On November 27, 1972, the New York Yankees traded young outfield prospects Charlie Spikes and Rusty Torres, back-up infielder Jerry Kenney, and reserve catcher John Ellis to the Cleveland Indians for third baseman Graig Nettles and back-up catcher Gerry Moses. Upon making the deal, Yankee General Manager Lee McPhail stated, "We traded our tomorrow for today. Our fans have waited long enough." As it turned out, the acquisition of Nettles not only improved the Yankees in 1973, but served as one of the building blocks for the team that won four pennants and two world championships from 1976 to 1981. Nettles evolved into one of the greatest defensive third basemen in baseball history, while also providing New York with a potent lefthanded bat in the middle of its batting order. In fact, Nettles hit more home runs than any other third baseman in American League history.
Born in San Diego, California on August 20, 1944, Graig Nettles starred at San Diego State University, where he also was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Selected by the Minnesota Twins in the fourth round of the 1965 amateur draft, Nettles saw his first major league action when the Twins called him up briefly at the end of the 1967 campaign. He appeared in 22 games for the team the following season, mostly as an outfielder, before being called up for good in 1969. In Minnesota, Nettles joined new Twins' manager Billy Martin, who he had played for earlier while at Denver in the minor leagues. Nettles didn't care much for Martin's abrasive managerial style when he first began playing under him at Denver, but he learned to appreciate him much more after he began to understand the manager's psyche. In the end, Martin helped Nettles develop the mental and physical toughness that enabled him to eventually become one of his favorite players. Playing under Martin again in 1969, Nettles appeared in 96 games, mostly in the outfield and as a pinch-hitter.
Time in Cleveland:
Prior to the start of the 1970 season, Minnesota and Cleveland collaborated on a six-player deal that sent, among others, Nettles and former Cy Young Award winner Dean Chance to the Indians for pitcher Luis Tiant. Nettles had three productive years in Cleveland, with the best of those coming in 1971 when he hit 28 homers, knocked in 86 runs, and batted .261. The Yankees, though, had been eyeing Nettles for quite some time, thinking that his lefthanded power bat would be a welcome addition to their lineup. They felt he had a perfect Yankee Stadium stroke.
When the Yankees finally acquired Nettles at the end of the 1972 campaign, they believed they had found another lefthanded power hitter to take some of the pressure off of Bobby Murcer from that side of the plate. But, while Nettles put up decent power numbers his first two seasons in New York, his overall performance was somewhat lacking. In 1973, he hit 22 home runs and knocked in 81 runs, but batted only .234 and committed 26 errors in the field. When the team moved to Shea Stadium the following year to accommodate the renovation of Yankee Stadium, Nettles got off to a fast start, hitting 11 home runs in the month of April. However, he hit only 11 more the rest of the year, finishing the season with just 22 round-trippers. He also drove in only 75 runs, batted just .246, and committed 21 errors at third base.
In 1975, though, Nettles started to develop into the sort of player the Yankees hoped they had acquired three years earlier. He hit 21 home runs, drove in 91 runs, batted .267, made the All-Star Team for the first time in his career, and was selected to his first Sporting News All-Star Team. Nettles had an even better year in 1976 when he helped the Yankees win the pennant by leading the league with 32 homers, driving in 93 runs, and scoring another 88. He also showed marked improvement in his defensive play at third.
Still, the best had yet to come. Nettles had the two greatest seasons of his career in 1977 and 1978, when he established himself as one of the American League's premier players. Nettles finished the first of those years with career highs in home runs (37), runs batted in (107), and runs scored (99), while also reducing his error total at third base to just 12. He ended up earning selections to both the A.L. and The Sporting News All-Star Teams, winning the first Gold Glove of his career, and finishing fifth in the league MVP voting. Nettles followed that up in 1978 by hitting 27 homers, driving in 93 runs, batting a career-high .276, committing only 11 errors at third, earning selections again to both the A.L. and The Sporting News All-Star Teams, winning his second consecutive Gold Glove, and placing sixth in the league MVP balloting. Yet, it was his performance in the World Series that year that he is probably best remembered for.
1978 World Series:
With the Yankees trailing the Dodgers two games to none, the Series shifted back to New York for the next three games. In Game Three, the Yankees sent 25-game winner Ron Guidry to the mound in the hope that he might change the momentum of the Series. However, the Yankee lefthander didn't have his best stuff that day, and, while he pitched well, it was Nettles' defensive heroics that turned the tide. Guidry pitched much of the game with Dodger runners on base, and Los Angeles had men in scoring position on at least three separate occasions when Nettles snuffed out potential rallies with his fabulous glove work. Whether lunging to his glove side or diving to his backhand, Nettles put on a clinic at third, spearing several hot smashes by Dodger batters and turning them into outs. His performance preserved the Yankees' 5-1 victory, completely changing the momentum of the Series and giving New York the impetus to go on and win the next three games as well to capture their second consecutive world championship.
Guidry later recalled his teammate's performance that day: "Even though I didn't have the greatest stuff, I knew that, if I'm gonna' have them hit a ball somewhere, let them hit it to Graig. He'll make the play."
Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda later said of Nettles' performance, "That was one of the greatest exhibitions of playing third base I've seen in all my career."
Dusty Baker, a Dodger outfielder and one of Nettles' victims, was even more effusive in his praise: "If it wasn't for him, there's a good chance we would have won that World Series. That was the best fielding performance I've ever seen."
Nettles' tremendous defensive work in the World Series may have amazed baseball fans around the country, but it really came as no surprise to Yankee fans and Nettles' teammates, who had grown accustomed to seeing him make incredible plays at third on a fairly regular basis.
Former Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent said, "He made some plays that were just breathtaking. He was such a quick third baseman on his feet. When he dived, he never missed a ball."
Ron Guidry described what it felt like having Nettles behind him defensively: "Having him back there, you take third base away from the opposing hitters."
Meanwhile, Fred Lynn discussed how he felt as an opposing hitter: "You couldn't get a ball by him. Just couldn't. If there was a runner on, in scoring position, he's knocking it down."
Yet, Nettles' offensive contributions must not be overlooked. He wielded a potent bat that provided the Yankees with a major lefthanded power threat for more than a decade.
In discussing Nettles, former Baltimore Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey said, "He would sit back, he'd work the count, get the pitch he wanted, and hit it in the rightfield seats." Neil Allen, who pitched against Nettles in the National League, said, "If you made a mistake, he was going to make you pay." And Gene Michael, who played with, and later managed Nettles said, "He could just kill the high fastball."
Another thing that made Nettles so valuable to the Yankees was the fact that he was so durable throughout most of his career. From 1973 to 1978, he never appeared in fewer than 155 games or amassed fewer than 552 at-bats. In fact, including his time in Cleveland, in the 10 seasons between 1970 and 1979, he appeared in at least 155 games eight times, missing a total of only 63 contests during that period. He was a true iron-man and one of the primary reasons why New York was able to win three straight pennants and two consecutive world championships.
After another solid season in 1979 in which he was selected to the A.L. All-Star Team for the fourth time, Nettles was diagnosed with hepatitis in July of 1980. The illness forced him to sit out 67 games, and he wasn't quite himself when he returned to the team just prior to New York's three-game playoff loss to the Royals. He returned to full-time duty in 1981 and was voted ALCS MVP for going 6-for-12, with one home run and nine RBIs in the Yankees' three-game sweep of Oakland. But an injury to his thumb in Game Two of the World Series forced him to sit out the next three contests after the Yankees had taken a 2-0 Series lead. By the time he returned for Game Six, the momentum had already shifted the Dodgers' way, and Los Angeles ended up winning the Series in six.
Departure from New York:
Nettles was named Captain of the Yankees prior to the start of the 1982 season, and he remained a productive hitter over the next two years, in spite of the fact that his playing time gradually began to diminish. After hitting 20 home runs, driving in 75 runs, and batting .266 in 462 at-bats in 1983, Nettles became upset when he discovered that the team intended to platoon him at third base the following year with the newly-acquired Toby Harrah. Nettles subsequently asked to be traded, and the front office became eager to grant his request after Nettles' book Balls was released. The book, a collaboration with writer Peter Golenbock, often criticized Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Nettles' trade request was granted on March 30, 1984 when he was dealt to the San Diego Padres for young lefthanded pitcher Dennis Rasmussen.
In San Diego, Nettles proved that he still had a lot to offer, hitting 20 home runs, driving in 65 runs, and providing leadership to the Padres' 1984 National League pennant-winning team. He spent two more years in San Diego, before moving on to Atlanta for one year, and then on to Montreal, where he played his final season in 1988. Nettles ended his career with 390 home runs (the fifth highest total by any third baseman in history) and 1,314 runs batted in. He was selected to six All-Star teams, and he was named to three Sporting News All-Star teams. More importantly, Nettles played on seven division champions, five pennant winners, and two world champions during his career.
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