Thursday, May 17, 2012

All-Time Bluefield Team - Mark Belanger

The next member of the All-Time Bluefield-to-the-Bigs Team would be the starting shortstop on many of these kinds of hypothetical teams. But with Cal Ripken already selected as our shortstop, fellow Baltimore great Mark Belanger becomes one of the best backups imaginable. Despite his light hitting, Belanger was one of the greatest defensive players ever and a mainstay on Earl Weaver's powerhouse Orioles teams of the 1960s and 70s.

Belanger was born on June 8, 1944 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He shares a birthday with Eddie Gaedel and Van Lingle Mungo*.

* Van Mungo was a colorful character and one of the game's top pitchers in the mid-1930s. But he was mostly forgotten until 1969, when jazz pianist Dave Frishberg composed the song "Van Lingle Mungo" in which all the lyrics are the names of old-time baseball players. I have included the video below:

Belanger signed with the Orioles in 1962 and was sent to Bluefield to begin his professional career. He batted .298 with a .486 on base percentage in 47 games for the Baby Birds, so his status as a weak hitter wasn't there yet. The Bluefield club won the first of back-to-back Appalachian League championships that season.

He impressed manager Billy Hunter*, who said this in Belanger's New York Times obituary in 1998:

''When I first managed Mark at Bluefield in the Rookie League, I could see he was a natural. At 18, there wasn't much anyone could teach him about playing shortstop. If anything, he was too smooth."

* Hunter was a shortstop as well, winning the Texas League MVP with the Fort Worth Cats in 1952 and making the American League All-Star team as a rookie with the St. Louis Browns in 1953. He and Satchel Paige were the last All-Stars in the history of the Browns and Hunter accompanied the team in their move to Baltimore. He was the O's very first shortstop and seventh hitter. He went into managing and won Appy League titles in his first two seasons in Bluefield. In 1964 he joined the big league coaching staff and served as Baltimore's third base coach from 1964 to 1977, when he became manager of the Texas Rangers in June. He went 60-33 to close the season as the previously moribund Rangers finished with 94 wins, their best ever finish until 1999. He won 87 games in 1978 before being replaced. He was the athletic director at Towson University from 1979 to 1995. He'll turn 84 on June 4th.

Belanger made it to the majors on August 7, 1965 when he pinch ran for Boog Powell in this loss at Kansas City. He had brief call-ups in '65 and '66 and spent much of the 1967 season backing up perennial Gold Glover Luis Aparicio. Louie was dealt back to the White Sox that offseason and Belanger became the new starting shortstop.

He had big shoes to fill, but in 1969 he hit a career-high .287 and won his first Gold Glove for the pennant-winning Orioles. In the opening game of the very first American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins, Belanger hit a surprising home run off Jim Perry. He later scored the winning run in the 12th inning on a Paul Blair bunt single. It was his only playoff homer. He went 4-for-15 with four runs scored in a three-game sweep of the Twins, but over his last 40 postseason contests he put up a .171/.270/.189 slash line.

The O's were stunned by the Miracle Mets in the 1969 World Series, but they bounced back in 1970 to win the championship as they beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games. Belanger hit .105 in the Fall Classic, but his lone RBI was a big one when he hit a game-tying single early in the title-clinching game.

Aparicio won the AL Gold Glove at short in 1970, but Belanger got it back in 1971. He even got on base at a career-best .365 clip thanks to 73 walks, 20 more than he would draw in any other season.

He had an ugly .186/.236/.246 line in 1972 and he missed out on the Gold Glove that went to Tigers SS Ed Brinkman instead.

That would be all for the rest of the American League though, as Belanger won six straight Gold Gloves from 1973-78.

1974 brought a relative power surge, as Belanger hit five of his 20 career home runs during that season. It also brought his only career walk-off home run, when he snapped a 2-2 tie in the ninth inning with a three-run shot to stun the Angels on July 20. He also had his only career five-hit game on May 11 in a rout of the Indians.

He made his first and only All-Star Game in 1976. He didn't start for the AL at the Vet in Philadelphia, but he took over at short for Toby Harrah in the fifth inning. He played two innings in the field and batted once, a seventh-inning flyout to right off John "The Count" Montefusco before being replaced by Freddie Patek.

His slash line that year was .270/.336/.326, good enough for an even 100 OPS+. It was the only time his OPS+ was league average or better. His 1969, 1971 and 1976 seasons were outliers in terms of batting average. His averages of .287, .266 and .270 were the only times he hit better than .228. Looking at his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), his marks of .313, .292 and .304 were the only times it was higher than .265.

Belanger kept up that run of Gold Gloves through 1978. With eight total awards, here's where he stands among shortstops all time:

Gold Gloves at SS
Ozzie Smith 13
Omar Vizquel 11
Luis Aparicio 9
Mark Belanger 8
Dave Concepcion 5
Derek Jeter 5

In six of those eight years, his second baseman/double-play partner earned the award at his position as well. That has happened 23 times with ten different duos. Belanger is the only one to make the list twice.

Shortstop Second Baseman Wins Years
Luis Aparicio Nellie Fox 2 1959-60
Gene Alley Bill Mazeroski 2 1966-67
Jim Fregosi Bobby Knoop 1 1967
Mark Belanger Davey Johnson 2 1969, 1971
Mark Belanger Bobby Grich 4 1973-76
Dave Concepcion Joe Morgan 4 1974-77
Alan Trammell Lou Whitaker 2 1983-84
Omar Vizquel Roberto Alomar 3 1999-2001
Edgar Renteria Fernando Vina 1 2002
Derek Jeter Robinson Cano 1 2010

In 1979 a 35-year-old Belanger took a backseat at shortstop to fellow former Bluefield Oriole Kiko Garcia, who started 102 games to Belanger's 54.

Late in 1981, he criticized longtime skipper Earl Weaver and Belanger says that brought about the end of his days in Baltimore. From that NY Times obit:

Belanger felt that his Oriole career ended the day in September 1981 when he publicly criticized Manager Earl Weaver. 'I ripped Earl for not managing basic baseball,' he said. 'I said that I thought he'd lost a lot of his managing prowess and that it was not something that had just happened.'

He said that soon after that, General Manager Hank Peters told him that the club ''had decided to go with young kids'' and did not plan to sign him. The Orioles did, however, give him a night in his honor before he left as a free agent.

Belanger moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 1982 season. He hit .240 in 54 games before hanging up his cleats. As a late-game replacement at the end of a blowout win, he knocked an RBI single in his final at bat.

It must have been strange to see the longtime Oriole in Dodger Blue. But it's not rare for a guy who played for so long with one team to wind down his career with another team. Here are a few players who did that:

Player Team (Yrs) Other Team
Babe Ruth NYY (1920-34) BSN (1935)
Billy Williams CHN (1959-74) OAK (1975-76)
Boog Powell BAL (1961-74) CLE (1975-76) LAD (1977)
Dwight Evans BOS (1972-90) BAL (1991)
Elston Howard NYY (1955-67) BOS (1967-68)
George Sisler SLB (1915-27) WAS (1928) BSN (1928-30)
Hank Aaron MLN/ATL (1954-74) MIL (1975-76)
Harmon Killebrew WAS/MIN (1954-74) KCR (1975)
Harry Heilmann DET (1914-29) CIN (1930, 32)
Lou Boudreau CLE (1938-1950) BOS (1951-52)
Mark Belanger BAL (1965-81) LAD (1982)
Ray Schalk CWS (1912-28) NYG (1929)
Ron Santo CHN (1960-73) CWS (1974)
Sam Rice WAS (1915-33) CLE (1934)
Ty Cobb DET (1905-1926) PHA (1927-28)
Willie Mays NYG/SF (1951-72) NYM (1972-73)
Willie McCovey SF (1959-73, 77-80) SD (1974-76) OAK (1976)
Yogi Berra NYY (1946-63) NYM (1965)
Zach Wheat BKN (1909-26) PHA (1927)

At least Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Santo and Berra returned to their original city.

Belanger retired and in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame in 1988, he only received 3.7 percent of the vote and fell off the ballot.

Very involved with the players union during his career, Belanger worked closely with the MLBPA after his playing days as well. He died of lung cancer on October 8, 1998 when he was only 54 years old.

Belanger is on the short list of the greatest defensive shortstops of all time. In this Best Fielders of the 1970s survey by the Society for American Baseball Research, Belanger netted more votes at AL SS than any other player at any position.

Here's Belanger's all-time rank in Fielding Runs:

Rk Player Rfield From To Age G Pos Tm
1 Brooks Robinson 292 1955 1977 18-40 2896 *5/46 BAL
2 Mark Belanger 240 1965 1982 21-38 2016 *6/45 BAL-LAD
3 Ozzie Smith 239 1978 1996 23-41 2573 *6 SDP-STL
4 Andruw Jones 234 1996 2012 19-35 2121 *89/D73 ATL-LAD-TEX-CHW-NYY
5 Roberto Clemente 204 1955 1972 20-37 2433 *9/8745 PIT
6 Carl Yastrzemski 183 1961 1983 21-43 3308 *73D8/59 BOS
7 Willie Mays 183 1951 1973 20-42 2992 *8/39675 NYG-SFG-TOT-NYM
8 Joe Tinker 180 1902 1916 21-35 1806 *6/549 CHC-CIN-CHI
9 Cal Ripken 179 1981 2001 20-40 3001 *65/D BAL
10 Barry Bonds 175 1986 2007 21-42 2986 *78/D9 PIT-SFG
11 Jim Piersall 175 1950 1967 20-37 1734 *897/65 BOS-CLE-WSA-TOT-LAA-CAL
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2012.

So with Brooks Robinson at third base and Mark Belanger at short, did anything ever get through the left side of the infield for the decade they played together?

Belanger also ranks second on the all-time list in Defensive Wins Above Replacement to Ozzie Smith, who played over 20 percent more games than Belanger.

He was famously light-hitting, but he actually hit Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven pretty well. Gaylord Perry, not so much. It's worth noting that Belanger's success as against Goose Gossage was during Goose's struggles as a starter before he became a flame-throwing relief ace.

Rich Gossage 25 19 8 3 0 0 2 4 1 .421 .542 .579 1.121
Tom Seaver 6 6 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 .333 .333 .333 .667
Bert Blyleven 64 56 18 3 0 0 3 8 7 .321 .406 .375 .781
Nolan Ryan 62 48 12 1 0 0 8 10 16 .250 .367 .271 .637
Catfish Hunter 84 71 12 1 1 0 2 9 14 .169 .268 .211 .480
Hoyt Wilhelm 7 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 .143 .143 .143 .286
Fergie Jenkins 26 24 3 0 0 0 0 2 5 .125 .192 .125 .317
Dennis Eckersley 34 27 3 1 0 0 0 6 13 .111 .273 .148 .421
Rollie Fingers 24 22 2 0 0 0 0 2 9 .091 .167 .091 .258
Gaylord Perry 55 48 4 1 0 0 2 5 12 .083 .170 .104 .274
Juan Marichal 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2012.

As one of the best defensive wizards in history, Mark Belanger was a lock to make the All-Time Bluefield to the Bigs Team.

All-Time Bluefield Roster
SP 1 Dean Chance
SP 3 Bill Monbouquette
RP Sammy Stewart
Setup TBA
Setup Arthur Rhodes
Closer Sparky Lyle

C Gregg Zaun

1B Eddie Murray
SS Cal Ripken
3B Doug DeCinces
IF Mark Belanger

LF Don Baylor
RF Bob Bailor
OF David Dellucci

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