When Hunter saw the young Yount, he also saw the mature Kaline

BASEBALL

September 13, 1992|By JIM HENNEMAN

It's easy now, 3,000 hits and one position later, to recogniz the greatness of Robin Yount.

But first impressions really are the most lasting, and in this case they are vivid. So, too, is the recollection of an absolutely brilliant comparison made by ex-Orioles third-base coach Bill Hunter 18 years ago.

It is difficult to make a rash judgment on an 18-year-old playing in the major leagues after only three months in the minors. The fact that the Milwaukee Brewers were an expansion team in the sixth year of their existence undoubtedly hastened what many considered Yount's premature arrival to the big leagues.

But there he was, playing shortstop, five months before his 19th birthday. Obviously, this was a unique talent. From the first day he stepped into the big-league spotlight, there was something special about Yount.

Eddie Murray evoked a similar feeling four years later -- and Alan Trammell a year after that. There was something about their presence on the field that demanded attention, a sense that, at any time, you would see something spectacular.

Early in Yount's career, that could be anything from a line drive into an outfield gap to a miraculous catch and a blatantly wild throw from deep in the hole at shortstop. Even his errors were exciting -- and he made an astounding 44 in his second season (1975), many of them the result of a 19-year-old's youthful exuberance.

But there was never any doubt about the ability stored inside the kid's skinny body. Even then he had the loping strides and graceful style that said something special was in the making.

Having witnessed Yount's first big-league hit (a single to center field off Dave McNally in the Brewers' fifth game of the season, April 12, 1974), it was a special treat to watch on television Wednesday night as No. 3,000 landed about 50 feet from the spot where No. 1 came to rest.

It's impossible to anticipate or predict Hall of Fame greatness, but watching Yount reach his milestone, it was impossible not to recall the conversation with Hunter 18 years ago. A former shortstop who had been around the game for a quarter of a century, Hunter was asked for his opinion of the Milwaukee wunderkind, who would finish that first year batting a respectable .250.

It was midseason, after the Orioles had seen the Brewers a second time, and Hunter did not hesitate to make a bold comparison. "He reminds me of Al Kaline as a kid," Hunter said.

Later that year, Kaline got his 3,000th hit (also off McNally) and retired at the end of the season with 3,007. In 1955, the year Yount was born, Kaline had his signature year, batting .340 with 27 home runs and 102 RBI to become the youngest player to lead the American League in hitting.

Kaline, who never played in the minor leagues and almost was converted to an infielder by the Tigers, is in the Hall of Fame. Yount is destined to join him. And don't be misled into thinking that he'll make it only because he reached one of baseball's cherished milestones.

The man was a gifted shortstop until his shoulder blew out. But when it came time for a position change, he moved to the third-most demanding position, center field, without missing a beat. He has been an MVP at both positions while continuing to be one of baseball's most durable players.

So, here's a salute to Robin Yount for all of his remarkable accomplishments -- and to Bill Hunter, for his amazing clairvoyance.

One of the best things about Yount's entrance into the 3,000-hit club, and George Brett's steady march toward the same milestone, is that it deflects some of the attention away from the general mess baseball is in today.

Milwaukee owner Bud Selig is a genuinely good man, but he doesn't belong in the commissioner's chair, no matter how temporarily. Selig, it should be noted, played a prominent role in the hiring of the last three commissioners and, no doubt, in the ouster of Bowie Kuhn before that.

It was only three years ago that Fay Vincent had almost unprecedented support of the owners. That, of course, was before he showed he wasn't afraid, right or wrong, to make tough decisions without first soliciting consent.

Vincent's biggest strength as commissioner was the fact that he wanted the job a lot more than he needed it. His biggest problem might have been that he felt he could make an impact, and resolve the ongoing and ugly labor disputes that are rapidly sickening the general public.

In the past, one commissioner (Kuhn) has been blamed by the owners for not effecting a workable agreement with the players and umpires and two others (Peter Ueberroth and Vincent) for meddling in those same affairs. The opinion here is that the most unjust decision handed down by Vincent was the disbursement of expansion money and the formula to stock the new teams.

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