Gene Collier: Honus Wagner casts shadow over all shortstops



You wouldn’t have known Honus Wagner had been the subject of even the slightest kerfuffle these past few days, at least not by the typical activity around the famous statue at the corner of General Robinson Street and Mazeroski Way.

“We have to meet Frankie,” somebody said out there an hour before the first pitch Tuesday night, “and then, I think, Adam has got the tickets.”

Whether standing implacably in Schenley Park through the 1950s and 1960s or at the base of one of the sprawling feeder ramps at old Three Rivers Stadium for three decades or right there in his current situation, Wagner’s heard from within his shadow 5,000 comments just like that for every one that actually has been about Honus Wagner, but I guess that comes with being dead for going on 59 years.

And still Wagner’s mostly forgotten legend sprang to life this week thanks to the great New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who, in his final season as Yankees royalty, has now run his career hits total to 3,432, two more than the turn-of-the-century (that would be the turn of the century before the most recent turn of the century) Pittsburgh shortstop J.P. “Honus” Wagner, who just happens to be the greatest Pirate ever and very possibly the greatest player in the history of the National League.

Honus looked none the worse Tuesday night for getting knocked down to seventh on the all-time hits list, still somewhat majestic in his aging granite follow-through, looking through hollow eyes at an imaginary baseball he appears to have just launched toward McKees Rocks.

Fans sat on the thick square base, smoked cigarettes, pounded some Bud Light Lime and talked everything but Jeter and the Flying Dutchman.

“Most people just sit on it,” one of the regular Pirates sidewalk operatives said. “I used to be over by [the] Clemente [statue]; that’s where everyone goes to have their picture taken with their families.”

Too bad, because it was a good night to talk shortstops, and not just because the Pirates were distributing Honus Wagner bobbleheads, which is pretty shrewd inasmuch as Wagner can’t be traded and end up pitching years later for the Milwaukee Brewers, who still lead the Pirates by a game and a half in the National League Central — not to be critical.

Jeter had pronounced himself especially thrilled to pass Wagner because it meant he had more hits than any other major league shortstop. Internet analysts seemed equally gratified, as it allowed them to unleash a tsunami of pent-up metrics on the never-before-presented Jeter-or-Wagner question, calling for a comparison so pointless I refuse to engage.

Wagner went with the original class into the Hall of Fame with the same number of votes as Babe Ruth (215) and the same percentage of possible votes (95.1). Perhaps Jeter will do better. Let’s talk again in five years.

On its interior, PNC Park’s shortstop discussion was getting dominated by the name Jordy Joe Mercer, whose .308 batting average for Clint Hurdle’s team since May 31 was not only the best in the National League over that period, it had vaulted him into the third spot in Hurdle’s batting order, the one vacated by the injured Andrew McCutchen and filled to this point by only Josh Harrison and Russell Martin.

Mercer, who was hitting eighth as recently as Aug. 2, came up with Harrison on third and one out in the third inning.

The Tigers, who had awoken in second place for the first time all season, nervously brought the infield up. Mercer made them pay with a grounder through the middle, the very kind of clutch thing No. 3 hitters are supposed to do.

“I had no conversation with him before the game,” Hurdle said a few minutes after Mercer’s RBI stood up as the winning run in a 4-2 victory. “After his first at-bat, I asked him if he wanted the lineup card [as a souvenir] after the game.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘No, it’s just a place to hit. It’s no big deal.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you know what? No bad hitter ever hit there.’ ”

Third would have been a good place to put Honus Wagner, I’d bet.

“We were just trying to take advantage of the matchup,” Hurdle said, persisting in discussing the current century. “Jordy’s been very good against left-handed pitching, and we were anxious to get somebody up there in front of Russell, who’s been so productive for us over this past stretch with runners on base, and it played for us a little bit.”

The Pirates keep playin’, and when you can go 5-3 on a homestand without your reigning MVP, you might be setting up to play for a long time.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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