For years, he was an immaculate Concepcion, the All-Star shortstop whose steady glove and heady play anchored more than a generation of Cincinnati Reds infields. He was there to break in with Tommy Helms and Lee May, and he was there to break in Ron Oester and Nick Esasky.
But the year is 1989. Davey Concepcion is 40. He is no longer an All-Star, or a starter, or even a Cincinnati Red.
This year, in his 20th major league training camp, Concepcion can be found, heavy of thigh and short of range, trudging through drills in the unfamiliar navy and red of the Angels. He is here as a non-roster invitee, signed to a triple-A contract.
He is trying to catch on as a utility infielder.
The scene alternately saddens and intrigues, depending upon the perspective of the observer.
From Plant City, Fla., where the Reds train, Manager Pete Rose shakes his head and wonders why his longtime teammate is willing to risk permanent damage to his reputation--and, for Pete’s sake, his Hall of Fame credentials--by trying to wring out one final, unnecessary season.
But from the Angels’ camp in Mesa, where the talent pool of utility players runs shallow, Manager Doug Rader considers the Concepcion experiment not only necessary, but essential.
With the Reds, Concepcion was too old and too slow and hit only .198 with eight runs batted in for nearly 200 at-bats.
“If we thought he could still play, he’d still be with us,” Rose said.
With the Angels, Concepcion is the cagey veteran brought in to lend guidance and 19 seasons’ worth of experience to a young infield.
According to Rader, the utility job is Concepcion’s to lose.
“You can’t underestimate the kinds of things Davey Concepcion can bring to a team,” Rader said. “If he shows he can play shortstop, he’s the guy.”
Interesting how these things come full circle. Shortstop was the position Concepcion made famous in Cincinnati from 1970 through 1986, where he won five Gold Gloves and qualified for nine All-Star games. If he shows he can play shortstop? For a decade and a half, Concepcion showed the way for all National League shortstops.
But that was before he broke his hand in 1986 and hurt his shoulder in 1988. That was before age wrapped a ball-and-chain around his legs. That was before Barry Larkin came and bumped him over to second base, and then to first base, and then, eventually, to the bench.
Shortstop finally became Concepcion’s ticket out of town.
“His movement just wasn’t there anymore,” Rose said. “Frankly, our people thought he could only play first base.”
And, now, Concepcion has to prove all over--to a new manager, a new team and a new league--that, yes, he can play shortstop, at least occasionally.
Concepcion believes an old dog can brush up on old tricks.
“Doug Rader wants me to back up at shortstop,” Concepcion said. “He knows it’s not the same Concepcion of 10, 12 years ago, when I played against him. I don’t have the quickness of a Dick Schofield or a Barry Larkin. You can’t ask a body at age 40 to do what it did at 20 and 21.
“But so far, this spring, my body is going good. . . . I think I can play (shortstop) a game here, a game there. I can still move around.”
Concepcion says he is driven by a new fire--the desire to show the Reds, and Rose in particular, that they were wrong when they released him last October.
Concepcion spent 19 seasons with Cincinnati, tying him with Rose for most years of service by a Reds player, but remains embittered over the club’s decision to cut him before his 20th season.
“They don’t give me the opportunity to play 20 years,” he said. “That’s all I was asking. Everybody else got opportunities to keep playing in Cincinnati. They brought back Tony Perez. Pete Rose played three more years as player-manager. But they don’t want me to be there.”
For this, Concepcion puts much of the blame on Rose.
“As a manager, Pete Rose got against me,” Concepcion said. “Since he’s gotten to be manager, he’s changed. Day by day, he was taking my job away from me.
“Finally, he did it. Finally, he got me out of there. I don’t know why. It’s just the way he is.
“I thought we were friends, but I don’t think he knows what a friend is. He doesn’t have a friend. We got along for one reason--winning--I guess.”
Rose, as one might imagine, has a response.
“We got along fine until we decided not to re-sign him,” Rose said. “Now he feels I’m the sole determining factor of that.
“You know as well as I do, there’s always a lot of bitterness when you release a guy or trade a guy or send a guy down. They take it so personal, but it’s usually an organizational decision.
“In Davey’s case, we didn’t think he could help us anymore. If he had showed us anything . . .
“But he batted less than .200 and had less than a dozen RBIs in 200 times at-bat (actually 197). That tells me something’s missing.”
Rose, statistics-conscious as always, even in retirement, is perplexed by Concepcion’s desire to keep playing after last season’s washout.
“I got the feeling that Davey sort of wanted to play just to get the 20 years,” Rose said, disbelief in his voice.
“I told him, ‘Davey, you don’t want to play just to get 20. If you go through another year like the last one, you’re going to hurt your Hall of Fame chances. Throw two sub-.200 seasons at the voters and that’s going to really hurt you. You had a Hall of Fame career, why do you want to hang around and be a utility player for?’ ”
Of course, Rose didn’t exactly go quietly, either.
“None of wants to go out when we’re hitting .320, I guess,” he said.
And in 1987, Concepcion was right there. In his first full season as the Reds’ utility infielder, he batted .319, including .333 as a pinch-hitter, and filled in at every infield position.
“Two years ago, he was the best utility player in baseball,” Rose said. “He played all four infield positions flawlessly, he hit .319.
“But last year, he didn’t dominate (left-handed pitching) like he’d done in the past. Usually, Davey would go two for four against a left-hander. But hitting .198, he didn’t dominate anyone.”
Concepcion contends that he can still hit, pointing to the .290 average he had while playing in Venezuela last winter. The .198 average last summer, he says, was caused largely by a bum shoulder.
The Venezuelan winter leagues turned out to be Concepcion’s Angel connection. Angel official Preston Gomez scouted a couple of Concepcion’s games there and laid the groundwork for the veteran’s tryout this spring.
Gomez also offered a suggestion. By the opening of training camp, he said, he wanted to see less of Concepcion. Maybe 15 pounds less. Through injury, inactivity and basic indifference, Concepcion ballooned into a Big Ex-Red Machine.
Since then, Gomez said, Concepcion “has lost about 10 or 12 pounds. He needs to go a little bit more.”
Concepcion, however, insists that he was never all that fat, that his weight has hovered around 200 for years and that Gomez has gone a little overboard with this overweight business.
“Yeah, Preston wants me to lose weight,” Concepcion said, laughing. “He remembers when I was 180. I was 180 a long time ago.
“The last few years, I’ve been 200 and maybe last year, I was 203 or 204. I was never more than three or four pounds over that.”
Rose enters the debate.
“The scales will tell you he didn’t (gain weight),” Rose said. “Compared to how he was three years ago, he weighed about the same. But, it’s distributed differently now.
“He didn’t run as good last year and had to strictly rely on his experience to get by. . . . We felt he lost a lot of movement. I hope he gets it back.”
Meanwhile, back in Plant City, Rose extends an olive branch Concepcion’s way.
“There’s no bitterness here,” Rose said. “Davey meant a lot to Cincinnati baseball. He was our captain. I don’t think anybody in our clubhouse would say anything negative about Davey Concepcion.
“But, in truth, he wasn’t helping us anymore. Sometimes star players, including myself, don’t want to hear that.
“I hope he does well for California. The last thing I want him to do is flop or get cut over there.”
Finally, that’s something both Rose and Concepcion can agree on.
On and off the field, the Angels took care of business Monday. First off, Vice President Mike Port ended the club’s longstanding stalemate with Devon White by signing the center fielder to a one-year contract, believed to be worth about $325,000, plus incentives. Then, Doug Rader and Co. went out and defeated the Chicago Cubs, 6-4, at Ho Ho Kam Park. It was the Angels’ first victory of the spring, improving their record to 1-3.
Kirk McCaskill, making his first start of the spring, was the winning pitcher, yielding one hit and one run, unearned, in three innings. He struck out three and walked one. . . . Lance Parrish made his first appearance at catcher for the Angels. At the plate, he went two for two, but behind the plate, he went zero for two attempting to throw out base stealers. “He didn’t look too good on the stolen bases,” Rader acknowledged, “but he’s still working on mechanics. It’ll come.” . . . Dave Concepcion started and played all nine innings at second base, mainly because Johnny Ray’s hamstring injury is healing slowly. Concepcion went hitless in two at-bats and dropped a pop fly along the right-field line for an error.