“I’m beginning to see [him] in my sleep,” lamented Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson during the 1970 World Series, as Brooks Robinson got into the thick of the acrobatic thievery he committed against the Reds. “I’m afraid that if I drop this paper plate he’ll pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”
“If he wanted the car that badly,” said Robinson’s fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, himself robbed of three hits in broad daylight, of what Sport magazine handed Robinson as the Series’ most valuable player, “we’d have given it to him.”
Robinson’s career-long acrobatics got him nicknamed The Hoover. He’d have gone down as the greatest ever to play the position if fellow Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hadn’t come along to combine breathtaking power, equally breathtaking plate patience (though Phillies fans roasted him for years over how many walks he’d take if need be), and elegant third base sweeping and cleaning.
The only nickname ever applied to Schmidt, alas, was “Schmitty,” about as pedestrian a nickname as you could bestow upon a man whose home runs have been described as conversation pieces and whose defense was a murderous balance between elegance and Robinson-like grand theft.
“Schmidt . . . was not meant to comb gray hairs,” wrote Thomas Boswell when Schmidt retired on Memorial Day 1989, tearfully admitting he couldn’t play the game like Mike Schmidt any longer, despite being the National League’s RBI leader in the moment. “From him, we only expected the sublime. He looked like some huge, graceful shortstop misplaced at third base. When he came to bat, the huge number 20 on his back might have stood for the number of rows he intended to hit the ball into the bleachers.”
If we’re looking to apply vacuum cleaner names to great defenders, maybe Schmidt should have been called the Electrolux, fabled at once for its rather elegant look, quiet power, and all-in-one attachments. And maybe the following should have been handed to these gentlemen who were case studies at their positions:
The Swivel-Top. (General Electric’s canister of the early 1950s that the company said gave you “reach easy” cleaning: who else but Willie Mays?)
The Electrikbroom. (Keith Hernandez.)
The Convertible. (Bill Mazeroski.)
The Hoover Junior. (Mark Belanger, who played shortstop next to Robinson at third for almost two decades.)
The Aero-Dyne. (A sleek Hoover tank model of the late 1940s-early 1950s. Ozzie Smith.)
The Roto-Matic. (Clete Boyer, who was an acrobat at third base but couldn’t hit with a hangar door.)
The Premier. (Johnny Bench.)
The Celebrity. (Derek Jeter, who’s actually somewhat overrated as a defensive shortstop even with his collection of highlight-reel plays.)
The Air-Way. (Nomar Garciaparra, before the injury bug stung repeatedly.)
The Compact. (Roberto Alomar.)
The Kirby. (What else, for who else? Kirby Puckett.)
Eureka! (Ken Griffey, Jr.)
The Courier. (A short-lived 1960s machine by Sunbeam that looked as though someone had the clever idea of sticking vacuum cleaner works into a Samsonite hard-shell suitcase. So who should get it? Andruw Jones, who traveled and delivered incomparably in center field for years before his staggering decline phase.)
The Roomba. (Matt Chapman.)
The Wind Tunnel. (Lorenzo Cain.)
The Shark. (Nolan Arenado.)
Don’t be too quick to lament the absence of Graig Nettles on the foregoing list. (If you don’t think he should have been considered in the first place, you were probably under sedation through a few World Series.) There isn’t a vacuum cleaner on the planet with a name that could possibly replace Puff the Magic Dragon.
Except that Nettles acquired the nickname not because of his way with making baseballs disappear into outs from third base but because of the way he made himself disappear after launching practical jokes. If only he could have made himself invisible just before reaching, diving, ranging, or angling for a batted ball and then re-appear just after throwing on to first. The Hoover beating, sweeping, and cleaning couldn’t compete with that if he tried.
On the other hand, there were Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart and Marvelous Marv Throneberry. First basemen both. The type who caused their own teams to keep the crash carts on red alert. Stuart once got a standing ovation for catching a hot dog wrapper floating down from the stands and not dropping it. Throneberry inspired Jimmy Breslin himself to write that having him at first base for your team was like having Willie Sutton working at your bank.
Bless them both, but Stuart and Throneberry married to vacuum cleaners would probably be the blower ports.