Belanger, O's great at shortstop, dies at 54 'He was so good and made it look so easy' in infield

October 07, 1998|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

In a book selecting baseball's best 100 players several years ago, author Maury Allen wrote: "His lifetime average is .228. He has 20 home runs in his career. He has batted under .200 four separate seasons and he once batted .186 with 53 hits as the regular shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles.

"What in the world is this Punch and Judy hitter doing with the big guys?

"Did you ever see him field a ground ball? That's what Mark Belanger is doing on this list."

Perfect.

Quite simply put, Mr. Belanger was the finest fielding shortstop of his time. He died of lung cancer yesterday at 54. He was a heavy smoker for many years.

His Orioles teammates called him "Blade" because of his reed-thin, 6-foot-2 and 170-pound build. American League opponents saw it another way. As former Boston Red Sox manager Dick Williams once put it: "Blade's an apt name for that so-and-so. He's always cutting off big innings with the damnedest plays you've ever seen."

Mark Henry Belanger was a defensive mainstay on Baltimore teams that either won pennants or contended strongly for them from the late 1960s to 1980.

Dick Hall, a teammate of Mr. Belanger's on World Series teams in 1969 through 1971, came to appreciate Mr. Belanger perhaps more than others, being a pitcher. "He was so good and made it look so easy, most of the fans probably never realized how good he was," Mr. Hall said. "He was the epitome of the great defensive shortstop back when they were held in very high esteem."

A key union man

Until just recently, Mr. Belanger had worked in the offices of the Major League Baseball Players Association as an assistant to executive director Donald Fehr.

"Players who shared the field with Mark and those who have come along since owe a debt of gratitude to him," Mr. Fehr said in a statement. "He stood up for players' rights in the early days of the MLBPA, and his clearsighted, unflinching leadership was instrumental during the 16 years he served the union after his retirement as a player. I will personally miss the wisdom and insight he provided on virtually every important decision the MLBPA has made over the past three decades."

"It's in that area where Mark proved to be an unsung hero over the years," said Mr. Hall. "The players will always listen to the director, but you still have to have former players in between acting as buffers, and Mark was a very trusted man during all the years when the economics of baseball were turning around."

Mr. Belanger's contributions to the players union didn't go unnoticed by today's players.

"He had an impact not only on some of the big contracts players get today, but also on many of the rights we have," said the New York Yankees' David Cone. "He was tough, no nonsense, Probably stepped on some toes along the way, but made a lot of friends, too. He's going to be missed."

It was out at shortstop -- where No. 7 took up position to the left of Brooks Robinson to form a lightning-quick double-play combinations with Dave Johnson, Bobby Grich and Rich Dauer -- where Mr. Belanger will always be remembered.

"The Orioles were known for their great defense, and Mark Belanger was one of the mainstays," said Al Bumbry, a former Orioles outfielder. "We always had that great up-the-middle defense. I was always amazed how he positioned himself and got to everything. He was always a good player, but he was also a great human being, a guy we all loved having on our club."

'Hardly ever missed'

"The thing about Mark is, he hardly ever missed a ball," said former Orioles coach Billy Hunter. "It was the same way [36] years ago when I scouted him in his last high school game, then managed him at Bluefield in the Rookie League a month later."

Late in his first year of organized ball (1962), Mr. Belanger was called to Elmira of the Eastern League, where Earl Weaver was managing. He spent the next year in the Army, then most of the next three seasons in the minor leagues (two with Mr. Weaver) before arriving in Baltimore for good in 1967. He stayed with the Orioles until 1981, and spent a final season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1982.

In 1967, he was a late-inning defensive replacement at second base, his error leading to the winning run, the day the Orioles lost a combined no-hitter by Steve Barber and Stu Miller to the Detroit Tigers, 2-1. It was one of the last times he was placed on that side of second base.

Mr. Belanger's glove was so good, the Orioles concluded, that Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio was made expendable, and Mr. Aparicio was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Don Buford and two pitchers. The Orioles never had any second thoughts about the maneuver, and Mr. Belanger was on his way to winning eight Gold Gloves, six of them in a row between 1973 and 1978.

"He was the most sure-handed shortstop I ever saw," said Ken Singleton, who spent 10 of his 15 years in the majors with the Orioles.

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