"The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing. You can tell."
JOHN UPDIKE, RABBIT, RUN
How do you account for Aaron's wrists? Williams' eyes? DiMaggio's grace? Or Robin Yount? Words can't describe a blessing. "It's instinct," says a scout. "You can't teach it. Some learn with experience. And some never learn. He's born with it. I watch him—the way he moves, the way his eyes shift to a base runner a split second before the pitch—and I see it, but I still don't believe it. He's the most complete young ballplayer I have ever seen. The closest I ever saw to him was Don Kessinger when he was 22. This kid's 18."
At the age of 17 Yount was drafted out of Taft High School in Los Angeles and sent by the Milwaukee Brewers to their Class A farm team in Newark, N.Y. Yount batted .285 and was voted The Player Most Likely To Reach the Major Leagues in the New York-Penn League. Eight months later he was the youngest man in the majors and the Brewers' shortstop, mentally and emotionally the toughest position, with the possible exception of catcher, for a rookie to handle. After four months there, he is batting a solid .257 and has committed only two errors in the last six weeks.
"What did I expect in the major leagues?" says Yount, pale and slim with green eyes and golden curls. "I can't answer that. I didn't expect anything. I don't think about how scared I should be because I'm in the major leagues at 18. I just go out and play. When I'm at bat I concentrate on hitting the ball, and when I'm in the field I concentrate on picking it up. When I raced motorcycles a few years ago, that's what I wanted to do more than anything. Now that I'm a big-league shortstop, this is all I want to do. Whatever I'm doing at the moment, it seems, is what I want to do most. I try very hard to keep my mind on what I'm doing. A lot of guys can't do that. There's an abundance of people with plenty of physical talent who aren't in the big leagues. My brother was like that. He pitched at the Triple A level for five years and never made it to the majors. He had great stuff. I know, because he used to pitch batting practice to me. He helped me more than anyone to get here, I guess. But he just couldn't get it all together in his head."
"I watched Robin picking up ground balls at shortstop one day during spring training," says Brewer Manager Del Crandall. "Afterward I went over to Jim Wilson, our vice-president, and asked, 'Is there any reason why an 18-year-old kid can't play shortstop in the big leagues?' He was born to play the game. Some people are always worrying about what just happened, and that makes them unprepared for what happens next. Others, like Robin, have the ability always to concentrate on what's coming up next. For example, when he kicks a ground ball, he doesn't stand around and pound his glove or hang his head. He just picks up the ball, throws it to the pitcher and gets ready for the next play. He's never all-consumed by an error. Of course, there are still some things he has to learn—cutoff plays and where to position himself. But his ability to field and hit offsets this lack of experience. I don't care how much experience a shortstop has. If he can't pick up a ground ball and throw the man out, what good is he?"
There are two styles in which shortstops field their position in the major leagues: aggressive and fluid. The aggressive shortstops, such as Tim Foli of Montreal, attack a grounder as if the ball were their mortal enemy. They snatch it up so forcefully that one can hear it slap against the glove, and then they seem to grind the ball in their glove, choking it for a second before finally firing it to first base. The fluid ones, such as Mark Belanger of the Orioles, glide effortlessly after a grounder and welcome it into loving arms. They scoop the ball up with a single easy motion, bringing it to their chest for a moment's caress before making their throw. Yount possesses the fluidity of a Belanger in the way he fields ground balls and a hint of Foli's aggressiveness in the way he patrols his territory.
"He's got Belanger's lateral rhythm," says Al Monchak, the infield coach of the White Sox. "He's always in control of his body. He moves backward after flies better than any young player I've ever seen. And he's like a veteran in chasing guys away from the balls he wants to catch. I see a lot of leadership qualities in Yount, the kind you don't see in many kids these days, or anyone else for that matter. Everything he does, he does firm, positive. As a hitter he has great bat control and reminds me a lot of Harvey Kuenn, one of his coaches."
Last season when Yount was still playing on the rocky infields of upstate New York, the Brewers' shortstop was 23-year-old Tim Johnson. Johnson had been traded, to Milwaukee from the Dodger organization, where he was destined to spend his career as a substitute for Bill Russell. Now Johnson is a second-stringer behind Yount, and he hopes he will be traded again. There is no future for him with the Brewers. "I'm still young," Johnson says. "What more can I say? Yount's here to stay. No one's satisfied sitting on the bench, but he's doing a great job and he deserves to be playing. Everybody likes him, too. He's a professional. He acts like a guy who's already been here five years." There's no use fighting a blessing.
AT AGE 18, YOUNT IS BATTING A MATURE .257