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Mudville: May 25, 2024 8:46 am PDT

Doug DeCinces

"I used to get booed just from my name being announced.”

Replacing a legend is never easy.

For every instance of Carl Yastrzemski seamlessly replacing Ted Williams, there are dozens of times where the transition didn’t go as swimmingly.

Doug DeCinces found himself in this predicament and discusses the details in this week’s Spitballin’.

In 1973, DeCinces was a young third base prospect with nothing else to prove in the minors. The only problem was the highly successful Orioles had a fellow named Brooks Robinson manning the hot corner.

Robinson was 36 in 1973, but still was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner, as he was in 1974 when he was also 12th in the American League MVP voting. In addition, the Orioles were in a stretch where they won the American League East in five of six seasons. Upsetting the apple cart wasn’t on the minds of O’s fans.

Making things even more complicated was that DeCinces and Robinson were teammates for parts of five season before the Hall of Famer retired at the age of 40 after the 1977 season.

That makes DeCinces career in Baltimore even more impressive. He produced offensively on some very good Orioles teams and carved out his own niche defensively as one of the top fielding third basemen in the American League.

DeCinces was tops among AL third basemen in assists three times, turned the most double plays three times and still ranks 13th in Major League history in range factor per nine innings among third basemen.

DeCinces was also a dangerous bat, solid baserunner and team leader on some very good Orioles and Angels teams over a very good 15-year career. In fact, his career was so good that he landed in the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame in 2005, right alongside Brooks Robinson, the man he replaced 32 years prior.

He has the rare story of being able to successfully replace a beloved legend with a career of his own that will be lauded by fans for as long as the Orioles remain a franchise, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Doug DeCinces.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. DeCinces. We have a lot to get to, so let’s jump right in. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County. Don Drysdale was my idol, and the Dodgers were my team. Back then we used a transistor radio to get the games. I actually had Don Drysdale and Willie Mays come to my Little League to speak for Opening Day. From that point on, I knew exactly what I wanted to be.

Those are a couple of incredible speakers to have! What was it like meeting them later in life when you were a player?

I had the experience to meet Don Drysdale playing for the Orioles. I hit a home run to beat Frank Tanana and back then there weren’t many televised games. This one was played in Baltimore but happened to be on TV in Southern California. The score was 0-0 and my previous at bat I hit a foul home run and Tanana drilled me on the next pitch, which was his way of saying, “Don’t be looking for that pitch anymore.” I came up in the bottom of the ninth and I hit one out to beat him. From that point on, I knew that if you let a pitcher intimidate you in the Big Leagues, you’re not gonna have a long career.

When the game was over, they asked me to do an interview on the TV broadcast going back to LA. All of a sudden, Don Drysdale jumps over the fence, quickly puts on his headset and grabs a mic. He immediately went into the interview. I am standing there looking at him and was in awe. I just had to tell him right there and then. I said, “I’m sorry Don, but you don’t know how important this is to meet you. I idolized you as a kid.” He got all embarrassed and he was trying to get back to the game. I remember it to this day so clearly. I decided there that anyone who wanted to talk to me, I would make my time available.

“I was the 15th player in MLB history to hit a home run in my first World Series at bat. That was the single greatest moment in my baseball career. When I hit second base, I could see all my childhood friends and playing wiffle ball. I don’t remember touching third or home; I was in outer space!”

You attended Pierce College in LA. What led you to attend school there and what was your experience like at Pierce?

I didn’t get drafted out of high school and that was a shock to me. I thought I was pretty good, but apparently, I wasn’t. I’m sure there are a lot of kids who experience that. I had scholarships to go play at major schools, but my goal was to be a Major League Baseball player. Vietnam was going on at that time too. I went to Pierce College and it was the best move. I matured and got a little bit stronger. I got my first two years of college in and had offers to go to USC, UCLA, Arizona State—top baseball programs—but if you went to a four-year university, that meant you couldn’t sign a pro contract until you became 21 and my birthday was in August.

I was going to have to do four full years of college. Nobody was dropping out of school because if you did, that was a one-way ticket to Vietnam. I got drafted by the Padres, but they wouldn’t guarantee my education. I was a fifth-round pick but couldn’t sign without them taking care of my education. My parents left that decision up to me. It was my childhood dream; it was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make, but I said no. The Orioles drafted me in the third round in 1970.

Baltimore Orioles third baseman Doug DeCinces #11 prepares to field a ball against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the World Series at Memorial Stadium in October of 1979 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Focus on Sport/ Getty Images)

That’s a great point about Vietnam and the military at the time. I feel like that’s a subject that doesn’t get talked about too much. What was that experience like?

I got my two years of education done and then they had the lottery draft for Vietnam. The military said they didn’t care if you were going to school, if your birthday was on a certain day, you were getting drafted. I signed with the Orioles and in my very first year in the minors I went from Rookie Ball to AA. I finished the season in AA with Dallas/Fort Worth, which was a big jump. After the season I drove home 22 hours with a teammate, and I got to my house at about 1:30 in the afternoon. My folks were there and as soon as I unloaded all my stuff, my parents sat me down in the living room and said, “This came in the mail today.” It was draft papers for the United States Army. My parents took the liberty of calling my mom’s best friend’s husband, who was a Lieutenant Colonel at Van Nuys International Guard Base. They set up a meeting two hours later and at 4:30pm, I raised my hand and said, “I do.” At 8:30 that night, I was at LAX on a puddle-jumper that went from LA to Phoenix to El Paso to San Antonio. That all happened the same day – I drove 22 hours home. I was then in the military doing six months active duty. It was a blessing.    

That’s an incredible story and unbelievable day. Thank you for your service for sure. I wanted to ask about your first at bats in the Majors. Your first career hit came in your second at bat and it was a walk off single in extras against the Brewers. Can you take us through that?

I was the guy to replace Brooks Robinson, so a lot of things were expected of me. I had pinch ran for Brooks earlier in the game and in my first at bat, I just missed a ball to centerfield. It was the tenth inning, and I came up with the game on the line and doubled off the left field wall to knock in the winning run. I will never forget that experience. I am sitting in my office right now today and I have five photos of the team coming out to congratulate me. Earl Weaver, Tommy Davis, Brooks Robinson are in the photo. It was a big win for the team because they were in a pennant race. Those are the things you dream about as a child.

Absolutely. Millions of kids have dreams of walk offs, All-Star Games and playing in the World Series. Do you have other accomplishments that measure up that way?

The dream that everyone has whether you’re playing wiffle ball or over the line or anything is hearing, “Now batting in the World Series…” That happened to me in the 1979 World Series. The Series was rained out on the first day and then a cold front came in and we woke up to 14 inches of snow on the field in Baltimore. The game started at 8:00 PM and it was 28 degrees. They pushed all the snow off and had Brooks Robinson threw out the first pitch and I was the one to catch it. There’s a picture of us talking and both of us have frost in front of our faces.

I came up in the first inning and my body was just jumping. I was like, “Is this the cold or am I that nervous?” I had to step out twice just to gather myself. Then a dream came true. I got a 3-1 fastball and hit it about 60 feet over the left field fence. I knew it was gone when I hit it. I was the 15th player in MLB history to hit a home run in my first World Series at bat. That was the single greatest moment in my baseball career. When I hit second base, I could see all my childhood friends and playing wiffle ball. I don’t remember touching third or home; I was in outer space!

From a player perspective, what did you think of Earl Weaver’s “relationships” with the umpires?

That was a problem. The umpires just got sick and tired of him. There was a game when Ron Luciano was the home plate ump. I was up and Earl was already riding Ron. It was a very hot day and my first at bat, there was a 3-2 pitch that was in the dirt. I had already flipped my bat and moved towards first, but I heard, “Strike three!” Ron looked over at Earl, who was already jumping up to complain, and said, “And you’re out of the game!” The next time up I said, “What was that about Ron?” He said, “I owe you one Doug. Too damn hot out here and I’m not gonna sit here and listen to that little guy scream at me all game!”

Baltimore Orioles Doug DeCinces (11) in action, upending Pittsburgh Pirates Phil Garner (3). Game 4. . Pittsburgh, PA 10/13/1979 (Photo by James Drake /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)

This next question comes from my buddy Pop Roberto, who is a big Yankees fan. He told me you used to kill Ron Guidry and he wanted to know how you were able to own Guidry like that.

I hit a game-winner off Guidry in 1978 and I played the game to win, so that was an important one. When I first hit it, I put my head down and ran hard. Back then it was 430 feet at Yankees Stadium, so you really had to hit it. I came running around first base and saw the umpire put his hand up for a home run. I was like, “What?” I hit it hard, but I didn’t think it was high enough to go out at 430 feet. People always asked me how I hit Guidry so well. Here’s my secret. I always watched the third basemen to see what they were doing.

Graig Nettles was the Yankees third baseman and I noticed that Nettles would move to his right a couple steps when Guidry started his windup. Then I picked up what pitch it was. Guidry had a hard, diving slider. It looked like a fastball, but would just drop down and in to a righty. Very difficult pitch to hit. I realized when he threw the slider, Nettles moved. My next at bat, I tried to see if I could see Nettles, while still being focused on Guidry and I could. So, I knew what pitch was coming. When I hit that homer, I knew it was a fastball. When I was playing, I never told anybody that. Not even my own teammates in case they ended up playing for the Yankees. Reggie Jackson and I were teammates later in our careers with the Angels. We were facing Guidry and I smoked a double off him. Reggie goes, “How do you hit him?! Nobody hits him like you!” I said, “Reggie, I would tell you, but would have to kill you.”

That’s totally amazing. Thanks for sharing that secret! Speaking of playing for the Angels, can you talk to us about how you found out you were being traded from the Orioles to the Angels?

I had a contract with the Orioles that said if they traded me, I would make one-third more in my pay. I signed that because I wanted to stay in Baltimore. That was my team, and I had the loyalty. They didn’t have as much loyalty as me, though. I played for Earl for nine and a half years and when I got traded, we spent two hours on a phone call. There weren’t many times when I talked to him that long. He called me and told me I was traded because the owner came in and made the trade. There were people pushing for some young punk named Cal Ripken to come up and play third base. Earl said he wanted Ripken at short, me at third and Eddie Murray at first. That was his vision for a pretty good infield. He said no infield would have the power and defense that we had. He told the owner, “You’re not trading DeCinces” and left the meeting. But they traded me anyway. Earl said that was the first time he had an owner dictate who the team was going to be.

Baltimore Orioles' Doug DeCinces #11 swings and connects against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the World Series at Three Rivers Stadium in October of 1979 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

Was there an element of bittersweetness to it? Being traded away from a place you liked, but you were headed back home.

I wasn’t happy I was traded but I knew why I was traded. I was the head of the Players’ Association in 1981. I was the American League rep and Bob Boone was the National League rep. He and I both got traded and it just so happened it was to the same team and we went on to play productive baseball for the Angels for the rest of our careers.

It was like getting divorced from a family. When I would come back to Baltimore, I felt like the artist who became famous after he died. Everyone was saying, “We shouldn’t have traded you!” I remember hitting my second home run in a game against Scott McGregor when we came back and he was yelling, “Not fair! You know every pitch! You don’t swing at my other stuff. That’s not fair!” Same thing with Mike Flannigan. He would yell at me too. But we were that close. I had great teammates. In fact, I just got back from Baltimore from a fundraiser for kids run by my old teammate Ken Singleton. I made a commitment to come back as many times as I could. We were teammates who cared about each other and were really close.

Could you talk about being one of the free agents who was colluded against by owners in the 1980s?

I went to Japan my last year because collusion was in full swing. In 1986 after I hit 26 home runs and 96 RBIs while playing good defense and finishing 11th in the MVP voting, I called up Hank Peters with the Orioles and said I would love to come back to play for Baltimore. Hank Peters said, “I would love for you to come back, but I can’t afford what the Angels are offering you.” I said, “Wait a minute. Hank, how do you know what they’re offering me?” After coming in 11th in the MVP and helping us win the pennant, I couldn’t get a job. I had to sign back with the Angels on a pay cut because that was the only offer out there. My case ended up being one of the ones that helped the players win the collusion lawsuit.

Doug DeCinces #11 of the California Angeles looks to make a throw to first base during an Major League Baseball game circa 1986 at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. DeCinces played for the Angeles from 1982-87. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

This has been such a great conversation. I always enjoy interviewing the stars of the game from when I was a kid in the 1980s. One last question. You started as someone who was booed by fans because you were replacing Brooks Robinson. But you had your own great career in Baltimore and ended up in the Orioles Hall of Fame. How satisfying was that for you?

I was so honored to have been selected for the Orioles Hall of Fame. So honored. That was the culmination for me replacing Brooks Robinson. Being perfectly honest, it wasn’t the easiest task in the world. I would go into all these cities and columnists would always write about this “young kid who thinks he’s taking over for Brooks Robinson.” It was always a constant comparison. I used to get booed just from my name being announced. When Brooks was still in uniform, fans didn’t want to see me, they wanted to see Brooks. If I made an error, I would hear, “Brooks never would have done that.” There were times when doubt would come in because of the outside pressures. I saw a sports psychologist when that wasn’t a popular thing to do.

When I got traded, I felt like some of that pressure was removed from me and I feel like I became a better player. The positive side of all of that was overcoming all the outside pressure and negativity. To join those players in the Orioles Hall of Fame was very moving and meaningful because I felt like more than any home run or any accomplishment, being able to replace one of the greatest players in baseball history and go in and create my own success for that organization was proof to me that you could overcome anything.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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