Monday, February 8, 2010

9 Days Until Spring Training: Graig Nettles

Next week will mark the six year anniversary of the trade that sent Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers to the Yankees. Up until the time of the trade, A-Rod had been a shortstop, but with Derek Jeter entrenched in that position in the Bronx, A-Rod shifted over to the hot corner. In the years since, Rodriguez has established himself as the greatest third baseman in Yankee history. But before there was A-Rod, there was Graig Nettles.

Born in San Diego, Nettles attended San Diego State University, starred on its baseball team and spent the summer of 1964 playing in Alaska with future Major Leaguers Tom Seaver and Ricky Monday. He was selected by the Twins in the fourth round of the very first amateur draft in 1965.

Nettles began his pro career the following year in Wisconsin Rapids with the Twins Single-A affiliate. He had cups of coffee in Minnesota in both '67 and '68 but spent most of the '68 season with Twins top farm club in Denver. It was there that Nettles first played for Billy Martin.

The next year, both Nettles and Martin graduated to the Majors. Billy took over as Twins manager and he brought Nettles along with him. Neither would be there when the 1970 season rolled around. Unable to push the great Harmon Killebrew off third base, Nettles played sparingly, and saw most of his action in the outfield. The Twins won their division, but were swept by Baltimore in the very first American League Championship Series. Despite the team's success, Martin was fired for the first of many times as a manager. Nettles, still blocked by Killebrew, was dealt to Cleveland as part of a package that brought back former Yankee Stan Williams and future Yankee Luis Tiant.

The Indians installed Nettles as their everyday third baseman, and he blossomed. He finished 10th in the AL in walks in 1970, then repeated the feat in 1971 while finishing tenth in RBI, seventh in times on base, and fifth in home runs. Nettles also began forging a reputation as one the top defensive third basemen in the game.

Following the '72 season, Nettles was shipped to the Yankees as part of six player deal. He would spend the next eleven seasons as the team's third baseman, a potent bat in the middle of the line up, and a key a contributor on five division winners, four pennant winners, and two World Series champs.

Nettles joined the Yankees just in time for their final season in the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium as well as for the final year of manager Ralph Houk's thirty five years of service to the organization. Nettles tied Bobby Murcer for the team lead in home runs that season, led the team the following season, and then led the American League with 32 in 1976. He came back with 37 more dingers the following year, good for second in the AL and a fifth place MVP finish. With Brooks Robinson finally retired, Nettles also won his first Gold Glove in '77, and repeated the feat in '78 when he finished sixth in the MVP voting.

Perhaps Nettles' most famous defensive work came in Game Three of the 1978 World Series, when he put on a defensive clinic against the Dodgers. Nettles recorded two putouts and five assists over the course of the game, started a double play, and robbed numerous Dodgers of hits with diving, highlight reel stops.

Nettles remained with the Yankees through the 1983 season, staying productive into his late thirties. He was named Yankee Captain in late January of 1982. I always wondered how Nettles felt about that, given that the two previous Yankee Captains - Thurman Munson and Lou Gehrig - both met untimely ends. Thankfully Nettles avoided that fate, but his Yankee career did meet a premature end.

In early 1984, like many of his Bronx Zoo teammates before him, Nettles released his autobiography, the humorously titled Balls. It chronicled the entirety of Nettles' career, with a focus on the 1983 season, which was mired with the same level of dysfunction typical of Yankee teams of that era. Always known for his quick wit, Nettles didn't pull any punches in his criticism of the organization, of Steinbrenner, and of his contentious contract extension negotiations throughout the '83 season and into the off season. As excerpts of the book leaked prior to publishing, it became apparent that Nettles' days with the Yankees were numbered. Just days before the start of the '84 season the Yankees shipped Nettles to his hometown Padres.

There, Nettles rejoined long time teammate Goose Gossage, and the two helped lead San Diego to their first NL Pennant. After All-Star season in 1985 in which the 40 year old Nettles posted a 120 OPS+, he was all but finished. He spent one more year in San Diego, before rounding out his career spending a year each with Atlanta and Montreal as a pinch hitting specialist. He returned to the Yankees as first base coach for the 1991 season and has been a regular at Old Timers Day since his retirement.

Third base is the most under represented position in the Hall of Fame, with just ten men in the Hall being third basemen primarily. I don' think that Nettles is a Hall of Famer, but he is amongst the best fifteen or twenty third basemen of all time. He is tremendously under appreciated, and suffers comparatively by spending his defensive career in the shadow of Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, and his offensive career in the shadow of Schmidt and George Brett. Nettles still holds the AL record for home runs as a third baseman, and trails only Schmidt, Eddie Matthews, Chipper Jones, and Darrell Evans on the all-time third baseman home run list.

Nettles was the final Yankee to wear number nine before it was retired in honor of Roger Maris in 1984. Other prominent Yankees to wear the number include Joe DiMaggio in his rookie season of 1936, Charlie Keller for most of his career, and Hank Bauer for the majority of the Stengel years.

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