Robinson-Schmidt debate swings on defense vs. power CLOSE CALL AT THIRD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Philadelphia Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt will be inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday and assume -- in the minds of millions of fans -- that place in baseball history reserved for the game's greatest third baseman.

And why not? The guy hit 548 home runs during his 18-year major-league career. He ranks among the all-time leaders in virtually every relevant power and run-production category. He was named National League Most Valuable Player three times. He led the league in home runs eight times. And he was an outstanding third baseman with great range and a rifle for an arm. Who could argue?

Well, a few hundred thousand Orioles fans might be willing to take up the debate. If Schmidt is the greatest player who ever carried a glove to third base, then that would mean that Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson isn't. Try selling that notion in Hampden sometime.

"People want to talk about who is the best," said Robinson, who will be in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the induction of Schmidt, Richie Ashburn and the late Leon Day and Vic Willis. "I think the best third baseman is whoever you want it to be. I think when you hit 500 home runs, that's pretty impressive. He [Schmidt] was an outstanding fielder who won a lot of home run titles."

Robinson is far too modest to take up his own case in such a debate, almost to the point where he seems willing to concede that Schmidt was more of an impact player. Perhaps he was, but there is room to argue that Robinson's unparalleled defense was enough to counterbalance the weight of Schmidt's tremendous offense -- especially when you consider that Robinson's offensive contribution was far from insignificant.

"Brooks was an offensive third baseman, too," said another Orioles Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson. "You can't sneeze at 20 home runs and 100 RBIs. He was no slouch. He was the best third baseman I ever saw or played with. The guy made exceptional plays every day. He made them so often you didn't get excited about it, because you came to expect them. I'm not talking about good plays. I'm talking about exceptional plays.

"Mike Schmidt was a good defensive third baseman, but what made him exceptional was his tremendous offensive ability."

Longtime major-league manager Gene Mauch agrees that any attempt to compare Schmidt and Robinson is like comparing the batting styles of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

"You can't compare the bats," Mauch said. "Brooks is one of my best buddies, but as good as Brooks was with the bat, you can't compare his bat with Schmidt's. And as good as Schmidt was at third base -- and he was good -- you can't compare him to Brooks. So it comes down to where you place your priorities."

Schmidt would not take issue with that. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame with the fourth-highest percentage of ballots in history, he conceded that Robinson was the better defensive third baseman.

"Brooks Robinson is the greatest defensive third baseman in history, and I would say my numbers are a little better than the other third basemen offensively," Schmidt said that day.

Unparalleled power

In the modern era, the game has put such a premium on power that Schmidt's offensive prowess stands out. He ranks seventh on the all-time home run list and 19th with 1,595 RBIs. But he also was considered the game's top defensive third baseman through much of his career, and he has 10 Gold Gloves to prove it.

"I think Schmidt goes to the top of the list because he hit 500 home runs," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, "but when you get to the intangibles, it's hard to say, because I was never a teammate of Mike Schmidt. I don't know what kind of guy he was in the clubhouse. I do know that nobody was a better teammate than Brooks. The bottom line is, I wouldn't mind having either of them on my team if I was pitching . . . but I'd have to lean toward the 500 home runs. You can't catch a home run."

Determining who was the best of all time might depend on how you define the job.

"If you were starting a team from scratch, which one would you choose to build it around?" asked Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller. "Schmidt would give you a great defensive player and your cleanup hitter -- one of the best in any era. Brooks was a fabulous third baseman, a great guy in the clubhouse and a team leader. Even knowing how truly great Brooks was at third base, if I was starting a team, I'd have to go with Schmidt."

A clutch performer

Robinson didn't have a Ruthian swing, but he did have an impact at the plate. He was one of the best clutch hitters of his generation, and proved it with a .429 average in the 1970 World Series -- the same World Series that cemented his reputation as the best defensive third baseman in the history of the game.

"If I had to go to war with one of them, it would be Brooks," said Orioles teammate Boog Powell. "He didn't have 500 home runs, but look at him in clutch situations. When you had a situation with the tying or winning run on base, you wanted him up there.

"Everybody talks about his defensive performance in that World Series, but that was just a normal [performance]. He did that all the time.

"Knowing what I know, I want Brooks as my third baseman."

Schmidt first built his reputation at the plate. He struggled through a frustrating rookie season in 1973, then quickly established himself as the National League's premier power hitter with three straight home run titles. He hit 30 or more homers 13 times in his 16 full major-league seasons. It took a little longer to earn recognition for his defensive skills, but he was an excellent third baseman with good hands and a great arm.

"Mike Schmidt was one of the greatest all-around athletes I ever saw," said former Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who played with Schmidt and the Phillies in 1975 and '76. "He was a great hitter, a great defensive third baseman, a 3-handicap golfer, a great tennis player and probably the world's greatest tiddlywinks player if he wanted to be.

Fair comparison?

"But it's not fair to try and compare them. They were very different types of players. Brooks was a guy who played up and had outstanding quickness. He played the bunt better than anyone I've ever seen. Schmitty had that great arm and played back more. They were just different."

Look at a highlight reel sometime. Chances are, you'll see Robinson airborne -- flying over the foul line to turn an extra-base hit into a bang-bang play at first. Most likely, you'll see Schmidt muscling up on a fastball and driving it deep into the seats. Robinson wouldn't have gotten to Cooperstown on his offensive ability alone. Schmidt would not have gotten there solely on his glove. Yet that does not mean that Robinson couldn't hit or Schmidt was overrated afield.

Robinson was so good at third base that his defensive ability has overshadowed a very productive offensive career. From 1962 to 1971, he averaged 21 home runs and 87 RBIs. He ranks at the top of the Orioles all-time list in most of the major offensive categories.

"I think that's true," Robinson said. "I think when you think of Brooks Robinson, you think of the glove and when you think of Mike Schmidt, you think of home runs. But Schmitty is one of those guys that when you see him play every day, you say, 'How are you going to play third base any better than that?' I think you could say the same about Clete Boyer and Graig Nettles. How are you going to play third base any better than those guys?"

By most accounts, Robinson did. He won 16 Gold Gloves -- consecutively from 1960 through 1975 -- and is the cornerstone of an Orioles tradition of defensive excellence.

"I was like a fan when I played in left field behind him," Frank Robinson said. "I just liked to watch him. With the game on the line, No. 5 would be the one I want out there. Heck, I'd take him right now."

Series a springboard

Still, even Brooks says that his road to the Hall of Fame was paved during the 1970 World Series, when he put his flashy defensive game on display for the entire sporting world. Schmidt was a consensus Hall of Famer, one of the top vote-getters in history. Robinson isn't sure he would have gotten in without one clutch postseason performance.

"I don't think there's any doubt that I had that great World Series and that was a springboard for me as far as getting into the Hall of Fame," Robinson said. "That's when people took notice. I sometimes look at a guy like Ron Santo, whose stats are pretty much the same as mine, and think that because his team didn't ever play in the World Series, he didn't get a lot of votes. That's too bad. Being able to showcase your skills is important. No doubt about it."

STATISTICAL LOOK

Mike Schmidt has the edge over Brooks Robinson with the bat, but Robinson is the winner in the field.

Batting

... ... ... ... ... Robinson ... ... ... ... ... Schmidt

Games .. .. ... ... 2,896 ... .. ... ... ... ... 2,404

Average ... ... ... .267 ... ... ... ... ... ... .267

At-bats ... ... ... 10,654 .. .. ... ... ... ... 8,352

Hits ... ... .. ... 2,848 ... .. ... ... ... ... 2,234

Doubles ... ... ... 482 ... ... ... .. .. .. ... 408

Triples ... ... ... 68 ... ... ... ... .. .. ... 59

Homers .. .. .. ... 268 .. ... ... ... .. .. ... 548

Runs ... ... .. ... 1,232 ... ... ... .. ... ... 1,506

RBIs ... ... .. ... 1,357 ... ... ... .. ... ... 1,595

Walks .. ... .. ... 860 ... ... ... ... .. .. .. 1,507

Strikeouts .. .. .. 990 ... ... ... ... .. .. .. 1,883

Fielding

... ... ... ... ... Robinson ... ... ... ... ... Schmidt

Chances ... ... ... 9,267 .. ... ... ... ... ... 8,414

Errors .. .. .. ... 264 ... ... .. .. .. ... ... 328

Pct. ... ... .. ... .971 .. ... .. .. .. ... ... .961

Assists ... ... ... 6,220 ... ... ... .. ... ... 5,193

Gold Gloves ... ... 16 ... .. ... ... .. ... ... 10

IS SCHMIDT BEST?

Is Mike Schmidt the best third baseman in baseball history? Call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6153. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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