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8 Upper

Fools' Gold

By Tom Scocca | Posted 11/17/1999

American meritocracy, like medieval Christian chivalry, is more valuable as a myth than as a description of actual values or human behavior. We speak fondly of the rewards that come from the convergence of hard work and talent, but we rarely insist on either. Many of this nation's most prized distinctions are won, in fact, without any demonstration of merit, or even effort. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who writes the same lame column over and over, wins the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. George W. Bush, whose adult résumé is one line long, essentially secures the Republican presidential nomination without a single ballot being cast. Gwyneth Paltrow gets the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in a comedy in which she was not, strictly speaking, the least bit funny. And on Nov. 9, Rafael Palmeiro collected an American League Gold Glove award for defensive excellence at first base in the 1999 season.

Orioles fans might recall Palmeiro as a sound glove man—nothing special when stretching for throws, maybe, but otherwise sharp and alert all around. Given that first base is generally a hiding place for clumsy fielders, he has been a perennially deserving candidate for a Gold Glove, and has won twice before. But in 1999, he didn't play first base. After having knee surgery in the spring, he spent almost all of the season as designated hitter, staying out of the field to nurse the injury. He played a total of 28 games at first base. Jeff Conine, an Orioles utility man, played 99.

The best part of the whole thing is that the Gold Glove winners are chosen by baseball personnel. Every June, as the balloting for the All-Star teams heads down the stretch, there is a gnashing of teeth in the press over the idiocy and ignorance of the fans, who have a distressing tendency to vote for players they've heard of, even if those players are batting .200 or stuck on the disabled list. But the Gold Gloves are voted on by major-league coaches and managers, people who are expected to know who's actually playing, and at what position. That most of these people failed to notice Palmeiro's absence from the field is sort of alarming.

Still, it's no great surprise that the Gold Gloves got screwed up. Palmeiro's victory is unusually insane, but the award has a history of being given out irrationally. It's inherently irrational. Rafael Palmeiro was clearly not the best defensive player at first base this year, but I have no idea who was. Nor, I would bet, does anyone else. Nor does anyone care—it's first base! They stand there and people throw them the ball. What does defensive excellence at first base look like?

This is what's wrong with the Gold Glove. The award is identified, historically, with the likes of Brooks Robinson. Brooks won 16 Gold Gloves for playing defense at an absolutely superhuman level. Everyone knew he was the best defensive third baseman in the league. But there's no reason, in any given year, to expect that there's another Brooks Robinson out there. The Gold Glove is based on the theory that there are plenty of people like Brooks, every year, in both leagues, at all nine positions.

The result of this absurdity is that the Gold Glove has evolved into a sort of position-by-position MVP award, usually won by the best hitter at each spot who doesn't disgrace himself with his glove. Palmeiro won the Gold Glove because he hit .324 with 47 home runs and 148 RBI. The Orioles' Charles Johnson might be a gifted defender, but as long as he's a .251 hitter, he'll never beat out the Rangers' Ivan Rodriguez (.332, 35 homers, 113 RBI).

There are a few exceptions to the rule, but as often as not they're inane in their own way. My favorite is Rey Ordonez, the now-perennial Gold Glove shortstop for the Mets. Ordonez is a Cuban defector and a flashy glove man; thanks to his defensive reputation, he's survived in the majors despite grotesque incompetence at the plate. This year he scratched out a career-high .258 average, with no power and hardly any walks. But he committed only four errors all season, a performance that led someone or other to rhapsodize that he had put in maybe the best defensive season ever by a shortstop.

Since the cognoscenti say the gold standard for shortstop defense is Cal Ripken Jr.'s 1984 campaign, the claim for Ordonez sent me digging through the records. Ripken's '84 season, as reputed, blew Ordonez's '99 performance away: 297 put-outs to 220, 534 assists to 415, 113 double plays to 91. Ripken did make 25 errors, but he got some 200 more outs than Ordonez did.

That was the least of it. Ripken had 229 put-outs, 466 assists, and 109 double plays in 1996—the year he was forced out of shortstop because he was too old. Except for a terrible 1990, every year he played shortstop was as good as, or better than, Ordonez's 1999 season.

Ordonez might have been the best defensive shortstop in this year's National League. But he won the Gold Glove the same way Palmeiro did—on reputation, guesswork, and a few highlight clips. Unless it's Brooks stealing the 1970 World Series with his glove, even a great defensive player has to make his mark over the long run. If this year's proceedings are too embarrassing, the sensible thing to do is to stop tossing so many Gold Gloves around. Make it a lifetime-achievement award, for players who've proved their worth. Oddly enough, if they did it that way, Palmeiro might even deserve one.

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