Graig Nettles is swinging a hot bat

For all his contributions to the New York Yankees, Graig Nettles has never really received his fair share of recognition -- especially in postseason action. He had that one shining moment in 1978, of course, when he almost singlehandedly turned the World Series around with a succession of spectacular defensive plays. But the rest of the time his name has usually been pretty far down the list while Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, the late Thurman Munson, owner George Steinbrenner, various managers, and even Bucky Dent grabbed the headlines.

The reason for this state of affairs isn't difficult to discover. Nettles isn't the type to stir up off-the-field controversy in the manner of Jackson, Steinbrenner, and ex-manager Billy Martin. Meanwhile, on the field, except for the occasional great pitching performance, it's offensive heroics that get the attention -- and until this year Graig's bat was seldom a factor in the playoffs or World Series. He'd hit a home run now and then, but the overall statistics prior to 1981 show a .237 batting average for his five previous playoff appearances and a .190 mark in his three World Series.

Nettles maintained his anonymity throughout this year's intradivisional playoffs, too, going 1-for-17 in New York's five-game victory over Milwaukee. And even when his bases-loaded double won the opener of the championship series against Oakland 3-1, he got somewhat lost in all the postgame controversies about the rowdy New York fans, the umpiring, the alleged stalling tactics of the A's, and of course the inevitable Steinbrenner-Martin soap opera.

They couldn't very well keep the spotlight off him, though, when he followed up that performance by going 4-for-4 including a tremendous three-run homer to lead the Yankees to a 13-3 second game victory. And the veteran third baseman, obviously savoring the unaccustomed attention, had a few things to say about his hitting, his fielding, his age (37), the owner, and assorted other topics.

"I was hitting the ball well against Milwaukee even though I just got the one hit," he said. "And I know by now that you can't try to analyze things too much or you can really put yourself in a slump. It's just a matter of staying in there and figuring your day will come."

Meanwhile, Nettles knows he can always help the club in the field even when he isn't contributing offensively -- as 56,477 fans at Yankee Stadium and a nationwide TV audience saw on Oct. 13, 1978. Facing a must-win situation after losing the first two games at Los Angeles, the Yankees were on the ropes time and again only to have Nettles bail them out with one acrobatic play after another en route to a 5-1 victory.

"It's hard to single out any one biggest thrill," he said recalling the moment, but that was certainly the most recognition I ever got. I'm proud of it too. I'm proud of my defense."

As for his offense, Nettles admits he sometimes wonders what he has to do to get credit -- and indeed he has the credentials. He has hit 20 or more homers nine times, and last year passed Brooks Robinson as the AL's alltime homer-hitting third baseman. During the '70s, he had more RBIs than any other American Leaguer except Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski. And after passing Roger Maris and Bill Dickey this year, he is now sixth on the all-time Yankee home run list -- trailing only Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra.

"I was known as a hitter," he said when reporters kept raising the issue. "Maybe people forgot I won a home-run title once [in 1976 with 32], but I didn't forget."

Part of the recognition problem, of course, was due to Graig's tendency to cool off at the plate in these postseason events, but he thinks things may be different this time.

"When I get hot, I usually get hot for a while," he said. "I've always been a streaky hitter. I hope it continues for 10 days or so."

Nettles also hopes that his 1981 performance convinces those who doubted that he could be a full-time player again considering his age and the fact that he had missed nearly half the 1980 season due to illness.

"I'm just happy after the year I went through last year and all the talk about my age," he said. "This spring it seemed like half the organization was out there at third base taking ground balls. So it was very satisfying.

"I can't understand why people keep talking about age, and why they think somebody in his 30s is old. This is a myth that people have to get out of their minds. People are better athletes than they used to be. Many players today play into their late 30s and early 40s.

Although he usually stays out of clubhouse controversies, Nettles isn't averse to getting in an occasional dig at Steinbrenner for the latter's frequent criticisms of the team.

Asked why he stopped at first on one of his hits against Oakland that looked like a sure double, Graig replied: "The expert upstairs told us not to run into any outs, so the last thing I wanted to do was make a 'mental mistake.' I didn't want to hear another speech."

And on his lack of recognition he said: "We have a lot of guys who get headlines. I just keep going out there and doing my job. I know my teammates appreciate me, the manager appreciates me, and the fans appreciate me. One of these days maybe I'll get the owner to appreciate me too."

The way he's hitting right now, that day could come very soon.

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