It's past time to put Concepción in Hall
BY MARTY BRENNAMAN
"Time is so old and love so brief," Ogden Nash once mused, then rhymed it with: "Love is pure gold - and time a thief."
If the lyric is right, then somebody ought to be arrested, because the last 30 years have been stolen out from under us. Surely it hasn't been three decades since Cincinnati's beloved Big Red Machine swept the New York Yankees, winning its second successive World Series and triggering one of the great celebrations in this city's history.
Wasn't it the day before yesterday that Tony Perez was blasting late-inning homers, Johnny Bench was throwing base runners out by the bushel-ful, and Sparky Anderson (aka "Captain Hook") was patting Don Gullett on the back as he signaled to the bullpen?
Don't tell me that 30 years have elapsed since second sacker Joe Morgan would feed perfect throws to his double-play partner, a skinny shortstop from Venezuela, who would then leap over the sliding runner while tagging second and firing toward first - all in the same exquisite motion.
I refuse to believe it, but that nimble-footed youngster, David Ismael Concepción Benitez, is now 58. Talk about thievery: Concepción stole hundreds of would-be hits in his 19 years at shortstop, not to mention pilfering 321 bases. Talk about artistry: I've seen a lot of gifted middle infielders in my time as a broadcaster, but none played with Davey's cunning or guile. Davey "deked" so many runners into stopping at second base while the ball was still rattling around the outfield that they should sue him for false representation.
It's not a coincidence that Sparky named Concepción the captain of those great squads. Davey was skipper Sparky Anderson's alter ego - the leader who kept his gifted teammates in line. My old friend, the late columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, was awed by Davey's defensive genius. If a Reds pitcher wanted a shutout, Murray once wrote, "all he had to do was keep the ball left of second base all night" - and let Concepción's glove vacuum everything in sight.
Davey was every bit as important to the Big Red Machine as shortstop Pee Wee Reese was to the great Dodger teams of the '40s and '50s or Phil ("The Scooter") Rizzuto was to the championship Yankees of the same era. But here's the rub. Pee Wee and Scooter are in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Davey isn't, even though he more than earned a ticket.
All three shortstops were scrappy "glue guys" who propelled talented teams to greatness. Davey's career fielding percentage was significantly better than Reese's or Rizzuto's. Their batting averages and on-base percentages were comparable, although Davey had more extra-base hits. And Concepción's post-season batting average - perhaps the best barometer of a ballplayer's capacity to deliver when it matters - was a heady .297, far superior to the other two.
Davey played on nine all-star teams and won five Gold Gloves. He would have earned even more acclaim had it not been for a certain Padre and Cardinal named Ozzie Smith, who came along in the late '70s and was - without question - a defensive marvel. Ozzie, too, played shortstop with great flair - but Concepción was the better all-around player. Yet the same baseball writers who elected Smith to the Hall of Fame with plenty of votes to spare haven't accorded Davey the same respect. Why?
Part of it is that it was tough for a Latino kid with a limited knowledge of English to merit attention in a clubhouse dominated by the likes of Bench, Morgan and one Peter Edward Rose. Reporters and cameras naturally gravitated to the big-name stars. In the second game of the '75 fall classic, Davey's clutch ninth-inning single, stolen base and run scored saved the day - and possibly the Series - for the Reds. But it was his more celebrated teammates who got the attention and the big endorsement deals.
Indeed, Concepción played in an era when Latino ballplayers - especially middle infielders - were often overlooked and underappreciated. Here's a revealing fact: had Davey played in 50-plus more games, he would have broken the National League record for most games at shortstop.
No ballplayer ever had a sweeter disposition than Davey Concepción. His smile was as unrelenting as his glove. Cincinnatians took Davey to their hearts. Davey is also an icon in his hometown of Maracay, Venezuela, where he played winter ball for more than 20 years. There's a statue of Davey there and a boulevard named in his honor. Concepción's generous contributions to Venezuelan youth baseball sharpened the skills of such current major leaguers as Carlos Guillen, Miguel Cabrera, and a slick fielder named Alex Gonzalez. Reds fans will have the pleasure of watching Gonzo operate at short, a la his hero Davey, for the next three or four years.
Without Davey, the Big Red Machine would never have won those four pennants or back-to-back Series. He was the engine that made the Machine go and go.
Concepción is in the Reds Hall of Fame, along with the Caribbean and Venezuelan halls. His plaque should hang in Cooperstown, too, near those of Sparky, Joe, Johnny and Tony. Check out www.ConcepcionforCooperstown.org
With apologies to Ogden Nash, time may have thieved the last 30 years. But it can't steal our memories of Davey Concepción turning a double play. Now that, my friends, is pure gold.