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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 4, 2009 at 7:54 AM

The fastest player I ever saw

williedavis.jpg

I’m going to keep it light and bright today, because I’m taking a furlough day. The kids and I are heading to Wild Waves in Federal Way. No talk of Felix Hernandez’s contract or Erik Bedard’s shoulder or Adrian Beltre’s trade status from me today.

I’m going to write about speed, and the fastest player I ever saw. What got me thinking was seeing Ichiro beat out what was basically a routine grounder to shortstop the other day against Toronto. Anyone who’s watched the Mariners has seen it before. Ichiro in full stride is a thing of beauty, even if he’s lost half a step since 2001, when infielders were absolutely stunned by his burst out of the batter’s box. It got to the point that the fielder learned to rush on every single ground ball. Ichiro would make them pay for any lax effort at all.

I’m in the camp that enjoys a good triple as much, if not more, than a home run. And the most exciting person I ever saw leg out a triple was unquestionably one of my childhood heroes, Willie Davis of the Dodgers — the 3 Dog. I’m absolutely convinced Willie Davis was the fastest player in baseball history, just as I’m absolutely convinced there has never been a better pitcher in baseball history than Sandy Koufax from 1963 through 1966. I realize that I see both through the prism of impressionable youth, but I will not be swayed on this. I know what I saw.

I saw Willie Davis score from first base on singles many times. I saw him score from second base on a sacrifice fly at least once, perhaps twice. Imagine how exciting that was. I saw him leg out numerous spectacular triples. Davis’s burst as he rounded first and realized he had a chance for three was breathtaking.

Those of you who grew up in L.A. in the 1960s, as I did, might remember the mythology of Willie Davis’s career, as narrated by Vin Scully. Davis was limping along, all unfulfilled potential, until, as he told it on the pre-game show (and a mesmerized youngster in Whittier hung on every word), one day at cavernous Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, when he hit three balls as hard as he could. All three were caught for outs on the warning track. Willie Davis has an epiphany, realizing that he wasn’t Willie Mays. That’s when he essentially morphed into Ichiro, a slap-hitter who realized he had to use his speed to his advantage. Check out Davis’s numbers and you can figure out when it happened — about 1969.

Willie Davis also had the deepest, most melifluous voice you can ever imagine He could have been a disc jockey, or an actor. Davis and Koufax merged on one of the saddest days of my youth, Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, which would turn out to be the final game that Koufax ever pitched. The Orioles, on the way to a four-game sweep in which the Dodgers scored two runs (two runs the entire series!!!!), whipped Koufax and the Dodgers, 6-0. Sandy didn’t have it, but it didn’t help that the Dodgers made six errors — three by Willie Davis. In one inning. After the inning, Davis sat in the dugout with his head down. Koufax came over and put his arm around him and said loudly, as legend had it, “We wouldn’t even be in this World Series without you.”

I ran across Willie Davis years ago covering one of those Old Timer’s Games they had in the 1980s, sponsored by an insurance company, when a group of 1950s and ’60s stars would travel around playing short games at major league ballparks before the real game. I made it a point to interview him, even though I didn’t have to. Word is, he had hit some hard times in his life, had a few legal scrapes. He looked the worse for wear. But he still had the voice. In the game, Davis hit a ground ball, as I recall, and lumbered painfully to first. That was hard to watch, but I can still see him in my mind’s eye, a blur racing around the bases in his Dodger uniform, and hear, in my mind’s ear, Vinny describing it.

So anyway, who’s the fastest player you ever saw?

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