Tough to top Big Red infield

Best infield ever? He may be biased, but Joe says his Big Red infield was no doubt the best.

Originally Published: July 29, 2004
By Joe Morgan | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note -- ESPN baseball analyst Joe Morgan is slated for an ESPN.com chat Friday at 10:30 a.m ET.

The surprising Texas Rangers have maintained their hold on first place in the AL West, and one of the main reasons is their outstanding infield.

The Rangers' infield -- comprised of first baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Alfonso Soriano, third baseman Hank Blalock and shortstop Michael Young -- is tremendous from an offensive and team-oriented standpoint. They put the team first and do whatever it takes to win within the rules.

Young
Young
Blalock
Blalock
Soriano
Soriano
Teixeira
Teixeira
I have to believe that part of Texas' success this season has been the addition of Soriano and his winning attitude. Soriano's do-what-it-takes-to-win approach, which was bred in the winning tradition of the New York Yankees, has helped the Rangers. Moreover, Soriano has excelled at the plate (.281-19 HRs-63 RBI). In effect, the production of the three-time All-Star has replaced Alex Rodriguez (.280-25 HRs-64 RBI).

It's hard to believe that the Rangers could be this much better without A-Rod, but that's exactly what has happened.

On the Yankees' side, they're happy with A-Rod too, so the trade that sent A-Rod to New York for Soriano (plus other considerations) was a win-win proposition.

Texas' great start has given rise to the question: Do the Rangers have the best infield in baseball? And how do they compare to the great infields of the past?

Best Infields Blend Defense, Offense
Let's start with the obvious: The Rangers' infield is potent offensively, but not defensively. None of the four is likely to win a Gold Glove. To be considered among the best infields of all time, you need to excel at both offense and defense. The best infields of the past featured Gold Glove winners who could hit too.

Fond Hall of Fame Memories
At the All-Star Home Run Derby, when the living members of the 500 home-run club were introduced, it was great theater -- to see those great sluggers walk onto the field collectively at Houston's Minute Maid Park was awe-inspiring.

As a fan, I was overwhelmed. I know all of those guys and played against all of them, but as a fan it was an awesome moment for me. As great as that moment was, it was surpassed by attending the Hall of Fame induction this past weekend as a Hall member. To be in Cooperstown with all those amazing players was tremendous. It was great talking about baseball history and the games we played against each other and the fantastic plays we witnessed.

It's an unbelievable feeling to be around these Hall of Famers for three days. This year, it culminated with the induction of Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor. Both did a tremendous job of sharing with us and the world what they had to go through to get to Cooperstown.

Eckersley battled alcoholism, while Molitor struggled with drug problems early in his career. They shared their stories in the hope that others could learn and not have to make the same mistakes. The fact that they made it to the Hall is a testament that anything is possible if you persevere and are willing to work hard.

Counting the two newest members, there are now 60 living Hall of Famers and 258 Hall members overall.

At the Hall of Fame's members-only dinner, I sat at a table with three 300-game winners and two pitchers who arguably are better than even they were. I sat with Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Steve Carlton (each has 300-plus wins) -- yet sitting next to me was Sandy Koufax, and across from me was Bob Gibson. Koufax was 165-87 in his career and Gibson 251-174, but arguably they're the best two starters ever.

Rollie Fingers, the greatest relief pitcher ever, was also at our table. That tells you the quality of the table -- and they let me sit with them! Carlton Fisk also sat with us (Fisk and I were the two outsiders).

Each year, we bring wine to share, and each year it gets better and better, with some of Hall of Famers bringing $1,000 bottles of wine. We share the wine with each other -- and in view of Eckersley's comments about his alcoholism, rest assured that he wasn't at our table. Besides, he's a Hall rookie, so he can't sit with us! Not yet, anyway. The guys at my table have sat together for a number of years, and the wine tradition has developed over time.

One thing I'd like to make clear to fans is how different these classic pitchers were -- or, to put it another way, how different their personalities are. Their common bond is the passion for the craft of pitching and for the game of baseball, which is evident in their conversation.

It's a wonderful experience for me to sit and talk with them and to drink those great wines together. It's a highlight of my season as a member of the Hall of Fame, and I look forward to it every year.
-- Joe Morgan

Remember, the first job of an infielder -- especially a middle infielder -- is to play defense. Offense is an added dimension.

The greatest infielders are evaluated first on defense and then on offense. Shortstop Ozzie Smith, the legendary Wizard of Oz, is in the Hall of Fame because of his defense. Same with second baseman Bill Mazeroski. So when evaluating a middle infielder, defense comes first.

Having said that, we need to give Rangers shortstop Michael Young more time, because he moved form second to short this year in the wake of the A-Rod trade. Eventually, I think he will become a quality fielder, but now he's a work-in-progress.

Likewise, Soriano has committed 15 errors already this season, more than any other major-league second baseman, and he averaged more than 20 errors in his first three MLB seasons.

But I still believe Soriano is capable of being one of the best second basemen ever overall (combining offense and defense).

At third base, Blalock is in just his second full season, and he's been an All-Star both years. At first, Teixeira has settled in nicely in his second season after only one season in the minors.

So, yes, the Rangers have a star-studded infield, but we have to wait awhile to see how good they can be. It's clearly premature to include this group in the discussion of which infield is the best ever.

Best Infields Today: Rangers, Cardinals
Let's return to the best-ever debate in a moment. But first, I'll answer the question about whether this Texas infield is the best today ... and in the American League, the answer is yes.

If I were choosing an infield in each league, I'd take the Rangers in the AL and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL. Overall, I'd take the Cardinals because of their combination of defense and offense.

In the AL, Texas' infield is No. 1 in my book due mainly to its offensive capability, while the Yankees are No. 1A (led by A-Rod at third, Derek Jeter at shortstop and Jason Giambi at first).

In the NL, St. Louis' infield is No. 1, while the Los Angeles Dodgers are No. 1A.

The Cardinals feature Scott Rolen at third (my NL MVP so far), Albert Pujols at first, Edgar Renteria at short and Tony Womack at second.

Rolen owns five Gold Gloves while Renteria has two. Pujols is as good a defensive first baseman as there is in the NL, and his first three offensive seasons are among the best in baseball history. And Womack is a good second baseman.

As for the Dodgers, I love watching shortstop Cesar Izturis and second baseman Alex Cora -- they're my favorite double-play tandem.

Even though Izturis has yet to win a Gold Glove (he's only in his third full year), no shortstop is better than him defensively, in my opinion.

It's more difficult to choose the best infield than the best outfield, because when more players are involved it's tougher to determine which group is the best. It's easier to compare and contrast when fewer players are in the equation.

Best Infield Ever? Big Red Machine
Now let's look at the question of the best overall infield in baseball history. I'll admit that I might be biased, but I don't see how you can top the infield I played with on the Cincinnati Reds Big Red Machine team.

While I haven't been discussing catchers in the debate of the best infields today, I'm including the catcher in the best-ever debate. Why? Well, the catcher is of course part of the infield. And our catcher in Cincinnati is the best who ever played.

The rest of us were the best at our positions in our era, but Johnny Bench was the best catcher ever, period. Besides Bench, my Reds' infield featured Tony Perez at first, me at second, Pete Rose at third and Dave Concepcion at short.

Three of the five are Hall of Famers (me, Perez and Bench). Rose clearly has Hall credentials as baseball's all-time hits leader, but he's been kept out of the Hall based on his agreement with MLB regarding his gambling. Concepcion still has Hall eligibility left.

You can look at baseball history and find better individuals at each position, but I don't think there was a better group.
Defensively, the three fielders up the middle won Gold Gloves. Bench won 10, while Concepcion and I won five each. When you add center fielder Cesar Geronimo (four), all four up-the-middle fielders were Gold Glove winners. And when we won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and '76, we all won Gold Gloves both years (we also overlapped in other years).

Since the middle of the diamond is the most important part of the defense, I'd take our up-the-middle guys over any other group in baseball history. Four Gold Glove winners in those four key spots ... it doesn't get any better than that.

Bench is the best defensive catcher ever. Ivan Rodriguez -- who, like Bench, owns 10 Gold Gloves -- is the only catcher I would ever compare to my former teammate. Bench is my clear No. 1 while Pudge is my No. 1A. Again, I realize I might be biased because I played with Bench and saw what he did every day. I saw him make plays that no other catcher would even try to make.

I don't see Pudge play every day, but he's the only one I've ever seen who reminds me of Bench. Maybe if I saw Pudge daily, I'd say the same things about him. Still, I'd take Bench over any other catcher.

Our two non-Gold Glove infielders were still good. Rose didn't have Rolen's arm, but he played third like he played the rest of the game, with an intensity and a strong work ethic. Rose actually won two Gold Gloves as an outfielder (but none as an infielder). Perez, meanwhile, was a good first baseman and obviously a good hitter.

With the exception of Bench, you can look at baseball history and find better individuals at each position, but I don't think there was a better overall group.

Shortstop Prototype
Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel are considered by most fans today to be the best defensive shortstops in baseball history. But Concepcion set the standard as baseball's best shortstop before they arrived on the scene.

If you're considering offense and defense and team leadership, Concepcion still might be the best all-around shortstop ever -- not counting A-Rod, since he's a third baseman now.

By the way, I don't see A-Rod playing third base forever. I don't want to start a shortstop controversy in New York, because I'm not saying he should take over for Jeter, who is not only the Yankees' shortstop but also their captain.

I've always wondered what it would've been like to play shortstop in the big leagues.
Besides, if there were a shortstop controversy, it would have surfaced already. So while I don't believe A-Rod will be a third baseman for the rest of his career, I can't speculate about whether he'll play shortstop for the Yankees or for another team. I just have a feeling that A-Rod will play short again someday.

A special personality is required to play shortstop, and I don't believe you ever lose that personality. I suppose every position has its own personality, but shortstop probably more than any other (catcher and center field are in the conversation too). There's a special flair that goes with being the shortstop.

I speak from experience, because I started out as a shortstop. I played shortstop in high school and in college -- actually, I played both second and short, but I signed as a shortstop out of college with the Houston Colt .45's (now the Houston Astros). I signed in 1962 as a free agent (the Colt .45's became the Astros in '65).

In the minor leagues, I was asked to move because Sonny Jackson was also a shortstop, and the organization wanted us to play together. The Colt .45's said I was more suited to move to second, so I moved. But I've always wondered what it would've been like to play shortstop in the big leagues.

One downside of moving from short to second is that I lost my arm strength. Flipping the ball and changing from throwing over-the-top to sidearm cost me some zip. But playing second base allowed me to come up with a double-play innovation that is still used today.

Cincy Infield Innovations
Our Big Red Machine infield introduced two innovations that are a regular part of the game today.

One is the backhand flip a second baseman gives to the shortstop to turn the double play. To my knowledge, I was the first second baseman to use that backhand flip -- because it helped turn the double play faster.

Concepcion and I used to work together and practice daily before the game. I asked him, "How can I get the ball to you quicker?" We started thinking about it, and I flipped the ball to him backhanded. Davey said, "That's quicker."

So I kept moving toward first base, farther away from second, to see how far I could go while remaining accurate and keeping enough zip on the ball. I got to where I could use the backhand flip accurately halfway between second and first -- and it was definitely quicker than fielding the grounder, turning toward second and throwing the ball sidearm.

We would practice that every day before games -- I'd make 30 backhanded flips a day -- and it got to the point where it was as routine for me as throwing overhand or sidearm. I can remember only one time when I made a bad throw to second on a backhand flip.

Our manager, Sparky Anderson, was amazed. The key to the throw is keeping your wrist stiff, which enables you to throw it on a line. Today, the best second baseman all use that backhand flip in double-play situations.

With two outs and a runner on first, I usually would throw to first base, or if I was near the bag at second I might underhand it. But I always used the trademark flip in a double-play situation.

The other innovation was Concepcion's one-hop throw to first base on AstroTurf. You know the one-hop throw you'll see shortstops make from deep in the hole? Davey started that. Sometimes he'd make the throw to Perez from short left field. Concepcion would practice those one-hop throws to learn the best place to bounce the ball.

When I was with the Reds, if we didn't take infield, we didn't play.
Concepcion and I practiced together every day. First, before batting practice, we'd take ground balls. Then we'd take BP, and after that we'd go back to work on double plays. We had a full workout regimen.

Perez wasn't always at first, but someone would play first for us and we'd experiment: Where was it best to deliver the ball to second base when the runner was close to the bag? On the outside or inside? Where did Davey want the throw to be? Where did I want the throw?

If you ever watched us play, you know we always gave each other a target. If I was covering second with the runner pressuring me and I wanted the ball on the inside of second base (toward home), Concepcion would get it there. If I wasn't pressured, I wanted it right at the bag.

One of the big problems in baseball today is that players don't take infield (or outfield) practice anymore before games. Every week, I go to ballparks across the country for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball telecast. Based on my observations, I can tell you that no one takes infield anymore before games. It's amazing to me.

When I was with the Reds, if we didn't take infield, we didn't play. Sparky said if you weren't healthy enough to take infield practice, how could you play in the game? If you ask me, the double-play combination should be out there working on the DP before every game. That's where you learn what works and what doesn't.

I was one of the first second baseman to use a small glove. So on balls hit up the middle, I could backhand the ball and flip it to Concepcion with my glove. But I never would've done that in a game without trying it first in practice before the game. All the tweaking and perfecting was done during infield practice.

Yes, batting practice is important, but that's only half the game. Fielders need more than two months of spring training to work on their craft.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.

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