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Baseball 2000
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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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Saying So Long To The Original A-Rod

Although his name can be found right below that of the already-legendary Alex Rodriguez in the encyclopedic Total Baseball, he had been mostly forgotten since his major league playing days ended in 1983. Unfortunately, his name only became newsworthy again when we read about his death in Detroit over the weekend. Aurelio Rodriguez couldn’t hit like today’s more well-known "A-Rod," but he nonetheless left a lasting image as one of the most graceful defensive third basemen of the 1970s. Rodriguez had the range of a shortstop and the throwing arm of a right fielder; along with his smooth hands, those skills combined to form a delightful package at the hot corner. Especially that cannon-like arm (reminiscent of contemporary infielders like Shawon Dunston and Travis Fryman), which made him a treat to watch during his many stops with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Padres, Tigers, Washington Senators, and California Angels. Yet, Rodriguez won only one Gold Glove during his 17-year career, mostly because he had the misfortune of playing at the same time as two acrobats named Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles. "Brooksie" and "Puff" became far more famous—primarily because they could hit and launch the ball with power—and may have been better defensively at third, but not by much. If Rodriguez had ever developed into more than a mediocre hitter with only occasional power, he might have collected a few more Gold Gloves during his dynamic years in Detroit. In addition to the legacy he leaves behind for his fielding abilities, Rodriguez will also be remembered for his involvement in two intriguing episodes of baseball history—one rather trivial and the other a bit more consequential. In 1969, the Topps Company issued Rodriguez’ rookie card. Or so it seemed. The picture on the front of the card did not actually depict Rodriguez, but rather the Angels’ youthful batboy, who happened to be wearing Aurelio’s uniform. The practical joke, which was apparently orchestrated by Rodriguez, left him with perhaps the most unique rookie card in the history of the hobby. Fewer than two years later, Rodriguez found himself in the spotlight again when the Senators included him in a monstrous trade package that they used to acquire 1968 Cy Young Award-winner Denny McLain from the Tigers. Although McLain was the headliner, the Tigers would emerge as the clear winner of the trade. Rodriguez and slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Brinkman, two of the players acquired by Detroit, would form an impenetrable left side of the infield, helping the Tigers to the American League East title in 1972. Rodriguez would remain in the Motor City for the rest of the decade, eventually overseeing the arrival of two promising fellow infielders, one named Alan Trammell and the other Lou Whitaker. All of these details became pertinent again when I learned about the tragic events that had taken place in Detroit last weekend. On Saturday afternoon, the 52-year-old Rodriguez was killed in a horrifying car crash. Rodriguez wasn’t even driving; he and a 35-year-old woman were walking on a sidewalk when a car jumped the curb and ran into them. Ironically, Rodriguez was visiting Detroit only because he was scheduled to appear at a card show the next day, along with another former Tiger, Tom Brookens. Sadly, Rodriguez never received that last chance to reminisce with Tiger fans, the ones who enjoyed watching him play third base with such flair and finesse. The ones who would have let him know that he was not really forgotten after all.

A Farewell To Three Rivers

As one of the many bland cookie-cutter stadiums erected during the early 1970s, Three Rivers Stadium might not evoke the kind of memories that Tiger Stadium or the original Comiskey Park did, but the Pirates deserve credit for giving their old ballpark a formal and proper sendoff. With Pittsburgh scheduled to play the final game at Three Rivers on Sunday, the organization has made arrangements to bring back three of the team’s most recent managers (Jim Leyland, Chuck Tanner, and Bill Virdon, who will join current skipper Gene Lamont in presenting the lineup cards). The Pirates will also recognize two of their former stars, Dock Ellis and Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. Ellis will throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Sunday and Stargell will be honored as part of a series of lavish pre-game ceremonies. Both Ellis and Stargell were with the Pirates when the team played its very first game at Three Rivers—a Thursday night affair on July 16, 1970. Playing in front of what was then the largest crowd in Pittsburgh’s long baseball history (48,846 fans made their way into the cavernous stadium), Stargell batted fifth against Reds right-hander Gary Nolan and ripped the first Pirate home run in the new stadium. Stargell’s solo blast in the sixth inning earned a $1,000 reward from a generous fan who wanted to recognize the milestone home run. (While $1,000 might not sound like a lot in the context of today’s player salaries, it was a welcome bonus for players in 1970, when few salaries made it out of the five-figure range.) Ellis started that first game at Three Rivers, working himself into and out of trouble all night long against a hard-charging Reds’ lineup that featured Bobby Tolan, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, Lee May, and Bernie Carbo. Perez, one of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees, became the first player for either team to go deep at Three Rivers, courtesy of a two-run homer in the fifth inning. With Perez’ home run causing most of the damage, Ellis allowed 12 hits and four walks during a stint of eight and one-third innings (I wonder what the pitch count was!). Still, he allowed only three runs to keep the Pirates close. On paper, the Pirates’ lineup for that historic game appeared just about as imposing as Cincinnati’s "Big Red Machine." Matty Alou, who had not hit below .331 over the previous four years, batted in the leadoff spot, followed by the hard-hitting Richie Hebner, who scored the first run at Three Rivers on a double by Al Oliver. The late Roberto Clemente batted third, followed by Oliver (who curiously batted cleanup) and the aforementioned Stargell. Another capable batter, the free-swinging Manny Sanguillen, batted sixth, followed by two weaker hitting links in Gene Alley and Bill Mazeroski. Stargell’s sixth-inning home run tied the game at 2-2, a deadlock that remained in place until the top of the ninth. With Ellis still on the mound, Perez led off with a single, moved to second on a walk, and came home on Lee May’s single. Veteran fireman (that’s what late-inning relievers were called back then, rather than "closers") Clay Carroll then pitched a perfect bottom of the ninth to finish off a 3-2 win for the Reds. In an intriguing sidenote from that first night at Three Rivers, the Pirates debuted new uniforms to coincide with their move from Forbes Field. Fashioned from what was called a "stretchable nylon and cotton," the uniforms featured buttonless jerseys and beltless pants that were maintained with an elastic waistband. In other words, these were the first examples of polyester, pullover uniforms, which became all the rage during the 1970s. Polyester remains the material of choice today, but much like Three Rivers and some of those other cookie-cutter stadiums, the pullover shirts and elastic waistbands eventually fell into extinction.

Calling All SABRites The newly formed Leatherstocking Chapter of SABR will be holding one of its first meetings in Cooperstown on Saturday, October 21, to coincide with the first game of this year’s World Series. The meeting will take place at 2:00 PM in the National Pastime Gallery of the Hall of Fame, located on 25 Main Street in the village of Cooperstown. Any SABR members who plan to be in the central New York area on the 21st and would like to attend the meeting should contact Richard Hunt at 315-853-5574.

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