“An October tribute to Maz”

Glory for Bill Mazeroski peaks every October for his unique accomplishment.  He is the only player ever to hit a walk-off home run in a Game 7 of a World Series.

Toronto’s Joe Carter hit a walk-off in 1993 – but it occurred in Game 6.  In other words, Maz’s accomplishment had never been done in the century of baseball up to the 1960 World Series – and hasn’t been done in the 55 years since then!  No record has had that kind of endurance except for Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak of 56 games.

But this October especially, Maz must be lauded additionally for his fielding.  Yesterday’s final Game 5 of the Dodger-Met game explains all.  The Mets’ leadoff batter hit a slow grounder that eluded the pitcher and rolled towards the second baseman.  The Dodger second baseman snagged the ball in the webbing of his glove, which means that by the time he dug out the ball and threw to first – the batter was safe.  That batter later scored – and that one run helped make the difference in a one-run game that sent the Mets to the NL Championship Series.

Maz always emphasized for those of us who have attended the Pirates’ Fantasy Camp at their Spring-training facility every January – he never would catch a ball in the web of his glove!  Digging it out wasted precious milliseconds.  Rather, Maz always caught a ball on the heel of the glove – closest to his hand – and caught it not just with the glove but in tandem with his hand already there – meaning, the instant he caught the ball, he was ready to throw it.  He did this both with ground balls and with throws.

In this way, Maz shaved enough time off of catching & throwing that he holds the Major League record (not just the National League record — the Major League record) for quickness — otherwise known as the record for double plays by a second baseman. The record is 161, averaging one per game, but that’s only the pivots that Maz himself made.  He fed shortstop Gene Alley such that often they would combine for 2-3 double plays per game.

By the way, the record of 161 pivots on double plays occurred in the exciting 1966 season when the Pirates nearly won the pennant in a three-way race with the Giants of Juan Marichal and Willie Mays and the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.  The Dodgers won.  That season, 1966, was Maz’s best for runs batted in, a hefty 82 – which is a LOT for a middle infielder.

If you ever saw Maz’s glove, you’d wonder how in the world could anybody use such a flimsy thing!  It would fall apart every season.  Maz would put the webbing back together with glue.  But he didn’t need the webbing.  He never used it!  All he needed was the cushy heel of the glove.  That’s where he caught everything.

I once asked Maz, “HOW did you catch hard grounders with that glove of yours?”

He demonstrated:  He cupped his hands bowl-like.  As soon as the ball contacted the heel of his glove, he tilted the glove to the right so that the ball would transfer immediately to his throwing hand.

You don’t see that today in the Major Leagues.  Gloves are the size of suitcases.  They’re used to do the majority of the work.  The throwing hand arrives only later.

Maz once explained to us at the Fantasy Camp:  If you were NOT wearing a glove, just catching a ground ball with bare hands, you would cup your hands together (bowl-like is one way to describe it; hands begging may be another image).  Maz continued:  He did it like that WITH a glove.  In this way, his throwing hand was instantly ready to get the ball.  By contrast, these days, infielders catch a grounder with the glove down below and the throwing hand up above, needing to come down into the glove to dig out the ball.

Maz found other ways to subtract milliseconds from a game that is decided often in  one second (on a close play).  When positioning himself before a pitch, Maz told us, he would crouch over and turn his knees inwards.  In this way, whenever he had to move right or left, one knee was already pointed in that direction, propelling him instantly.

Maz worked on these innovations the way he did everything else in baseball — quietly.  He never boasted, never sought publicity.  His teammate Richie Hebner used to say, “Maz would show up, play nine innings, take a shower and go home.”

Bill’s work ethic and innovations were rewarded by the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame.  The regular voters who elect players to the Hall had passed over Maz (the baseball writers).  Only when a player’s eligibility expires does the player come under review of the Veterans Committee.  They didn’t let Maz slip away.  He was elected by the veterans who perhaps better than anybody else knew Maz’s value to his team.  He was elected in 2001.

Maz, who turned 79 in September, played 17 years in the majors from 1956-1972.  He was a member of two World Series championship teams – 1960 and 1971.

By 1971, he played sparingly.  But he had been playing the important role all along of preparing his successor – Dave Cash – who had to convert from shortstop to second base.  Cash became a star both in the field and at bat.  I still remember Dave telling us at Fantasy Camp one year how he learned to play second base in the big leagues.  He said simply, “I learned from Bill.”

 

 

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