Observations From Cooperstown--Nettles and Game Three
by Bruce Markusen
Perhaps the slow pace of contemporary baseball, with the endless parade of late-inning pitching changes, is starting to wear on me. Or maybe I’m just hopelessly nostalgic for the game the way it was played 35 years ago. Or maybe I’m just getting old.
Earlier this week, the Yankees enjoyed their first scheduled off day of the new season, giving the YES Network a chance to broadcast one of its patented Yankee Classics. This week's selection was Game Three of the 1978 World Series, a game that the Yankees unequivocally needed to win after dropping the first two games of the Series to the dreaded Dodgers. At the same time of the Yankee Classic broadcast, the Mets played a live game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Under most circumstances, I end up watching the live game, no matter the teams involved, instead of a game for which I already know the outcome.
On this occasion, I flip-flopped between the two games, spending the majority of the time fixated on the ’78 Classic. I’ve seen highlights of this game countless times, eliminating any kind of suspense, but I just found the baseball more riveting. Featuring a greater sense of purpose and working with two skilled catchers in Thurman Munson and Jerry Grote, starting pitchers Ron Guidry and Don Sutton did little dawdling between pitches. In the meantime, the hitters didn’t seem to be posing for the cameras (not even in a World Series setting), the baserunning was far better and far more alert than what we see in the contemporary game, and the defensive play seemed crisper. Of course, that last characteristic could directly be traced to the fielding heroics of one Yankee third baseman.
With Ron Guidry less than sharp in Game Three—he would walk seven Dodgers on the night—the Yankees’ performance hinged on the acrobatic defensive play of Graig Nettles. Playing third base like no Yankee since then (sorry, Scott Brosius, Charlie Hayes, and Mike Pagliarulo), Nettles speared several hard-hit grounders and line drives, turning what should have been an array of singles and doubles into a series of outs. Without Nettles’ full-scale imitation of Brooks Robinson, the Yankees would have trailed by three or four runs early, Guidry would have given way to an inferior reliever, and the Yankees would have fallen into a 3-0 well that would have been almost certainly insurmountable.
None of that would have been avoided if the Yankees had done something that was rumored four winters earlier. According to a story that appeared in the New York Daily News on December 7, 1974, the Yankees had given serious consideration to a trade that would have sent Nettles to the Cincinnati Reds for Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez. According to the article, penned by longtime baseball writer Phil Pepe, the Reds wanted Nettles and another player for Perez, who had hit 19 points higher and slugged six more home runs than Nettles during the 1974 season.
What was the reasoning behind the proposed trade? Dissatisfied with the lack of power production from Chris Chambliss (only six home runs in 400 at-bats) and the frequent injuries to Ron Blomberg, the Yankees sought a first baseman with the durability and power of Perez. They also wanted to balance a lineup in which only one right-handed hitter (Munson) reached double figures in home runs (with a mere 13).
From the Reds’ perspective, they hoped that the acquisition of Nettles and the departure of Perez would enable them to move Dan Driessen, an awkward third baseman, to a more comfortable position at first base. Such a trade would have also helped the Reds balance their lineup, which had only one left-handed power bat in Little Joe Morgan.
In making this deal, the Yankees would have filled their need for a power-hitting first baseman, but would have created a gaping hole on the other side of the infield. Who exactly could they have turned to in finding a third base replacement for Nettles? In looking at the 1974 roster, the choices amounted to a rogue’s gallery rather than a hall of fame. First off, there was veteran Bill Sudakis, a useful and versatile switch-hitter who could play third, first, or catch. A David Soul lookalike, Sudakis would have been better suited playing an undercover cop on "Starsky and Hutch" than handling hot corner grounders on an everyday basis. Then there was Fernando Gonzalez, a journeyman with about as much pop as Alberto Gonzalez. A final option could be found in Otto Velez, who happened to be the Yankees’ best prospect among position players. A strong right-handed hitter with considerable power, Velez was a third baseman in name more than in reality. Principally an outfielder and first baseman, Velez appeared in 16 games at third base for the Yankees in 1974, but had neither the range nor the hands for the position on a fulltime basis.
Sudakis, Gonzalez, and Velez. It would have been difficult to assemble a starting third baseman from that collection. In all likelihood, the Yankees would have needed to make a trade to fill the vacancy. With Brooks Robinson untouchable in Baltimore, that left Buddy Bell and Aurelio Rodriguez as the best defensive third basemen in the American League. But both were young players who would have carried high price tags in the trade market. The White Sox could have offered Beltin’ Bill Melton, but his career had already been curbed badly by back problems. The Red Sox could have dangled Rico Petrocelli, but he was showing signs of being an old 31. A veteran standout like Oakland’s Sal Bando was available, mostly because of Charlie Finley’s dislike for him, but Finley had a habit of asking for Thurman Munson or Bobby Murcer every time he talked trade with the Yankees. And that was simply not going to happen.
The Yankees might have had better luck in trading with the National League, where several teams were shopping available third basemen, including Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock (Cubs), Richie Hebner (Pirates), and Darrell Evans (Braves). In retrospect, Hebner would have been a disaster with the Yankees; "The Gravedigger" hated playing in New York, as evidenced by a later stint with the Mets. Madlock was a fine hitter, but below average defensively at third and with a temperament that might have run him afoul of New York’s media contingent. Of all the possibilities, Evans would have been the best replication of Nettles. Underrated defensively, Evans would not have matched Nettles’ range, but had similarly excellent hands and a strong arm. His 40-home run power potential and ability to draw walks actually would have made him an offensive upgrade over Nettles.
What would the Yankees have needed to acquire Evans? Thirty four years later, it’s really guesswork, but let’s consider that the Braves did trade Evans in 1976, principally for an inferior player in Willie Montanez. The Braves never really seemed to appreciate Evans for his true value, so perhaps the Yankees could have pulled off a swindle of Chambliss and a pitching prospect for Evans, who continues to be a favorite (and legitimately so) among Sabermetric historians.
Of course, all of that is merely speculation after the fact. The trade involving Nettles and the Reds never happened—and that turned out to be a good thing for both the "Big Red Machine" and the Bronx Zoo Yankees. Despite continual floggings from the Sabermetric community for being an undeserving Hall of Fame, Perez served the Reds well as their patented No. 5 hitter behind Johnny Bench, a capable everyday first baseman, and "keep-‘em-loose" clubhouse leader. As for the Yankees, it’s doubtful they would have visited three consecutive World Series without Nettles’ Gold Glove defense and abundant left-handed power, the latter characteristic making him an ideal sixth and seventh-place hitter behind the likes of Munson and Reggie Jackson.
One thing is for darn sure. No living third baseman in 1978—not an aging Brooks Robinson, not even Darrell Evans—would have been able to save Game Three the way that Graig Nettles did.
Bruce Markusen writes Cooperstown Confidential for MLB.com.