set by the Baltimore Orioles last year.

Alfonzo (four errors), Ordonez (four), Ventura (seven) and
Olerud (eight) had combined for as many errors as Ventura's
replacement with the Chicago White Sox, Greg Norton. Including
reserves, Mets infielders had been charged with 24 errors, which
put them on track to dethrone the 1964 Orioles, who committed
just 45, as the surest fielding infield in history.

"What's really impressive about them is that they don't even
play on a great field at Shea," San Francisco Giants first
baseman J.T. Snow, a Gold Glover himself, says of New York's
uneven home turf. "That makes what they're doing even more
remarkable. Imagine if they were playing in Florida or Oakland.
Ordonez and Alfonzo stand out up the middle, but Ventura has
five Gold Gloves, and Olerud gets the job done. They exemplify
the saying that strength up the middle wins championships. It's
hard to get four guys like that on one infield, and that's why
they're going to make the playoffs. Their defense won't break
down."

There are no greater aficionados of the Mets' infield artistry
than the New York pitchers. While pocketing a team-high 12 wins,
ground ball specialist Orel Hershiser has suffered only one
unearned run in his 146 1/3 innings. Kenny Rogers, acquired from
the Oakland A's on July 23, won his third game without a loss on
Aug. 25 by feeding grounders to his infielders like herring to
seals. It was the first time in seven years that none of the New
York outfielders made a putout.

"You play this game a number of years, and you visualize certain
things happening when the ball comes off the bat because they
always happen," lefthander Al Leiter says, using as an example a
ball hit up the middle with a runner at second. "You see the
ball off the bat and you think, One run in, time to bear down.
You visualized a run-scoring single, but Rey has knocked the
ball down. Now it's runners on first and third. Then you get a
6-4-3 double play two pitches later. Inning over. The visual
runs that don't score can't be counted or evaluated in any stats."

On the left side of the infield Ordonez and Ventura cover the
most ground since Lewis and Clark. After the Mets beat the
Arizona Diamondbacks 6-3 last Friday, Arizona manager Buck
Showalter said, "In the ninth inning Jay Bell hit a single
through the left side, and I said, 'Wow. We got one through.'
Those guys are so good, you're surprised when anything on the
ground gets into the outfield."

"I'll tell you what's amazing," Ventura says. "It's the sound of
Rey's feet moving after a ball. I can hear his spikes moving
through the dirt. It's a very distinctive sound, like nothing
I've ever heard before. There have been times when a ball has
been hit to my left and I'll think, I can reach that with a
dive. But I can hear Rey's feet moving so quickly that I know he
can get it. So I don't dive, and he's there. He closes ground
better than anyone I've ever seen."

The odd thing about Ventura's snug fit with the Mets is that it
wasn't readily apparent to either party. After spending 10
seasons with the White Sox, Ventura, who was born and still
lives in Santa Maria, Calif., wanted to play for the San Diego
Padres, but they showed almost no interest. He was intrigued by
the Dodgers and the Anaheim Angels. They didn't call. "Some
people thought he would never be the same because of the broken
ankle," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine, referring to a
gruesome injury suffered during a slide in a 1997 spring
training game. Ventura batted only .263 for Chicago in 215 games
after that.

The Mets didn't call at first, either, preferring to pursue
free-agent outfielder B.J. Surhoff while trying to acquire
Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina in a trade. When
New York owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday decided to
spend more on players than they had originally budgeted, general
manager Steve Phillips began courting Ventura and outfielder
Brian Jordan. After Jordan signed with Atlanta, Phillips zeroed
in on Ventura with a $32 million deal over four years. "Robin
was a perfect fit because we could improve at two positions
[second and third] with one player," Phillips says.

Ventura rejected his only other solid offer, from Baltimore,
because he "didn't want to get involved in any way in displacing
Cal Ripken Jr.," says John Boggs, Ventura's agent, referring to a
possible move by Ripken from third base to first. "He also knew
the Mets were a more competitive team than the Orioles. I keep a
scrapbook, and one of the things I cut out was from a preseason
publication that called Robin the most overpaid free agent."

Before he signed on Dec. 2, Ventura called Alfonzo to be certain
he wouldn't mind switching positions. "I was happy because I
knew my numbers would look better at second than at third, and I
had played second next to Rey in the minors," says the
25-year-old Alfonzo, who raised his average to .319 on Monday
night in Houston when he had a club-record six hits in six at
bats. "To hear people talk about this infield as being one of
the best, it makes me very proud."

With Ventura the Mets quickly learned they were improving their
clubhouse as well as their defense. Ventura has even provided
New York with its adopted theme song, The Doors' L.A. Woman.
Having just seen the Austin Powers sequel, Ventura said after a
midseason win, "We've got a nice mojo working here." Franco,
recalling the refrain of lead singer Jim Morrison, chimed in
with, "The mojo's risin'." Soon L.A. Woman blasted from the
clubhouse speakers at frat house volume after every Mets win;
Morrison's widow, Patricia, noting that her late husband
disliked sports, called the club in laughter over the irony of a
baseball team co-opting his song; and Ventura handed out black
THE MOJO'S RISIN' T-shirts to his teammates. Two years ago,
after the White Sox dumped pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Roberto
Hernandez in a deadline deal, it was Ventura who doled out
T-shirts emblazoned with CHICAGO LEFTOVERS to his teammates.
"When pressure arises, he knows how to disarm it," Hershiser says.

On a hot day in June, for instance, Ventura noticed that the
Mets seemed lethargic. At the end of one inning, he walked
slowly off the diamond, allowing his teammates to pass him on
their way back to the cool shade of the dugout. Suddenly,
Ventura burst into a sprint and made a hard slide just outside
the dugout, showering the bench with dust and dirt. "Wake up!"
he yelled. "Let's go get 'em!"

"I don't even remember if we won the game," pinch hitter Matt
Franco says, "but I remember it worked. He picked everybody up."

More timing: Before Ventura's clutch single against Houston, the
Mets were being shut out on one hit by righthander Shane
Reynolds. Ventura sensed that his teammates were anticipating an
upcoming off day. "Rest day is tomorrow boys!" he yelled in the
dugout in the fifth inning. "Work as hard as we can tonight and
think about the rest tomorrow." New York won 4-0.

In a tense situation late in a game Ventura might announce
loudly at the bat rack, "Time to break out Stumpy." Stumpy is
the name he has bestowed on a bat that is shorter than his usual
model. He also can summon El Negro, his name for an old black
bat whose finish is peeling, and Big Country, a heavier model
that actually belongs to catcher Mike Piazza. "I borrowed it the
first time because I wanted to hit a home run," says Ventura,
"and I did."

It's been that sort of season. On May 20 he became the first
player to hit a grand slam in each game of a doubleheader. (He
had 13 career slams through Sunday, tying him with the Cleveland
Indians' Harold Baines for the most among active players, in
just 122 at bats with the bases loaded.) His team-leading 104
RBIs left him within range of the Mets' record of 117, shared by
Bernard Gilkey and Howard Johnson. All that success has made him
happy to have turned down offers from Valentine and friend Tony
Gwynn to provide him with videotapes over the winter to bone up
on National League pitchers. "Not knowing a lot about them has
made me simplify things," he says. "In the past I would have
said something like, 'This guy is going to throw me a changeup
on 2 and 0.' But now I don't have any buildup of knowledge. No
expectations. Now it's real simple: See the ball and hit it.
It's worked."

The ease of Ventura's transition to a new club and new league,
however, may have been best exemplified last week, when the
Astros' Craig Biggio dropped a near textbook bunt down the third
base line. After a bare-handed pickup, Ventura threw the speedy
Biggio out by a full, lunging stride.

How did he do it? Timing. Ventura broke for the bunt even before
it came off the bat. He knew Biggio was bunting at almost the
same instant Biggio himself knew. "It's hard to describe, but
it's a look in the eye and a subtle change in the body
language," Ventura says. "It's very, very difficult for a hitter
not to change his routine in even the slightest way if he's
going to bunt. Robbie Alomar's the best at disguising it. He can
take a peek at me while the pitcher is in the middle of his
windup. But almost all guys change something. I saw something
with Biggio."

Said an exasperated Biggio, "I thought at worst it would be a
bang-bang play. He got me easy. I couldn't believe it. That guy
is awesome. You've got to be perfect to get one down on him."

Try as they might, opponents are learning it is difficult to get
anything past Ventura and the rest of the Mets' infield.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO COVER The Best Infield Ever? Four Amazin' Mets SS-Ray Ordonez 1B-John Olerud 2B-Edgardo Alfonzo 3B-Robin Ventura COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO Robin and his Merry Men With his MVP-caliber play and lively wit, Ventura (blue shirt) has suited infield mates (from left) Ordonez, Alfonzo and Olerud to a tee. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Star turn Long capable of the spectacular, Ordonez is now a model of consistency. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Ole style The least flashy of the Mets, Olerud still breaks his share of hitters' hearts. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Robbin' Robin Sure hands and keen anticipation have earned Ventura five Gold Gloves.

Infields Of Dreams
New York's foursome ranks with the best ever

Fielding is the aspect of baseball that has improved most over
this century. You could look it up. Better field maintenance and
advances in glovemaking--not to mention the lowering of
standards by official scorers--best explain the statistical
progress. The slick-fielding Chicago Cubs of 1906, for instance,
a team that won a major league record 116 games, committed 194
errors. Since 1950, only five teams have made that many.

Comparing top glovemen of different eras is, therefore, trickier
than catching a bad hop bare-handed. It's safe to say that the
Mets' infield of first baseman John Olerud, second baseman
Edgardo Alfonzo, shortstop Rey Ordonez and third baseman Robin
Ventura is the best unit today. Even general manager Jim Bowden
of the Cincinnati Reds, whose shortstop Barry Larkin and second
baseman Pokey Reese have unsurpassed range, concedes, "There's
no doubt that the Mets have the best defensive infield in our
league." With little imagination, it's no stretch to place the
1999 Mets on this list of the premier fielding infields in
history.

1906 CUBS Joe Tinker to Johnny Evers to Frank Chance was as good
a double play combo as it was mellifluous. Third baseman Harry
Steinfeldt, like shortstop Tinker, led National Leaguers at his
position in fielding percentage. Chicago had 34 fewer errors
than any other club in the league.

1950 DODGERS Three of the legendary Brooklyn infielders led the
league in fielding percentage at their positions: first baseman
Gil Hodges, second baseman Jackie Robinson and third baseman
Billy Cox. Pee Wee Reese had been tops among shortstops the
previous season.

1961 YANKEES The club that set a record for home runs also made
the fewest errors in the American League, thanks mainly to first
baseman Moose Skowron, second baseman Bobby Richardson,
shortstop Tony Kubek and third baseman Clete Boyer.

1968 CUBS Second baseman Glenn Beckert and third baseman Ron
Santo won Gold Gloves. Shortstop Don Kessinger would earn one
the next season, the same year Ernie Banks, a former shortstop,
led National League first basemen in fielding percentage.

1969 ORIOLES The high-water mark in the longest run of superior
infield defense (1964 through '75). It was the first year of
five in which three Baltimore infielders won Gold Gloves: Davey
Johnson at second, Mark Belanger at short and Brooks Robinson at
third. Boog Powell provided soft hands at first.

1980 PHILLIES Third baseman Mike Schmidt (10), second baseman
Manny Trillo (three) and shortstop Larry Bowa (two) were
multiple Gold Glove winners, though only Schmidt took home the
gold this championship season. Pete Rose had the best fielding
percentage among National League first basemen.

1982 CARDINALS The only full season shortstop Ozzie Smith and
first baseman Keith Hernandez, two of the best glovemen in
history, played together. Ken Oberkfell led National League
third basemen in fielding percentage. Tommy Herr provided
reliability and range at second.

1998 ORIOLES Only 35 combined errors from first baseman Rafael
Palmeiro (nine), second baseman Roberto Alomar (11), shortstop
Mike Bordick (seven) and third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. (eight).
--T.V.

"You're surprised when anything on the ground gets into the
outfield," says Showalter.

"Ventura is awesome," Biggio says. "You've got to be perfect to
get a bunt down on him."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)