Thursday, July 13, 2006

NY's Great Left Side of the Infield Debate

by Scott Silversten

Where is Terry Cashman when we need him?

Cashman is no relation to New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, but rather the man who recorded 1981’s timeless classic “Talkin’ Baseball,” a song that long ago should have been anointed the official anthem of the national pastime.

For those who are not famliar with the song, the most famous line from the chorus highlighted a decades long debate that still rages inside many of New York’s sports bars...Willie, Mickey or The Duke?

During a seven-year span from 1951 through 1957, allegiances of New York baseball fans hinged on their vociferous defense of the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, the New York Giants’ Willie Mays or Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers as the best center fielder of the time. Despite the departure of the Dodgers and Giants for California following the 1957 season, the arguments have continued for nearly half a century.

The years 1949-1957 are considered the golden era of baseball in New York, as not a season passed during that span without a local team reaching the World Series. The Yankees dominated with five straight championships before Mays and the Giants swept four games from the highly-favored Cleveland Indians in 1954. In 1955, “next year” finally arrived as the Dodgers claimed their only Brooklyn title. The following October, Don Larsen’s perfect game highlighted the last “Subway Series” for 44 years.

Now, as we approach next summer’s 50-year anniversary of the announcement that the Dodgers and Giants would be leaving for the West Coast, it appears New York might be on the verge of another golden era.

And much like the one of the 1950s, this era will revolve around a few special players and a debate that should rage for the next half century: Which tandem is better, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez or Jose Reyes and David Wright?

If not for an ill-advised head-first slide into first base last week by Reyes, all four players would have been in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s All-Star game in Pittsburgh. As it was, Jeter at shortstop and Rodriguez at third base stood side-by-side as one of the most accomplished and decorated tandems in baseball history.

On a daily basis in Queens, it is Reyes and Wright who take the field with all the promise and potential that youth can offer. Where they will take the Mets in the days and years to come are not yet part of recorded history, but rather dreams that exist in the minds of Mets fans young and old.

Baseball is a sport built around discussion and argument. The sport’s leisurely pace and daily rhythms lends itself to debate. No intelligent person would have made a case for Reyes and Wright being better than Jeter and Rodriguez entering this season, but only 3 ½ months later, a real discussion can rage about which is the better tandem. Not tomorrow or next year, but right now!

How many people realize that Reyes actually has a better slugging percentage than Jeter (.427 to .357)? Reyes is also one of the biggest threats in the game on the basepaths, is an adept fielder with a cannon for an arm and is working hard to improve on his biggest weakness, which is plate discipline.

Of course, Jeter has the world championship rings and long ago attained the label of a player who performs in the biggest games. He has been a part of several moments that already live in baseball lore, such as his famous flip play in Oakland. Whether or not such moments garner more weight than they deserve, well, welcome to the great New York infield debate!

The third base argument might be even more fun, as the statistics of Rodriguez (.282 AVG, .390 OBP, 19 HRs, 65 RBI, 61 R) and Wright (.316, .386 OBP, 20 HRs, 74 RBI, 59 R) are very similar through the season’s first half, with the Mets’ star holding a slight advantage.

However, let’s talk “clutch.” Aside from Boston’s David Ortiz, has there been a more clutch player in baseball this year than Wright, who put an exclamation point on his “clutchness” with a huge eighth-inning homer against Florida in the last game prior to the All-Star break.

Rodriguez, as it is so often argued, never comes through in the big situation, so that would seem to tip the argument in Wright’s favor. Although, if we are talking clutch, whose career has been more clutch than Jeter’s?

Both third basemen have struggled in the field this year, but Rodriguez was a Gold Glove-level performer in 2005. Are his errors this season a fluke, a fielding slump or a step backwards for someone playing the position full time for only a third full season?

And here you see how this great debate will evolve, and make no mistake, this will always be an argument between Mets and Yankees fans. For those supporters of the Mets, go ahead and praise Wright for his ability in pressure situations, but remember, you must use the same reasoning when discussing Jeter.

Attention Yankees fans: If you want to argue A-Rod over Wright, please feel free. However, if you dismiss Rodriguez’s failures in “close and late” situations as statistical aberrations, please be advised that the same must be said of Jeter’s success in similar circumstances.

And let us not forget, Jeter and A-Rod have proven their mettle over the last decade, while Wright and Reyes are only 23 and have yet to show they can produce year after year. On the other hand, wouldn’t anybody rather have two 23-year-old studs for the long haul than two superstars who probably are at their peak in 2006?

Really, this what talkin’ baseball is all about.

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine