Taking My Hacks

Defending the Defenders

Joe Orlando

Defensive specialists, in all sports, have always been underappreciated. This is especially true in our hobby. When it comes to collectible values, the defenders are usually left in the dust by the offensive machines.

In almost every single sport, the athletes with the best offense tend to dominate hobby wantlists. Now, there are some great defensive players who reside in that upper echelon in both baseball and basketball but, most of the time, it's because they also excel at the plate or with the ball.

For example, Michael Jordan was a very good defensive player but it was his offense and acrobatic moves that made him an icon. Johnny Bench was, perhaps, the best defensive catcher in baseball history but it wasn't his cannon-like arm or ability to block the plate that made him a star. It was his potent bat that elevated him to star status.

The reality is that young boys are, generally, not inspired by NBA players who specialize in boxing-out their opponents or catchers who excel at blocking pitches in the dirt. Both skills are crucial but it's the little things that are almost always overlooked. The ironic thing is that defensive skills are not little things at all. They are just not exciting enough to stimulate the crowd. The crowd doesn't want to watch Winky Wright block punches; they want to see Manny Pacquiao throw them. The crowd wants to see high-flying dunks, 50-yard bombs and 500-foot home runs.

You could make the argument that there are exceptions to the rule. NBA legend Bill Russell would be an example. He is a bona fide superstar whose defensive play was superior to his offense but would his defense alone be enough without all of those Boston Celtics championships? I think the answer is clear – No. You could also argue that pitchers, in baseball, are an exception to this rule but the pitcher is in a very unique position. In fact, some pitchers approach their position with an offensive mindset. Just watch Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson or Nolan Ryan on the mound – they do not look defensive to me.

While defensive specialists seem to be getting more respect with nightly features like Web Gems on ESPN's Baseball Tonight and players like Bill Mazeroski and Ozzie Smith getting the call from the Hall in recent years, there is still a huge disparity in popularity. In 2006, Derek Jeter fell to Justin Morneau in the AL MVP voting. I am in no way questioning the selection of Morneau but you wonder if the writers can appreciate the difference in playing shortstop versus first base for an entire season. Maybe the voters can't appreciate it because many of them never played the game at any competitive level but it's hard to say.

It would be nice to see defensive specialists get more recognition because of their important contribution to their team but the reality is that the hobby will always be enamored with quarterbacks, power hitters and shooters.

As Proximo (Oliver Reed) said to Maximus (Russell Crowe) in the movie Gladiator... "Listen to me. Learn from me. I wasn't the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom."

It's just hard for defenders to win the crowd.

Never get cheated,

Joe Orlando

Joe Orlando
Editor In Chief