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Bill Conlin: Phillies have best infield of baseball's modern era

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Joe Tinker was the shortstop. Johnny Evers played second. The first baseman was Frank Chance. Poor Harry Steinfeldt.

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Joe Tinker was the shortstop. Johnny Evers played second. The first baseman was Frank Chance. Poor Harry Steinfeldt.

He was the third baseman who faded into obscurity because he didn't make the short poem titled "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," penned by a newspaper guy named Franklin Pierce Adams. The poem made "Tinker to Evers to Chance" - that's 6-4-3 for those scoring at home - code for infield excellence. Despite an acute lack of credentials, the trio was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1946 by what was then called the Old Timers Committee.

In 1906, when the Chicago Cubs set the record for a 154-game schedule with 116 victories, Tinker hit .233 and made 46 errors at short. Evers flogged the baseball at a .255 clip and made 44 errors, an astounding total for a second baseman. Chance batted .319 and committed 16 errors.

Poor Harry Steinfeldt. The Cubs' third sacker hit .327 and was charged with only 20 errors. And got left out of the poem. Guess they didn't have the 5-4-3 in 1906.

As for doubleplays, or "twin-killings" as they were called in the 20th-century aughts, Chance made the final putout on 71 of them. The Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance plus Steinfeldt infield crushed a combined eight of the Cubs' season total of 20 homers that year. They lost the World Series to the White Sox and won back-to-back Fall Classics in '07 and '08. Then that damned Billy Goat thing happened and you know the rest.

Imagine if Tinker, Evers and Chance had put up the kind of numbers that Rollins, Utley and Howard routinely put up. Franklin P. Adams might have wound up with a longer poem than Longfellow's "Evangeline."

The Phils' Harry Steinfeldt was slick-fielding, accurate-throwing Pedro Feliz, who also chipped in 82 RBI last season. Now, Placido Polanco is back. Polly brings less arm to the position but is a career .300 hitter and will do some wonderful things in the No. 2 hole.

Placido Polanco . . . Jimmy Rollins . . . Chase Utley . . . Ryan Howard . . .

Say hello to what is potentially the greatest all-around infield of a modern era that began in 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson kicked down the door that had barred players of color from the major leagues.

Polanco hit just 10 homers for the Tigers last year, playing in one of baseball's toughest home-run parks. He has a chance to hit 15-plus in the friendly alleys of the Bank, particularly batting in front of Utley and Howard.

J-Roll hit 21 homers last year in a season when he was MIA most of the first half. The Gold Glove shortstop has hit as many as 30.

Utley is quite simply one of the great offensive second basemen of all time and has consistently put up Rogers Hornsby power numbers.

Howard hit 45 homers last year and has averaged 49.5 over his four full seasons as a regular. In 2009, the three best players in franchise history at their positions combined for 97 homers.

And ponder this . . . Has any non-expansion team ever had the three best players in franchise history at the same time? The closest I could come was Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider from Brooklyn's Boys of Summer.

And how often have you seen a major league infield line up 1-2-3-4 in the batting order?

These are giddy, historic, times for the Phightins.

There will be challenges to my best infield of the modern-era assertion, of course, including a couple I debated myself.

You could throw a blanket over the numbers put up by the Phillies and Yankees infields in 2009. New York's quartet of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira slammed 112 homers, three more than the Phillies with Feliz at third. But the Phils' Fab Four won the RBI war, 393-373.

Because the power-hitting middle infielder is a relatively new phenomenon in an era where both superior training methods and chemical enhancement are factors in the explosion of offense, it is hard to find infields that can match the Phillies' output. The Dodgers had two great ones in Brooklyn's Cox, Reese, Robinson and Hodges, then LA's Cey, Russell, Lopes and Garvey. But both fall far short in overall power.

Every member of the current Phillies infield has been an All-Star. Polanco and Rollins have won Gold Gloves. All four have won Silver Slugger awards - Polanco as a second baseman in the American League. Rollins and Howard have been MVPs and Utley is in the MVP conversation each year. It is a much-honored group.

Pat Gillick was the Baltimore Orioles' GM in 1996, when an infield of B.J. Surhoff, Cal Ripken, Robbie Alomar and Rafe Palmeiro put up some sick numbers. With Rafe "With God As My Witness" Palmeiro leading the way by producing 39 homers and 142 RBI, that infield pounded 108 homers and drove in an amazing 420 runs, an average of 105 for each infielder. But, sorry, Palmeiro hangs an asterisk on those numbers. Just as A-Rod hangs one on his Yankees infield.

Feel free to argue. And maybe somebody can come up with an eight-line poem that begins:

"These are the saddest of possible words:

"J-Roll to Chase to Ryno." *

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