I’d like to take a moment, if I may, to sing the praises of defense and its superiority over the offensive side of baseball.
The best part of the game is when a favorite team is in the field. The pitcher controls the tempo as much as the opposing batter will allow and, if he puts it in play, it’s in the hands of the fielders. When those hands are as delicate as a field hockey club tied onto some brute first baseman’s forearm, watching the ball be kicked and muffed and dropped can be a frustrating experience. Typically, the guys who play at the major league level are sure-handed enough to have fewer errors than games played, at least.
But when a fielder transcends mere capability and approaches something else, something approaching art, there’s little as exciting in baseball. And reading about the ficticious Aparico Rodriguez and his zen-like student Henry Skrimshander in Chard Harbach’s The Art of Fielding let me with memories of Alex Gonzalez, who enjoyed a remarkable career (and may well again in the future), but truly found a place in my brain when he anchored the Red Sox’ infield in 2006.
Gonzalez arrived in the wake of Orlando Cabrera, quickly a fan favorite who signed with Anaheim after winning the World Series in 2004, and Edgar Renteria, who suffered through a rough season in Boston after signing a four-year contract in 2005. The previously sure-handed Renteria made 30 errors in his one season in Fenway before being traded to Atlanta, where he immediately revived his career.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez was a stop-gap, signed to a one-year contract, keeping the position warm until someone could come up from the minors or a “real” shortstop could be signed. And so the Sox went into 2006, a year that would eventually be doomed to injury, but not before Gonzalez could wow ‘em.
The surface numbers relate a bit of how Gonzalez played that year — only seven errors in 475 total chances at shortstop — but that doesn’t quite tell the story of how much fun he was to watch.
If I may jump sports for a bit, watching hockey in the 1990s I was always struck by Ray Bourque, the Boston Bruins’ longtime captain and eventual champ with the Colorado Avalanche. As he got older, the point production started to slow a bit, though he always maintained his minutes on the ice — he was routinely the Bruins’ icetime leader, even into his late-30s — and there was always a sense of calm when he was carrying the puck up the ice or reading the offense. It was as if there existed a specific Bourque aura, a protective glow that slowed the game down and tempered the flares of production from the other side.
I see it still in hockey once in a while — Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg who come to mind — but one of the few times I ever had the same feeling watching a baseball player was with Gonzalez. Like The Art of Fielding’s protagonist, he calmed and commanded the rest of the infield at his best, effortlessly tracked down balls in the hole, grounders to his left, cutting off line drives up the middle, took flips from Mark Loretta in turning double plays with ease, simply everything.
He wasn’t a bad hitter, either, which was not necessarily part of his reputation upon arrival. But that was secondary. Every day he was in the field, the Red Sox were a joy to watch. He was at once graceful, confident and quiet. I can’t recall him ever being too demonstrative if a play went his way or got completely out of hand. He just did his job.
Eventually, the disabled list came calling, as it did for Jason Varitek, Manny Ramirez, Jonathan Papelbon and so many others that year. And in the offseason, he left for the Reds, replaced by Julio Lugo who, in his time in Boston, looked either competent or overwhelmed, typically the latter. The Red Sox won the World Series anyway in 2007, and Gonzalez even enjoyed an encore performance at the end of 2009, arriving via trade from Cincinnati to shore up a position that had been even more of a revolving door than usual.
Again, soon enough he was gone, taking his aura with him to the next stop, the Red Sox moving on. Players come and go, more so now than ever, and Gonzalez was a poignant reminder of how quickly a favorite player can be shuttled off to another team.
But he was here, and when he was, he was brilliant. Almost fictionally so.