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A poor man's Brooks Robinson

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 5, 2008 11:11 AM

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I realize this is two ridiculously irrelevant posts in a row - some might say more - but I just noticed this while poking around the so-addictive-it's-life-altering SI Vault, and as someone who got his Red Sox baptism during the doomed '78 season, I just had to share.

The article, titled "These Are The Boston Manglers," appeared in the May 1, 1978, issue of Sports Illustrated. The author? Some cat named Gammons. (Don't know what became of him. Probably a blogger now. Shhh, don't tell Bissinger. He'll freak.) The theme of the article, as you may or may not have gathered from the clunky headline, told the story of the relentless Boston offense, with Gammons emphasizing the contributions of Jim Rice, who'd go on to earn the AL MVP that season, and No. 9-hitter Butch Hobson, who, well, would not, despite these early-season words of praise in SI:

Though he is only 26, because of his determination and attitude Hobson is the most respected member of the Red Sox. When he first came to Boston, there were doubts about his fielding. In one season he made himself into a third baseman of a rank just below the Yankees' Gold Glover, Graig Nettles. "He wears out us coaches," says Johnny Pesky, one of the men Hobson calls on to hit practice grounders by the gross. In a stretch of four games this season, Hobson made half a dozen brilliant plays. And though he strikes out a lot—162 times in '77—only Rice and Fisk can equal his clutch-hitting performances on the Sox. Last season 14 of Hobson's homers came after the seventh inning. With 16 RBIs in the first 13 games this year, Hobson appears to be headed for another 100-RBI season—if he can avoid having to undergo elbow surgery.

Now, I doubt anyone remembers Hobson with more distorted, misty-watercolor fondness than I do. He was my favorite player as a kid, and your favorite player as a kid ought to be your favorite player for life. The number "4" in my email address? Hobson's number with the Sox. Not a coincidence. And don't call me a dork.

I can say without a moment's hesitation that there has never been a Sox player in my lifetime who played harder (or more recklessly) than Hobson, and his hustle often led to spectacular plays; he was a recurring character in the "This Week In Baseball" highlights. Ol' Butchie never saw a dugout he couldn't dive into in pursuit of a popup. Bat racks feared him.

But the most ardent Hobson admirer has to chuckle at even an understated comparison to Nettles as a defender, especially considering what happened later that season. Hobson, plagued by bone chips in his throwing elbow, made 44 errors that season, becoming the first everyday player since 1916 to have a fielding percentage below .900. Any patron who dared to sit in the boxes behind first base was in the line of fire. It was only after Hobson went to his iron-skulled twit of a manager in tears and said, "I'm killing the team" that he was mercifully shifted to a DH role. Of course, it was actually The Gerbil who was killing the team, but we'll leave that story in the archives for today.

As for Nettles . . . he won his second straight Gold Glove that season, and his legendary and spectacular defensive performance in Game 3 of the '78 World Series lives on as a clinic on how to play the position. He might have been a colossal jerk, but he was a colossal jerk who could throw around the leather.

All these years later, I'd like to think Hobson could have stolen the same October moment, had fate been kinder to him and the ballclub that season, had his body not betrayed him, had his arm not gone on the fritz.

And you know what? I imagine Gammons does, too.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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