As the Pittsburgh Pirates gathered around their batting cage in three Rivers Stadium yesterday morning, working out on their World Series day off, one voice piped up with instructions for the batter at the plate:
"Lay a bunt down there for the butcher boy at third!"
Ballplayers are not kind.A merciless streak is perhaps a necessity in many. In that, they are no better than their game.
Doug DeCinces of the Baltimore Orioles, the "butcher boy" in question, has felt the full humbling weight of his sport in the last two weeks. Many a player has been put through the wringer, but few more than DeCinces.
Every time the Baltimore third baseman came to the plate in Three Rivers last weekend, the organist cutely played, "Me and My Shadow."
No one had to ask who the shadow was. It is Brooks Robinson, the Friendly Ghost, whom DeCinces thought he had laid to rest a year ago.
There have been several internments for the beloved No. 5. First, there was the "Thank You, Brooks" day when Memorial Stadium was packed, and DeCinces, on the spur of the moment, pulled third base out of the ground and handed it to Robinson.
That was DeCinces' graphic way of saying that he had no intention of resenting Robinson or wishing to diminish his legend.
Then, in his first at-bat of the game, DeCinces hit a three-run homer and got an ovation of his own.
Next came the second half of the 1978 season when DeCinces, along with Boston's heralded Jim Rice, were the two hottest hitters in the American League.
Few noticed DeCinces' 28 homers and 80 RBI, although Manager Earl Weaver said, "I've never seen Frank Robinson or Boog Powell hit the ball any harder over a period of months."
DeCinces, when without fail the Brooksie comparisons would come up, would point out that Robinson's highest homer total also was 28, so perhaps he, DeCinces, might also have a valid baseball identity.
DeCinces had the grace never to mention that he had finished third in the AL in slugging in '78 and that Robinson had never done that.
But DeCinces could be generous. He was on the brink of stardom.
Then came '79. Oh, brother, did it come. Like a ton of bricks. In April, he tore a muscle in his back so badly that he was in traction for four days, then needed a month of therapy.
In truth, DeCinces needed surgery And, in truth, anybody who knows him realized that he was not about to get it.
His team was in a pennant race and everybody knew that an out-for-the-year DeCinces would kill its chances -- kill them stone dead.
So, DeCinces played with a back brace at first; then, eventually, only with the pain -- the constant pain.
DeCinces, you see, is a hardnose.Every team needs them, the guys with the NFL temperaments who will play taped together. The Orioles have three: Rich Dauer, Rick Dempsey and Doug DeCinces. The "D" stands for "dumb,"they joke. But it also stands for durable.
Brooks Robinson had a bad body and great baseball instincts. DeCinces has a great body -- 6 feet 2, a rock-hard 198 pounds and the power to hit a ball almost 500 feet. He has a football physique. Unfortunately, DeCinces' baseball instincts, his gut responses to the situations of the game, are as mechanical and unnatural as Robinson's were a gift.
"Doug's got the worst instincts of any good player I've seen," says one Oriole official.
It is no accident that DeCinces plays with black smudges under his eyes and tape on his wrists -- just like a footballer. His game is a batle. He plays third base the 1890s way -- battling every ground ball like it was a hand grenade. His nose has lost that fight at least seven times -- broken.
What DeCinces has going for him, what has earned him the respect to be the players' representative for the entire American League, is guts. He doesn't claim to be beautiful. His nickname is "horn." All he asks is the respect due a man who will do anything to play.
So, of course, that's just what he does not get. Since he comes from a well-educated Hollywood family, full of actors and screen writers, he has had to overcome the tag of being a laid back, couldn't-care-less California ballplayer.
Talk about overcompensation. DeCinces once won the first of an Oriole doubleheader by having a pivot throw boucne off his batting helmet as he slid into second and carom into the box seats on the fly. His pinch hit in the ninth inning of the second game, when he practically had to be led to the plate, keyed a game-winning rally.
For all this discomfort and aggravation, it appeared DeCinces would finally be rewarded. His miserable .230 average this year was an albatross -- a three-figure number that seemed to say all his glamour statistics of '78 were a lie. Few notice that his 16 homers, 61 and 54 walks in just 422 atbats would have been a normal power pace for, say, Brooks Robbinson. And his 13 errors were a fine low total.
Finally, in the AL playoff, DeCinces had his day. Producing seven runs in four games and making a possibly game-saving play in the pennant-clincher, he finally had what he wanted most -- a baseball identity of his own.
When the World Series opened in Baltimore, who threw out the first ball? Robinson. And who was designated to catch it? DeCinces.
In his first at-bat in the first inning of his first Series game, he hit what proved to be a game-winning homer.
So now DeCinces is living happily ever after, right?
Of caurse, as most baseball fans know, he isn't. He is pretty close to being in baseball hell. Since that home run, DeCinces has been the most conspicuously tangled-in-knots player in a Series that has been full of slapstick.
Butcher boy," the pirates call him, in honor of his three Series errors, two in one innings. That doesn't count three other botched grounders or three low throws to first that have been saved by scoops.
"Me and My Shadow" they play as he comes to bat. And after that homer, he went 0-for-13.
Don't ask DeCinces what he is going through. He has to say brave things. Just look at him. He's in torment. Every ground ball is a mystery, a chance to prove he's not brooks. Every at-bat is a chance to fail. m
DeCinces' worst habit -- almost his trade mark -- is the indecisive checked swing. When he's hot, he rips. When he's not, and he hasn't been all season, he leads the universe in those tentative half lunges.
Now, he is a man who is almost glad not to swing. In Game 4, he drew four walks -- a step in the right direction. In Game 5, he got two hits -- neither much to write home about, but they dragged his average up from .083 to .167.
To millions, DeCinces is that guy on TV who is close to being comic relief. Nothing could be crueler because DeCinces, among all the Orioles, is the most concerned about image, about being known and respected. The man has a little Hollywood in him and some Reggie Jackson, too.
Doug is probably more concerned about the public relations aspects of all this than any of the rest of us," said one Oriole. "You can see that it's spinning him around pretty good. One day he's the star. The next day he's the opposite."
"Doug, you're just too sensitive about all this," Jim Palmer told DeCinces after the third baseman had questioned the pitcher about a week old quote he thought "showed me up."
Baseball always has been a brutally hard game for DeCinces; the sport has spun him around in circles since he first touched it.
Is he a star, capable of 30 homers and 100 RBI? There was a time, just a year ago, when that seemed a sure thing.
Was he the star of the playoffs? Yes, indeed. And is he on the verge of being the goat of the Series? Well, he's working on it.
One thing hurts most, and is the most unfair.
Those who do not know will say stupid things about "guts" and "pressure." And they will all hurt DeCinces, who takes everything to heart. If any Oriole has proved his courage this year, it is DeCinces. And if any player in this Series deserves to rediscover himself and get off the hook, it is that same Baltimore "butcher Boy," the man who can't get rid of that shadow.