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September 16, 1997|LARRY STEWART

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What: "Shortstops: The Men in the Middle"

When: Tonight at 6:30 on ESPN

The title of this documentary, produced by Scrapbook Communications, suggests a film about shortstops. But it is more than that. It is an entertaining one-hour collection of baseball stories with the shortstop position being the focal point. This is the third in a "Baseball Scrapbook" series, with "Hardball: Baseball From the Inside," and "Hall of Fame Scrapbook: The Seat of Power" (about catchers) being the first two.

Scrapbook Communications is a New York-based independent production company that before this series made mostly non-sports documentaries, more than 200 hours worth, on a variety of topics. "Inside Story," a PBS show with Hodding Carter as host, was Scrapbook's first hit.

"Shortstops: The Men in the Middle" should make you feel good about baseball again. Dozens of stories are told with fascinating footage and still photos as the backdrop. There's not a lot of high-budget glitz and fancy computerized graphics, just simple filmmaking and storytelling.

The show's narrator, former TV anchorman Jim Jensen, reminds viewers in the beginning that "in a world that worships power and where baseball players these days look more like football players, there is always one shrimp, a Michael J. Fox of baseball, who is a team leader." Jensen says throughout the film that shortstops often don't get their due. One case in point is Pee Wee Reese. It took him 26 years to make the Hall of Fame. It took Joe Tinker, part of the immortal Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combination, three decades.

Former second baseman Joe Morgan points out what Whitey Herzog used to say about Ozzie Smith: "A good shortstop may not get three hits every day, but he takes away at least three hits from the opposition."

Morgan says of Maury Wills: "He changed the face of the game. He made the stolen base important again." Wills is featured.

But the point of the film is not to chronicle all the great shortstops. The point is to tell stories. We learn center fielder Mickey Mantle was originally a shortstop and committed 102 errors in one minor league season. One story focuses on Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the only major league player killed by a pitched ball, and the pitcher who hit him, Carl Mays of the Yankees. It happened in 1920.

Then there is Morris "Moe" Berg, a shortstop converted to catcher for the Chicago White Sox. He was a Princeton graduate, but also a bizarre character who served as a spy for the United States during a baseball tour of Japan before World War II. He became a catcher when his manager, strapped for catchers, asked the team if anyone could catch. Berg pointed to another player, but the manager thought Berg was raising his hand and made him the team's catcher.

Such stories are what make this film.

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