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Pivot Physics To solve the problem of turning two, a middle infielder must study the aerodynamics of the toss, the mass of the incoming runner and the angles at which to cross the bag

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin was fielding grounders
thrown to him by one photographic assistant and then throwing the
ball overhand to another in a Sarasota, Fla., studio last month.
The scene was repeated many times over until one of the grounders
happened to bounce one small step to Larkin's left. This time
Larkin flipped the ball underhand. "Sorry, man," he said of the
toss. "That was just instinct. Ball to my left, I flip it."

Fifteen minutes later his partner in pivots, second baseman Pokey
Reese, was pretending to turn two in front of the camera. After
five routine takes Reese suddenly jumped after throwing the ball
to an assistant, even though there wasn't a base runner within
miles. "Sorry, man," he said. "Instinct."

Larkin and Reese make up one of the finest double play
combinations in baseball. Whatever chemistry they have, however,
is due more to nature than nurture. Even on the concrete floor of
a photo studio they react with the improvisational elan of jazz
musicians taking turns at soloing. The DP is made more on
instinct than well-rehearsed choreography. "We don't practice it
all that much," Reese says about turning two with Larkin. "Once
in a while during the second or third round of batting practice,
we'll field the ball and turn two. That's about it."

"Practice is overrated," says Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar
Vizquel, whose pairing with second baseman Roberto Alomar would
seem to be the perfect glove story of synchronicity in making the
double play. "Basically it's all reaction and instinct, like
playing basketball."

We may like to believe in the mellifluous poetry of Tinker to
Evers, but turning two is more about the individual skills of the
middle infielders than the familiarity between them. (The Chicago
Cubs never led the National League in double plays during the
eight seasons that Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers manned Chicago's
middle infield, a sober fact never captured in rhyming verse.)
Those individual skills can be highly polished, especially for
Alomar, whose footwork is so good around the bag he claims never
to have been hit hard by a runner. Never? "Never," he insists.

Willie Randolph, now the New York Yankees' third base coach, was
involved in more double plays (1,547) than any second baseman
except Hall of Famer-elect Bill Mazeroski (1,706) and Cooperstown
enshrinee Nellie Fox (1,619). Randolph amassed this total despite
working next to 31 shortstops during his 13 seasons with the
Yankees and myriad partners in five years with five other clubs.
In fact, the longest-running double play act these days is
shortstop Deivi Cruz and second baseman Damion Easley of the
Detroit Tigers, who go back only to 1997.

No one appreciates the best double play combinations more than
the pitchers who are their beneficiaries. "The double play is the
pitcher's best friend, because you get two outs on one pitch,"
says Indians righthander Dave Burba. "But it's really important
because it shifts momentum. It defuses a threat immediately. A
double play with the bases loaded or with runners on first and
third just sucks the life out of the other team's inning."

As critical as twin killings can be, they have a small historical
profile (other, of course, than Franklin P. Adams's ode to Tinker
and Evers and Frank Chance). Try naming one--just one--famous
ground ball double play. Only two World Series have ended in a
double play, and only one in a classic 6-4-3: In '47 a Rizzuto to
Stirnweiss to McQuinn twin killing sealed a 5-2 win for the
Yankees over the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 7. The Yankees won the
World Series last year without turning a double play in five
games against the crosstown-rival Mets, thus becoming the first
such DP-free world champions since the 1969 Mets.

Mazeroski is the patron saint of the double play. In addition to
his record for most career twin killings by a middle infielder,
he holds the single-season mark (161 in 1966). "He was the best,
and I've seen them all," says Yankees scout Gene Michael, a
former shortstop and teammate of Mazeroski's. "Alomar is good,
but he doesn't come close to turning two like Maz. The ball would
hit this part of Maz's hand in the glove"--Michael points to the
pad where the left index finger meets the palm--"and bounce off,
rather than going deep into the pocket. He was so quick."

Think of the second base bag as baseball's Temptation Island,
where intruders will get down and dirty trying to break up two.
Middle infielders can combat the sharp spikes and rolling blocks
thrown their way with such weapons as quick footwork. "That's
where it starts," Alomar says. "When you hear a guy has quick
hands, like [Seattle Mariners second baseman] Bret Boone, it
means he has quick feet. Quick hands come from quick feet."

To stay out of harm's way while turning two, infielders also can
resort to cheating, otherwise known as the neighborhood play, in
which they're in the neighborhood of second base but not touching
it. "I never do it," Larkin says. "I take pride in always
touching the base, no matter what."

"Well," Reese says sheepishly, "sometimes an umpire will say,
'Hey, give me a better touch next time.' They'll give you a
warning if you push it too far."

Another countermeasure for infielders is throwing sidearm or even
submarine style to force the runner to slide quickly for
self-preservation. Former shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., now a third
baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, says shortstops often throw
this way only to save precious time after catching a low feed.
Larkin says, however, that for shortstops and second basemen,
low-bridging aggressive runners is sometimes necessary.

Randolph agrees, recalling, "My first year with the Yankees,
Reggie Jackson [then with the Orioles] was on first base, and he
was yelling at me, 'Get ready, rook! I'm coming after you.' Sure
enough, there's a ground ball to short, and I rush over to the
bag. I can hear Reggie coming. He's grunting and huffing and
puffing like a freight train. I took the ball and dropped down
real low, aiming right between his eyes. He got down just in
time. We got the double play, and as I was running off the field,
I looked back at Reggie. He looked at me and kind of nodded his
head like, Yeah, you've got my respect, kid."

The shortstop has an easier task than the second baseman. He can
see the runner and gauge the runner's speed and intentions as he
turns two. "The key is to get to the base on time," Larkin says.
"Then you react to the runner and where the ball is."

Most shortstops like the feed from the second baseman near the
right side of their chest, which gets them into a throwing
position more quickly. Vizquel, however, likes the ball toward
the outfield side of second base, at his glove hand. That keeps
him out of the direct line of the base path and triggers a rhythm
with his hands as he gets into throwing position.

Given enough time, most shortstops will cross the bag on a safe
path toward rightfield as they turn two. However, when a runner
is close enough to threaten harm, shortstops choose different
styles. Small, athletic ones like Vizquel and Rey Ordonez of the
Mets follow the style of Ozzie Smith, the alltime leader in
double plays by a shortstop (1,590), by jumping over the runner,
sometimes while releasing the ball. Vizquel can make a strong
throw while catapulting himself off the bag with either his left
or even his right foot, which is the so-called wrong foot for a
righthanded thrower. "It's simple," he says. "If a guy is coming
at my right side, I'll go off my left foot. If he's at my left
side, I'll go off my right foot. I don't have to think about it.
I just react."

Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, though, jumps much less
frequently than most of his position mates. At 6'3" and 210
pounds, he welcomes contact. He has styled himself after Ripken,
the prototype for the big shortstop at 6'4" and 220 pounds. At
the 1998 All-Star Game, Rodriguez asked Ripken for tips on
turning two. Ripken showed him how to use the base as protection
while holding ground, like a quarterback in the pocket. "There
are times when I'll jump, but the way I look at it, the runner
doesn't want me falling on him because of my size," says
Rodriguez, who as a Mariner led all big league shortstops with
123 double plays last year. "Chances are he's going to get hurt
more than I am. So a lot of times I don't feel I must get out of
the way."

By contrast, a second baseman presents an inviting and virtually
defenseless target. Reese, a converted shortstop, says he has
been hit hard several times. He relies on Larkin's knowledge of
runners--their speed, aggressiveness and appetite for
contact--conveyed before and during the game to help him estimate
how much time he has to get rid of the ball.

"I don't want to say guys today have it easy, but not as many
guys will come in as hard as they did years ago," Randolph says.
"Dave Winfield, Don Baylor, Hal McRae, Paul Molitor, Robin
Yount--so many guys would come in real hard, wanting to take you
out. When Albert Belle was suspended [in 1996] for hitting [then
Milwaukee Brewers second baseman] Fernando Vina, it was only
because people don't do that much anymore."

Alomar is more typical of today's breed. Reese, in fact, says he
learned how to turn two by watching Alomar, who is uncanny at
avoiding contact. Alomar, though, asserts that his tricks of
turning two are so highly evolved that he doesn't try to teach
them to younger players.

For instance, Alomar rarely feeds the ball to the shortstop with
the typical overhand throw. Instead, he has developed supreme
confidence in the sideways push throw, similar to a shovel pass
in football. (Alomar says he practices by flipping balls against
a wall at home in that manner.) "In the last couple of years I've
started doing it even if the ball gets to me a couple of steps to
my left," he says.

When Alomar is on the receiving end of the shortstop's throw, his
arm strength helps him avoid contact. He can fall away from the
back side of the base--and the runner--and still get enough zip on
the ball. "The first thing you need to do is get to the base as
quickly as you can," Alomar says. His next step is to place his
right foot behind the bag and his left foot on the rightfield
side of the bag. "I put it on the edge so I have something I can
push off," Alomar says.

As the shortstop throws him the ball, Alomar moves his right foot
farther behind the bag and pushes off with his left. Then, as he
catches the ball, he strides toward the bag with his left foot,
which strikes the back of the bag as he throws to first. Then he
recoils toward the outfield, always keeping the bag between
himself and the runner for protection.

Alomar has other options. He can, for one, push off the bag and
continue across it, making his pivot on the infield side of the
base. "The key is, don't get your body in a bad position," Alomar
says. "As you come across the bag, you may have the tendency to
step toward somewhere between first and home with your left foot.
You have to make sure you step toward first. Never throw across
your body. That's when you see wild throws."

Alomar has another alternative: While taking a feed, he'll lean
slightly toward the infield side of the base with his chest and
shoulders, making the runner believe he'll come across the bag.
It's a ruse. As he catches the ball, Alomar will push back off
the bag with his left foot and make his pivot on the outfield
side of the base.

"You can't see the runner, but you have to feel him," Alomar
says. "You have to feel where he is, how fast he is and how hard
he's coming in. I'm looking for the baseball from the shortstop,
but I'm calculating all those other things I can't see. A lot of
it is feel."

Alomar says he has been blessed to have turned two with Garry
Templeton as a San Diego Padre, with Tony Fernandez as a Toronto
Blue Jay, with Ripken in Baltimore and with Vizquel in Cleveland,
all of whom save Templeton have won Gold Gloves. The best double
play combinations may appear to have the impeccable timing of
Astaire and Rogers, Montana and Rice, or Stockton and Malone, but
the truth is closer to the interplay between you and your UPS
man. Just let him know where you'd like it delivered, and you
have the basis for a beautiful relationship.

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN The nimble Vina eluded the Giants' Rich Aurilia last May, but in 1996 he took a controversial hit from Belle.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Alomar uses the second base bag as a barrier between himself and hard-charging runners.

Hard Sliders

White Sox shortstop Royce Clayton, who also has been with the
Giants, the Cardinals and the Rangers, ranks the runners he
considers most adept at breaking up double plays.

1. Johnny Damon, A's. A speed guy, he gets to second so fast
that he can hit you no matter what you do to avoid him.

2. Reggie Sanders, Diamondbacks. Quick, knows how to get in your
way--and hits the bag hard.

3. Shawon Dunston, Giants. Some guys, without giving details,
told me he was dirty. Not true--I think he just plays hard.

4. Tony Graffanino, White Sox. A real baseball player. This is
one of the little things he does that others won't.

5. Craig Biggio, Astros. Strong and quick, and as a second
baseman he knows all the angles.

6. Jeff Bagwell, Astros. Has slowed down a bit, but still one of
the strongest around. He and Biggio--it must be a Houston thing.