Offense is most often the biggest attraction for baseball fans.
But once in a blue moon, a player will be recognized for perfecting a skill on the other side of the diamond.
One former Georgia Bulldog made a name for himself with the glove. Augusta native Duane Grice, even in the 1950s, was a defensive standout. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound outfielder hit over .300 just once in college but managed to see significant playing time throughout his career because of his ability with the leather.
A common trait among excellent defenders is that they are students of the game. They constantly strive to learn the nuances of the craft and perfect the little things that are the difference between being adequate and exceptional. Grice was no different.
Grice, now 85, recalled a game against Auburn early in his career. The Tigers featured six left-handed hitters in their lineup, so Georgia coach Jim Whatley moved Grice to right field, knowing he’d have more chances.
“Outfield is not just catching the ball, it’s knowing what to do with it when you catch it,” Grice said. “Well, I got two balls and both of them I caught. Dizzy Dean used to call it a ‘blue darter,’ because it was right at you and it was hard. You didn’t have much time to decide whether to drop back or stay where you are. Both of those balls were hit and I could tell they were sinking. I got a jump on them and caught both of them.
“One was with a man on first; he got a little too cute and I nailed him for a double play. Those are the kind of things outfielders need to think about. You’ve got cutoff men and you need to use your cutoff men. These are all things that A.L. Williams worked on that I used at Georgia.”
Grice graduated from Richmond Academy in 1953 and played for legendary coach A.L. Williams. He was a key cog for three of the Musketeers’ seven straight state championships from 1951-57. Grice went to Athens that fall on a football scholarship, and after a freshman year on the practice field, his scholarship was converted exclusively to baseball.
Perhaps his finest season came as a junior in 1956. Grice hit .349 with five doubles, two triples and 22 RBI. While he finished his college career with a respectable .270 batting average, he knows the real reason he was in the lineup every day.
“That was good, but it was the only year I hit over .300,” he said. “My defense kept me in the lineup. My sophomore year I hit .249, but I was always starting.”
Once he started hitting, members of the media began to recognize his performance.
“Now that the 20-year-old Richmond Academy graduate has started hitting, he undoubtedly rates as one of the best all-around players in the league,” according to an article in the April 17, 1956, edition of the Atlanta Constitution. “His fielding has always been so spectacular that even with the .247 average, there was never any question of his playing regularly for the Bulldogs.”
Grice is not one to badmouth the shifts in the philosophy of baseball, but he acknowledges the game has changed over the years. Frankly, he was ahead of his time.
One of the developments analytics has brought to the game is the ability to weigh defense against offensive output. The power hitter with a hole in his glove is a dying breed in today’s game, and versatile defenders are getting more publicity — and money — than ever before.
“You’ve got a guy who’s going to bat in three runs, but maybe he’s going to let three in because he misplays a ball,” Grice said after not having watched a professional baseball game in nearly 30 years.