“There’d be two men on base and one out, and somebody would hit a ball into the hole. We knew the ball wasn’t going through. Either Brooks or Mark would get it. Double play.”Earl Weaver
Imagine, stepping on to the ball field, sun beaming down, the crowd crescendoing from an anxious buzz to a rolling roar. The dirt crackling under your spikes turns to the pleasant pff of grass as you cross into fair territory. You know what the fans came to see, and it’s just over to your left. It’s the guy with the glove, “Mr. Impossible” they call him. He’s a Hall of Famer, and you know it. They say he’s peerless, king of the mountain. You just call him Brooks, and you also know something that will be washed away with time:
You’re not just his peer with the glove, but you may be just as good.
Of course the guy to your left in this vision is Brooks “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” Robinson. Hall of Famer, owner of 16 Gold Glove awards, and 18 All-Star game appearances. Whenever people are assembling their “all defense” teams, he is the almost always unanimous choice among both the casual fan who saw him play, and the analytically minded nerd (meant affectionately) who appreciates his epic prowess at the hot corner.
Who are you in this little exercise? You are Mark “The Blade” Belanger. You took the field about 45 feet to the left of Brooks Robinson from 1965 until 1980, and you completed what is easily the most dominant left side of the infield in the history of baseball. You are the proud owner of 8 Gold Gloves yourself, two World Series rings, and have accumulated the most (at the time) defensive Wins Above Replacement EVER. You were also part of one of the greatest defensive units of the era, thanks to the aforementioned Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, and the eventually added Davey Johnson and Bobby Gritch.
For some context on this defensive supergroup, check out my friend Bailey from Foolish Baseball talk about them in this video:
The fact was, that working such a critical position, on a team that was so elite in the field for such a sustained period of time, means that you must have been one bad ass dude with the leather. The shortstop is the glue of the infield, and Belanger was of the premium Krazy variety. One of his signature moves was his double play turning abilities, and the accuracy in which he set up his second baseman. The evidence for this prowess came in the form of his second baseman, whether it was Davey Johnson (in 1969 and 1971), or the legendary Bobby Gritch (1973-1976) also taking home Gold Gloves. They would be the only seasons either player would win the award (Except in 1970 when Johnson won while playing next to Belanger, Luis Aparacio won the GG for short stop that season). He just made guys around him better, which is exactly what the field general is supposed to do.
So here’s the problem…. he simply could not hit. like AT ALL.
If Belanger was Miles Davis in the field, then he was Kenny G at the plate. He simply could not string anything productive together, assembling an abysmal .228/.300/.280 triple slash line, and only one season, where he managed to peak his OPS+ to the 100 (literally league average) plateau. In 1970, his bat was nearly muted entirely, hitting .218, putting up just a single home run, and driving in 36 runs (good for a .562 OPS, or a 56 OPS+) over 527 plate appearances. This would earn him the dubious title of the ninth ever “triple crown loser” in history. In 1976, he managed to string together that league average season mentioned above, slashing .276/.336/.326 and earning his first (and only) All Star selection in the process. This would be the only really respectable season that “The Blade” (a name he acquired in regards to his tall, slender frame) could put together at the dish, despite playing at least 100 games from 1968 through 1980.
It’s been thought that his time with the Orioles came to an end when he began questioning the teams legendary manager, Earl Weaver’s management tactics. He accused the skipper of “losing his managerial prowess”, and further insinuated that it was something that had been going on for some time. It wasn’t long after these accusations that he wasn’t extended a contract, and played one season with the Los Angeles Dodgers before retiring.
Belanger died at the age of 54 from complications related to lung cancer in 1998. His legacy on the field was his smooth glove and precise arm, and off the field for being a key component in advocating for players rights. He said that playing as key a role as he did in the 1981 players strike alongside Marvin Miller was a “free, but expensive” education, and continued to work with players and the union after his retirement. Even after he hung up his spikes, he spent 16 years working with the MLBPA to help lay critical groundwork for many of the substantial contracts that players see today. When looking back at the history of labor negotiations in modern baseball history, Mark Belanger deserves a bullet point in that outline.
“Belanger would glide effortlessly after a grounder and welcome it into loving arms; scooping the ball up with a single easy motion, and bringing it to his chest for a moment’s caress before making his throw.”Pat Jordan, Sports Illustrated (via SABR)