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A shortstop who's long on smarts

Roy Smalley, the American League's best, has brains—and now some brawn

It was cold last Thursday night in Bloomington, Minn., no time to be watching baseball at Metropolitan Stadium, especially since the evening's Twin-Tiger game seemed to have run its course by the third inning. Detroit was leading 3-0, with men on second and third and two outs, when Phil Mankowski hit a hard grounder up the middle. It looked like a sure two-run tweener, but Roy Smalley III, Minnesota's astute shortstop, didn't see it that way. Playing the lefthanded Mankowski to pull, Smalley had stationed himself just to the left of second. With several giant steps he swooped across the bag, gloved the grounder and threw Mankowski out.

Swelling with confidence now, Smalley went into high gear. In the Twins' half of the third he got his second single of the night and Minnesota scored twice. In the fifth he again used clever positioning to turn Lance Parrish's slow hopper into a rally-breaking double play. Minutes later Smalley walked on a 3-2 pitch to help build a run for the Twins. Other smart fielding plays followed in the sixth and seventh innings.

Then, with the score tied at 6-6 in the bottom of the eighth, Smalley batted against Detroit righthander Jack Billingham. The first pitch, a fastball, came in higher than Billingham had intended. Striding forward from his slightly closed stance, Smalley kept his lead shoulder aimed at the mound until the last split second and then uncoiled his wrists—and his body. A keen student of all sports, Smalley believes a closed stance with delayed wrist action may be the most critical skill in athletics; it is, he contends, the key to swinging a golf club well, to putting the shot, to making a strong overhand throw, to landing a hard right cross. And to swinging a baseball bat successfully. Billingham's pitch shot high over the infield, climbed far into the dark outfield sky and cleared the rightfield fence 375 feet away.

Smalley was not through. With Detroit runners on first and second and one out in the ninth, Parrish hit a pitch from Minnesota Reliever Mike Marshall into the hole between where the shortstop and third baseman would usually be positioned. But because he had again stationed himself perfectly, Smalley had to move all of two feet to turn a hit into a game-ending double play. In sum, he handled eight fielding chances flawlessly—and a couple brilliantly—went 3 for 4 at the plate, scored two runs and got the game-winning RBI. However, when Smalley was asked if this had been his best game in the majors, he was momentarily confused. To the top all-round shortstop in the American League it had been just another night's work.

Aided by Smalley's contributions, the Twins ran off six victories in one stretch last week and maintained their surprising hold on first place in the American League's Western Division. To be sure, they had run up their 18-8 record largely against non-contenders—Oakland, Seattle, Toronto and Detroit. The only tough team they have played, California, has beaten them five of six times. And with an inflamed shoulder putting 3-0 Pitcher Geoff Zahn onto the disabled list last week, the Twins will be vulnerable going into upcoming series against Texas and Kansas City. But thanks in large part to Smalley, Minnesota should improve—perhaps dramatically—on its 73-89 record of 1978.

Smalley's influence seems to be everywhere on the revived Twins. Catcher Butch Wynegar hit .229 last year. After taking Smalley's advice to undergo an off-season weight-training program, he has kept his 1979 average over .250. Pitcher Jerry Koosman is off to a 5-0 start, mainly because the Twins scored 46 runs in his six starts, as compared to the 47 that the Mets gave him while he was losing 15 of 18 in 1978. The switch-hitting Smalley, who is battling for the American League batting lead with a .380 average and pacing the Twins with six homers, 20 runs batted in, 38 hits and 20 runs, has been Kooz' major benefactor. What's more, Koosman finds Smalley's fielding unbelievable. "Sometimes the ball is hit and I think 'base hit,' " Koosman says. "But all of a sudden Roy is there." The Twins have turned 39 double plays, the most in the majors, and Smalley has been in on 32 of them. He has committed only two errors in 179 chances for a fielding percentage of .989.

The number of his chances is worthy of note. If he continues at his present pace, the 26-year-old Smalley will obliterate the major league record for chances accepted by a shortstop (984 by the Giants' Dave Bancroft in 1922) by 102. "Mark Belanger of the Orioles is the best-fielding shortstop in the business," says Smalley, "and Boston's Rick Burleson and Robin Yount of the Brewers are quicker than I am. But I hope people won't say I led the league in chances because my pitchers threw ground balls." No way. Smalley has led the league in chances the last two seasons because he is a practitioner of a lost discipline—studying opposing hitters and his team's pitchers.

Just listen to another grateful Twin, Marshall. The once acerbic reliever, who seemed washed up at the start of '78, left the unemployment rolls to join the Twins on May 15. He was so successful that at the end of the season he was given a four-year, $1.2 million contract. Along with the Yankees' Tommy John, Marshall is the early-book co-favorite for the Cy Young Award with a 5-1 record, nine saves and a 0.84 ERA. He says his turnabout has been greatly facilitated by infielders who are willing to listen to his advice about positioning. "On the last play of Thursday's game," says Marshall, who has grown portly and pleasant at 36, "I told Smalley I was going to pitch Parrish to pull more. Roy waited for the appropriate moment, when no one was paying much attention, and moved right over to the perfect place. He's the kind of shortstop who says, 'Come on, hit the ball to me.' A take-charge shortstop changes the game for everyone."

Though it passed almost without notice, Smalley was the league's best at his position in 1978, when he hit .273, drove in 77 runs and led all shortstops with 19 homers, 287 putouts and 121 double plays. After undertaking an off-season weight program himself—it was suggested by a Los Angeles friend, Ron Klemp—Smalley started 1979 even hotter. He considers himself a step and a half faster in the field this year; at the plate he says he's hitting for distance without trying to pull. "The bad things you hear about weights—tightness, decreased flex and speed—aren't true as long as you keep playing your sport," Smalley says. "I bet that all world-class athletes have used weights. Even sprinters must have tremendous upper-body strength. And you can't separate the physical from the psychological. As you get stronger, you think more positively."

When Texas traded him to the Twins in June of 1976, he found himself in a negative situation. The man who insisted that Smalley be part of the deal was his uncle, Minnesota Manager Gene Mauch. Because eight members of the Twins' undistinguished front office are related to owner Calvin Griffith—two of his brothers, his son, three nephews, a sister and a cousin are on the payroll—Minnesota fans were already sensitive to the slightest suggestion of nepotism, and for the next two years they heaped unrelieved abuse on Smalley, using his kinship with Mauch as the main theme of their barbs. "I guess my problem was that I was thinking so logically," says Smalley. "I mean, here's Gene Mauch, three-time Manager of the Year in the National League, the dean of all managers, the best manager in baseball. Is he going to use an incompetent guy at shortstop because he happens to be his nephew?"

Shattered by the catcalls, Smalley became tense and too conscious of his statistics. By the middle of last season, he had improved his hitting—apparently at the expense of his fielding. On July 3, following a game in which Smalley made three errors and was booed even while hitting a homer, Mauch took him aside. "He told me, 'You're my shortstop. I wouldn't trade you for any shortstop in the league,' " Smalley recalls. Much relieved, Smalley made only six errors in his last 86 games and ended Rod Carew's six-year reign as Most Valuable Twin. By then the booing had stopped.

It is hardly surprising that Smalley should become the thinking man's favorite infielder. His father, Roy Smalley Jr., was a shortstop for the Cubs, Braves and Phillies in the 1940s and '50s. "I was inundated with baseball," says Roy III. Because Roy Jr. married Mauch's sister Jolene, the kid was doubly inundated. "Every time Gene came over to the house, he and my father talked baseball all night," Smalley says. It rubbed off. Playing with Fred Lynn and Rich Dauer at USC, Smalley was a hero of the 1973 and 1974 NCAA champions. The Rangers made him the first choice of the 1974 draft and signed him for a $100,000 bonus, but it was not until he became a Twin that he blossomed.

Like Mauch, Smalley gets to the park early, studies the pitching and hitting charts and talks baseball incessantly. "I like to follow the signals and see what's coming when I'm in the field," he says. "I also watch the batter. Sometimes you know where he's going to hit by the way he's standing, by how aggressive he is. I guess you could call it intuition." Such talk is a joy to Mauch, the archetypal "good baseball man." But playing for his uncle has not been the indispensable ingredient in Roy's rise. As Marshall points out, "Smalley became a star by being Roy Smalley, not because he's Gene Mauch's nephew."