It is axiomatic in baseball that winning teams must have strength up the middle—catcher, pitcher, second base, center field. The Detroit Tigers, who have been right at the top of the American League East since the start of the season, are middling strong in the middle, but their real strength is just a little off to one side, where Aurelio Rodriguez plays third base and Ed Brinkman plays shortstop. Rodriguez and Brink-man were transferred intact to Detroit from Washington a year ago in a trade for Denny McLain that rates among the most one-sided in baseball history. The Senators have left town, but Baltimore regrets the largess of its ex-neighbor. It could cost the Orioles a pennant.
Defensively there is only one short-third combination in the game that can be considered superior to Rodriguez-Brinkman—Baltimore's Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger. But Robinson, at 35. is 11 years Rodriguez' senior, and already hot-corner scholars are calling the younger man the next third baseman of the century.
Rodriguez reacts to such loose talk with becoming modesty. "Brooks is really the best." he says. "I just do my job." Indeed he does. He has such remarkable range that even ordinary shortstops playing alongside him can be made to look like Marty Marion. Rodriguez admits that he shades to the left in the early innings to spare his shortstop the ordeal of chasing balls in the hole, then protects the line later in the game to guard against extra-base hits.
"With Aurelio, I can cheat more to second base and close off the infield," says Brinkman gratefully. And since he is no ordinary shortstop, hitting balls to the left side of the Detroit infield is a bit like driving golf balls into a net: they look fine taking off, but they don't go anywhere.
Brinkman is not from the belly-flop backhand-stab school of shortstopping. His manner on the field is so purposeful and direct, his approach to his job so businesslike, that he could as well be carrying a briefcase as a glove in his left hand. The quality that endears Brinkman to baseball managers is his near perfection. Last season he set a major league shortstop record by playing in 56 consecutive games without an error, and a Detroit team record with his fielding average of .980. Brinkman's. and Rodriguez", only failings last season were on offense, and past performances would suggest that both are capable of much better. Brinkman, who was .266 and .262 in 1969 and '70 for Ted Williams in Washington, hit only .228 for Billy Martin last year. Rodriguez, who batted in 83 runs for Washington in 1970, drove home only 39 in '71. Of his 15 home runs, 14 were hit with the bases empty, the other with only one man on.
This year both men seem to have regained their lost prowess with the bat. Rodriguez, who is potentially a fine hitter, has cut down on his home-run swing and is spraying line drives to all fields. Martin says he could be hitting 20 points higher than his near-.300 average, "if I didn't use him so Often on the hit-and-run." Rodriguez is particularly useful with this tactic because he has become so adept at hitting the hall to right field.
Both Martin and Rodriguez credit Aurelio's resurgence at bat to the coaching he has received from the veteran second baseman. Tony Taylor, a Cuban who can speak to him in his own language. Although his English is improving nicely, Rodriguez' most effective form of communication remains the smile. The bilingual Taylor is also a keen student of baseball and he has been able to convince his pupil that the home run is not the only hit for which a player is paid. Even with a reduced swing. Rodriguez should get his percentage of long hits, for he is a muscular 180-pounder with strong wrists and hands.
"See how the ball just jumps off his bat." said Brinkman one day last week, watching his colleague from behind the batting cage. "Listen to the sound he makes—whack! With me, all you hear is a thock."
Brinkman is also a student of hitting, although not always an apt one. He has great admiration for the "big thumpers" on his team—Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Al Kaline. "There's Cash," he says. "See how easily he swings, but he is handstrong. And Freehan. Why, he's an animal. Has to be, playing behind the plate every day."
Cash and Freehan are both hitting well over .300, but Brinkman, a slender 170-pound choke hitter, isn't all that far behind them. This may be one of his "on years." Brinkman has a most curious history as a hitter. In the two years before he blossomed under Williams, he hit .187 and .188. But even these seasons were an improvement over 1965 when, in 154 games, he was .185. Those years are testimony to his fielding skills.
"It was just ridiculous," says Brinkman. "I'll tell you, hitting .180 is no fun. I know I'm a better hitter than that."
He gives full credit to Ted Williams for his transformation from the worst-hitting shortstop in '67 and '68 to one of the best in '69 and '70. "He changed my whole approach to hitting. I had always been a lunge hitter. Ted taught me to wait. He taught me to hit more on the top of the ball, to hit more ground balls. With a grounder you've always got a chance. With a fly ball, which is what I was hitting, you don't have any." Brinkman was understandably surprised to learn that after his two most productive seasons at Washington, he was being traded to Detroit with Rodriguez and Pitcher Joe Coleman for McLain.
"Actually, I was even more surprised that Aurelio was included in the deal," he says. "He was just coming off a fantastic year and he was only something like 22." The trade requires no further analysis beyond the observation that Rodriguez and Brinkman have stabilized the Tiger infield, that Coleman, only 25, won 20 games last year and that McLain is in Oakland after a 10-22 record last season at Washington.
Without Brinkman, Rodriguez and Coleman, Manager Martin could not contend, as he vigorously does, that his long and mostly futile pursuit of the Orioles will end this year. "I said in spring training this would be our year," Martin said on the eve of this week's Baltimore series. "We are much stronger now. We've got a better bullpen. We're healthier. Last year the Orioles got out front while we were hurting. We actually played better ball than they did in the second half of the season, but we couldn't catch them."
Then Martin had two dependable starting pitchers in Mickey Lolich and Coleman and a reliable reliever in Fred Scherman. This year he has benefited from some outstanding performances by Tom Timmerman, a reliever turned starter. And he hopes to get more work from Les Cain, a strong lefthander who was troubled by a sore shoulder for most of last year.
What persistently irritates Martin is the criticism that his team is too old to win the pennant. "Our overall age is 29," he says. "That's not old, that's the prime of a ballplayer's life. When you're talking about old on our club, you're talking about two guys—Cash and Kaline [both 37]. And you should be so lucky to have old men like those two."
Martin's treatment of his senior citizens is a model of tactical skill. Cash is benched only on days when he is confronted with particularly troublesome lefthanders. Kaline sits down when he is weary. At second base Martin platoons the 32-year-old left-hand-hitting Dick McAuliffe with the 36-year-old right-hand-hitting Taylor. The left side of his infield he leaves absolutely alone. He should.
ED BRINKMAN SCOOPS UP A GROUNDER UNESTHETICALLY BUT EFFICIENTLY, WHILE AURELIO RODRIGUEZ LEAVES A BOUNCER NO ESCAPE