Three hours before last week's All-Star Game, Cincinnati Shortstop Pave Concepcion sat in front of his locker at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, chatting with his friend and fellow Venezuelan, Philadelphia's Manny Trillo, who would start alongside him at second base. As has almost invariably been the case during Concepcion's 13-year career with the Reds, his teammates attracted the microphones and notepads. Phillie First Baseman Pete Rose entertained the media in one corner, while Atlanta Pitcher Phil Niekro and Los Angeles Second Baseman Steve Sax were holding forth in others, discoursing on their status as the oldest and least experienced members, respectively, of the National League team. It wasn't the first time Concepcion, 34, had been overlooked, but on this night, at least, it would be the last.
With two out in the second inning, Dale Murphy on first base and the American League ahead 1-0, Concepcion knocked a hanging Dennis Eckersley slider over the leftfield fence. That single swing: 1) sent the National League on its way to a 4-1 win, its 11th consecutive All-Star victory and 19th in the last 20 games; 2) won for Concepcion the game's MVP award; and 3) brought new attention to white shoes, which have experienced a downturn since the heydays of Joe Namath and Billy Johnson.
As Cincy's natty dresser, Concepcion was also delighted with the white cleats he wore in Montreal, because the conservative Reds make their players wear black shoes. Before the game he had looked up at Cincinnati President Dick Wagner and Vice-Chairman Bob Howsam in the stands, pointed to his shoes and made a "Thumbs up or thumbs down?" gesture. Despite the home run, Concepcion was wearing regulation blacks when the regular season resumed on Thursday.
Although Concepcion's only other home run this year came off a pitcher now in the minors, he wasn't surprised by his All-Star blast. He even expected it, explaining later, "Before I went to bat I told Manny, 'I got a feeling I'm going to hit one out of the ball park.' He kidded me, but I said, 'I'm gonna do it.' " And it didn't hurt that Concepcion's lucky number was running wild that night: Number 13 in your program, in his 13th season, hit the ball out on July 13.
But Concepcion isn't just lucky. "David and Mike Schmidt are the two best players in the league," says Reds Manager John McNamara. "It's not until you have the opportunity to see him every day that you see how great and complete a player David is."
Some people who don't see David every day—who don't know he has been named to nine All-Star teams and won five Gold Gloves—may be inclined to think of him as a leftover from the '70s Team of the Decade. His lack of recognition has been compounded by his position—quick, name a Hall of Fame shortstop—and his Latin origin, which means no mucha publicidad. "I always felt I was good when the others were here," says Concepcion, referring to Foster, Rose, Morgan, Perez, Griffey, et al., who commanded most of the attention. "In 1974 I had 82 RBIs and 14 homers and nobody ever knew. That has to be a record for hitting eighth." Says Johnny Bench, himself a leftover, "The other people move away, and all of a sudden you notice the antique work of art in the corner."
The Reds paid dearly for their objet d'art after last season, guaranteeing Concepcion a reported $4.5 million over five years, something they refused to do for Pete Rose or George Foster. One reason they signed him is the absence of a successor down on the farm. Another may be that last season was Concepcion's best ever at bat. Just as the strike robbed the Reds of the National League West title, it robbed their shortstop of some sterling numbers. After slumping to .260 in 1980, Concepcion had elbow surgery in the offseason and set a goal of 100 runs and 100 RBIs for '81. He had to settle for 57 and 67, respectively, which, projected over a full, uninterrupted season would have been 87 and 102. He also hit .306, his best average in the majors, and led the league in game-winning RBIs with 14.
"The reason he's so dangerous is that he's run-productive," says Houston Manager Bill Virdon. "He's a tough out with men on base." A tough out anytime, really. At week's end he was batting .292 and leading the race for a second straight Silver Slugger award, which goes to the top hitter in the league at each position.
This, of course, is the new Dave Concepcion. The old one, the one on every pitcher's Christmas-card list, batted .260 as a rookie in 1970 and plummeted to .205 and .209 the next two seasons. "I never dreamed he would hit the way he does now," says Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson, who was a rookie skipper with the Reds in Concepcion's first year. "I didn't see it coming, but Klu [former Cincinnati Batting Coach Ted Kluszewski] did. He thought David would excel as a hitter. Me? I thought he'd be a .260 hitter." Kluszewski saw a quick bat with no oomph—but as Concepcion put on weight (from 155 pounds as a rookie to 180 today), so did his average. Good thing, too, because those washout years of 1971 and '72 nearly drove him—and those around him—crazy.
"When he came to the big leagues, he thought he had to get a hit every time he came up," says Tony Perez, the Boston DH who roomed with Concepcion for seven years and was, Bench says, a "mother hen." "If he didn't hit, he'd throw helmets, bats, and get into arguments with his teammates. But the worst thing he did was to go out on the field mad at himself because he didn't hit. He wasn't able to do the job at shortstop. I'd watch him standing at his position, moaning to himself about not hitting and forgetting what he was supposed to be doing." Concepcion says of Perez, "He really helped me a lot. Tony told me to come into the clubhouse, put on my clothes and not think about what happened. That was always hard for me to understand, but I finally did."
As his feathers became unruffled, so did his fielding. Concepcion committed 22 errors in only 101 games as a rookie, but won Gold Gloves in 1974, '75, '76, '77 and '79. He concedes he has lost a step to young stars Ozzie Smith of St. Louis and Garry Templeton of San Diego, but his teammates think he more than makes up for it with his knowledge of opposing hitters and his guile (he invented the one-hop artificial turf throw to first).
Concepcion was well prepared for a big-salaried baseball career. Though he dropped out of school after the ninth grade, he worked for a while as a bank teller in his hometown of Aragua. While playing amateur ball, he attracted the attention of scouts and signed with the Reds at age 19.
Concepcion and his family—wife Dilia and sons David Alejandro, 7, and David Eduardo, 6 months—shuttle between their homes in Maracay and Montgomery, a suburb of Cincinnati, depending upon the time of year. But that will change soon. "My oldest boy obligated me to get his education in the States," says Concepcion. "He has a lot of friends around the neighborhood. He's having a good time here." Next month the Concepcions will move into a new home, right off the 12th fairway of the golf course in Blue Ash, near Cincinnati. Dave enjoys golf, but if he had an RBI for every stroke he takes over 18 holes, the Reds might not be in last place. "Golf's a pretty tough game," he admits. "The ball just sits there. I can't hit it straight. It's tougher than playing baseball."
But baseball hasn't been much fun for Concepcion this season, either. "In my 13 years, we've only been as low as fourth in 1971," he says. "It would be hard for anybody who's played on a winning team." The Reds have certainly been that, with six division titles, four pennants and two World Series championships during Concepcion's tenure, but last Sunday the team that Wagner rebuilt was 22 games under .500.
For one night last week, though, Concepcion was right where he wanted to be—with a winner, in the spotlight, and wearing white shoes.