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Giving baseball 'table setters' their due; top relievers nothing new

Now that another baseball season is under way, it's time to debunk some common myths and misconceptions about the national pastime. I'll start with one of my own pet peeves: the idea that the only people who count offensively are the ones with big RBI statistics.

According to this theory any ponderous slugger who drives in 100 or so runs - even if he hits .240, strikes out 150 times, kills off dozens of rallies by grounding into double plays, and can't get out of his own way on the basepaths - is more valuable than the slashing type hitter who bats well over .300, seems to be on base all the time, scores 100 runs or so a year, but doesn't have the big power statistics.

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This has become such a popular belief, in fact, that I daresay most fans and far too many so-called experts subscribe to it. Especially when all it takes is a little common sense to realize that it just isn't true.

The main argument of the power fanatics is that runs are what win ball games, not hits - therefore RBIs are what count, not batting averages. It's pretty hard to argue with the first half of this statement, so let's accept it for a moment and then take it to its logical conclusion - which is that the most important players of all must be the ones who score the most runs. I won't go quite that far, but I do think the guys who cross the plate regularly are at least equal in importance to the ones who drive them in.

Take a player like Richie Ashburn, for instance. The speedy centerfielder of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s was a lifetime .308 hitter who also knew how to draw walks (he led the National League in that category four times). Richie was one of those players who seemed to be on base every time you looked around, and as might be expected he scored a lot of runs, averaging 97 per season in one 10-year period from 1951 to 1960. That makes him a pretty formidable offensive player in my book - but because he had minimal power and produced few homers and RBIs, he has never received the recognition his accomplishments deserve.

Nowadays Rod Carew seems to be the ''whipping boy'' for the power freaks - especially in recent years as his RBI totals have declined. But again it is obvious that a hitter like this who gets on base a lot, moves runners along, and scores a lot of runs himself is just as valuable to his team as one who drives in a goodly number but doesn't help the offense in all those other ways.

Of course the player who does both is the most valuable of all. No one is going to try to compare the typical year of an Ashburn or a present-day Carew to the sort of statistics hung up there last year by Dale Murphy (.302 average, 131 runs scored, and 121 RBIs), Eddie Murray (.306-115-111), Cal Ripken (.318-121- 102), or Jim Rice (.305-90-126). There aren't too many all-purpose hitters like that around, though, and after that we're basically comparing players who stand out in one area or the other - either ''setting the table'' or clearing it off. Every team needs some of each, and the time is long past due when people woke up to the fact that the table setters are just as important as those one-dimensional slugger types.

Another thing that makes me laugh is the popular misconception that relief specialists are a relatively new breed - that until just a few years ago teams put all their best pitchers in the starting rotation and tossed what was left in the bullpen. A companion theory, equally mistaken, is that it's only in the last decade or so that the importance of these ''firemen'' has been duly recognized by press and public.

It's true that back in the days of Walter Johnson and Cristy Mathewson there weren't many bullpen aces around. It's also true that relief pitching has become a much more exact science in the last few years, with every team now employing a bevy of specialists including left- and right-handers, middle-, and late-inning men, etc. But don't let anyone tell you that the basic idea hasn't been around for quite a while - or that the star relievers of yore didn't get their share of glory.

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Rollie Fingers in 1981, after all, wasn't the first relief ace to win a league MVP award; that honor went to Jim Konstanty, who appeared in 74 games (all in relief), posting 16 victories and 22 saves for the Phillies back in 1950 . He beat out some formidable opposition that year, too, including Stan Musial (.346, 28 homers, 109 RBIs) and Ralph Kiner (47 homers, 118 RBIs). Obviously there were quite a few people who recognized his value.

Konstanty was not just an abberation either. Two years later, for instance, Joe Black was generally acknowledged to be the MVP of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a top candidate for league honors after posting 14 victories (all in relief) and 15 saves in his team's pennant drive. Again, he was recognized over some pretty impressive rivals, since that 1952 team of Jackie Robinson-Duke Snider-Roy Campanella-Gil Hodges, etc. not only dominated the league but was considered by Roger Kahn in his best-selling book ''The Boys of Summer'' to have been the best Brooklyn club of them all.

There were plenty of other famous relief specialists in the '50s and '60s too - Hoyt Wilhelm, Elroy Face, Ryne Duren, Dick Radatz, etc., as well as other outstanding if not as well known members of the fraternity such as the Don Mossi-Ray Narleski duo that helped Cleveland to its 1954 runaway pennant, or left-hander Bob Kuzava, who saved some big regular season and World Series games for the New York Yankees.

Speaking of the Yankees reminds one of Joe Page, a fireballing southpaw who won and saved a total of 94 games coming out of the bullpen in his three biggest seasons of 1947-48-49.Even earlier there was Brooklyn's Hugh Casey, who appeared in several hundred games - nearly all in relief - in the early and mid-'40s.

That's getting back pretty close to half a century ago - which tells me that it's time for all of us to stop thinking of relief specialists as the new kids on the block.

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