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Giants' shortstop Jos'e Uribe makes name for himself in playoffs

Jos'e Uribe, wherever he goes, needs a fairly elaborate introduction. His name is mispronounced more often by middle America than the word maestro, and only the current list of presidential candidates is lesser known to the public. But all this is beginning to change as network TV cameras zero in on his brilliant fielding in the National League playoffs. Of course Ozzie Smith of the Cardinals is still the first name that comes to mind when you think of shortstops, but you can't sell the Giants short at this position either. Uribe is a mine sweeper in the field, anticipates the approach of foreign objects like a deer in the forest, and has a throwing arm laced with radar.

Indeed, the defensive duel of these two will be an interesting sidelight as the best-of-7 series resumes here tonight after a split of the first two games in St. Louis.

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Uribe, a native of the Dominican Republic, was signed by the New York Yankee organization in 1978 but released in '81 and picked up by St. Louis. He reached the parent club late in 1984 only to be dealt to the Giants in the off-season.

Why the Yankees didn't give Jos'e more of a look remains a mystery, but at least the Cardinals had a legitimate excuse - actually two. They already had Smith at shortstop, and in return for Uribe and three other players they acquired the services of slugger Jack Clark.

San Francisco coach Bob Lillis, whose job is to position infielders correctly according to the hitter and the situation, leaves Uribe pretty much to himself.

``Every time I look up to check my infield, Jos'e is exactly where he is supposed to be,'' Lillis told me. ``He is one of those players who instinctively does the right thing. You don't know whether somebody taught him or he just came that way. While he doesn't have Smith's throwing arm, he has everything else. He gets to the ball in tough situations so quickly and releases it so quickly that he is going to get the runner anyway.

``What separates Uribe and Smith from practically all other shortstops is that they never get burned by those little in-between, hard-to-handle hops that either go right through the legs of most infielders or else carom off their bodies,'' Bob continued. ``Any time you get one of those blitzers with the bases loaded, two outs, and the shortstop racing in toward the ball, most managers want to cover their eyes. But Uribe has such great hands that he makes those plays look routine.''

There is also a marvelous rapport between Jos'e and second baseman Robby Thompson, which may explain why the Giants led the majors in double plays. Each player has a knack for feeding his partner the ball at just the right height so the pivot man on the double play can get something extra on his throw to first.

Until last year, when the switch-hitting Uribe began working with batting coach Jos'e Morales, he had been a marshmallow at the plate. His first year with the Giants, Uribe hit only .237 with 26 RBIs. While his average went down last year by 24 points, his RBIs went up to 43, and his bases-on-balls almost doubled. He was also the toughest player in the majors (based on 90 or more games) to double up, hitting into only two double plays.

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This year he made an eye-opening improvement to .291, followed by two singles and a double in eight tries for a .375 average in the first two playoff games.

Basically, what Morales has done with Uribe is to teach him how to hit to all fields, and to take advantage of his speed by bunting occasionally. While this is standard procedure with most hitting instructors, not all of their pupils are able to execute with enough authority to make it work quite as well as it has in this case.

On many occasions when Uribe is in the batting cage, Morales will create make-believe game situations, calling out such things as: ``Man on first base, one out, go to the opposite field.'' Over the last two years, the instructor and his pupil have engaged in drills like this literally hundreds of times.

The result is a hitter who batted almost 50 points above his lifetime average during most of the season. There was even a slight surge of power in September when Jos'e hit two game-winning home runs.

Among baseball's insiders, however, Uribe will always be known as the quintessential player to be named later, a distinction he gained when he changed his last name from Gonz'alez to Uribe the same year he was traded to the Giants. The reason? ``Too many Gonz'alezes already in baseball,'' Jos'e said.

Uribe is a popular hero in his own country, where he has his own pawn shop, underwrites a youth baseball league, and reportedly will open his own restaurant after the season.

But if any Jos'e Gonz'alezes should call for reservations, they probably will be taken with a grain of salt!

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