Table setters lack fame but spark runs
Indispensable pests find ways on base without elite power
Thirty years ago, Neil Young musically reminded us that "Rust Never Sleeps," and the baseball cognoscenti's spin on that is, "Speed Never Slumps."In a game that celebrates and dotes on the big guys who clean up, there is still a major role for the little men who land opposing pitchers in a mess to begin with. Chicks, and the TV highlights, may dig the long ball, but your typical manager is equally fond of the short game of those able to play with nuance, not brawn. Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said it all a couple of springs ago, when he dropped the names of Barry Bonds -- the game's most feared slugger -- and Ichiro Suzuki -- its primary skills player -- into the same sentence. "I'd say they are the two most dangerous hitters in the game," Cooper opined, giving pitchers' perspective. The Ichiros are the players who, in addition to setting the tables, give the manager something to fall back on when the power is unplugged. Very simple, really: You can't hit a home run at will, but, for those proficient at it, you can bunt and hit to the right side in your sleep. There's a good reason baseball is called a game of inches, not a game of 400 feet. "A guy hitting 50-60 homers ... that's great, but that still leaves him with 500-some at-bats when he isn't hitting them," reasons Juan Pierre, now with the Dodgers and one of the best contemporary setup hitters. "So the home run is great, but just the chances of it happening aren't that great. "You've got to manufacture a lot more runs during the season. That's where guys like me come in." They've been coming in since pests named Pee Wee and Scooter infested the diamond, before there were jacks or long flies or taters. And for just as long, they've been dissed. As Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller said more than a half-century ago, with a nod toward matinee idol teammate Ralph Kiner, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs; singles hitters drive Chevys." But you know what? Those "singles" hitters also drive championship teams. Do you suppose all the people over the years who have echoed Ostermueller's quote, turning it into one of the most legendary in history, ever stopped to think that Kiner's seven Pirates teams were among the worst ever, diving an aggregate total of 193 games under .500? Conversely, no National League team with a league homer champ in its lineup has appeared in the World Series since 1983, when the Phillies got in with Mike Schmidt. It is a more common event in the AL -- occuring about once a decade: Boston (2004) and Manny Ramirez, Cleveland (1995) and Albert Belle. Not surprising; more reliance on "little ball" is precisely what people mean when they talk about playing "National League style." Aha! Some clubs borrowing that NL playbook have also made some of the biggest splashes in the AL in recent seasons. A sly troublemaker can take you a long way. There is a playground analogy. Remember the kid who would cower behind the legs of a dude, then sent toppling by a shove from an accomplice? That's Orlando Cabrera to Vladimir Guerrero, or Scott Podsednik to Paul Konerko. Even a rookie manager such as Ron Washington of the Rangers understands this below-the-surface game, which places a premium on getting on base, not clearing them. "There'll be times when Tex (Mark Teixeira) isn't hitting homers," says Washington, referring to one of his big sticks. "So I want people on my team who have their little specialty. If you can steal a base, if you can bunt, if you can move a runner over -- you've got a place on my team."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.