Smart baseball endears Stennett to Giants
Los Angeles — One does not have to be exceptionally tall, carved in stone, or carry with him a master's degree to play major league baseball. Plenty of athletes who don't have to duck their heads going through doorways and would buy a gold watch from a guy in an alley have made it to the World Series.
The point is: if a player can hit, run, field and throw consistently well, some individual or giant corporation that owns a National or American League franchise will want him. And the pay is unbelievable, since even utility infielders are shopping at Tiffany's these days.
Second baseman Rennie Stennett, currently of the San Francisco Giants and of average height and weight, had seven fine years with the Pittsburgh Pirates between 1971 and 1977. But two mediocre seasons after that, due mostly to an injury, made him expendable.
In fact, Stennett once handled 410 consecutive chances in the field without an error, only eight shy of the major league record. Then there was the time in September 1975, when -- in the space of 48 hours -- Rennie lashed out nine consecutive base hits. If that didn't make him an untouchable with the Pirates, it at least meant he could buy a home in the Pittsburgh area without worrying too much about being traded.
We pause now on Aug. 21, 1977, while the baseball world comes crashing down around Stennett, who breaks his leg sliding into second base, putting his career and a .336 batting average at the time into limbo.
The following year Stennett is back, but his batting average skids to .243 and then, last year, to .238. During Pittsburgh's 1979 September drive, when the Pirates were winning the National League East en route to the World Series, they called on Rennie to hit just three times. It takes the confidence of a marine from Texas to handle that kind of rebuff.
When Stennett, who was playing out the option year of his contract, had himself placed in baseball's re-entry draft last winter, nobody in Pittsburgh was surprised.
It proved to be a spectacular move for Rennie, since no fewer than 14 major league teams made generous offers for his services.
"I signed with the Giants because I knew they were looking for help at second base and because the opportunity to play every day was there," Stennett told me. "That was the key for me -- the chance to be a starter."
"When I play, I hit," he continued. "I think I've proved that in the past, and I don't expect that situation to change. Since I stayed in the same league, it's not like I have to learn the pitchers or what they throw. I already know that."
Although Stennett often hit high (first or second in Pittsburgh's lineup), Giants' batting coach Jim Lefebvre thinks that Rennie's style actually is more suited for sixth or seventh in the order.
"You don't necessarily have to be a power hitter to drive in runs," Lefebvre explained. "Opportunity and the ability to make good contact often is just as important, and Rennie is the kind of hitter who usually gets a piece of the ball.
"To me Stennett has always been the kind of batter who has jumped at the first good pitch he's seen and that's not always desirable in a leadoff hitter, who should have patience," Jim continued. "Anyway, we've got good speed up front in Bill North, so at least for now we're going to leave Rennie low in the order."
The Giants are also looking for Stennett and shortstop Johnny LeMaster to give them the best double-play combination they have had in several years. While LeMaster has always been good in the field, his second base partners have often been converted third basemen or people who had trouble making the pivot on the double play.
"When I had good years in Pittsburgh and the club was winning, naturally I was happy to be a part of the Pirates," Stennett said. "But when you've always been a regular and suddenly you don't play, sitting around gets to be a bore. But I know the Giants wanted me or they wouldn't have tried so hard to get me. Incidentally, I like hitting sixth."