When scoring a Kansas University baseball game, make sure to use a pencil equipped with an eraser. That way, when you scratch whatever symbols you prefer for a ground-ball single up the middle and Robby Price turns into Ozzie Smith, gets a glove on the ball, makes a jump turn and puts enough mustard on the throw to retire the batter, you can erase the symbols and replace them with 4-3*.
Kansas coach Ritch Price doesn’t need an eraser. He’s seen his second baseman turn hits into outs his entire life. Even so, did he automatically think “base hit” when he saw the baseball shooting up the middle with two men on and one out in the seventh inning of KU’s 9-3 victory against Kansas State?
“Not with him playing there,” Price said of his son, a junior out of Free State High and his third son to play for him at Kansas. “He’s about as good a player defensively as there is in America. It was a great play.”
One at which the youngest Price boy has plenty of practice. He made the play behind the bag, and his momentum carried him all the way to where the shortstop stands.
Asked about the sensational play, coach Price reflected on when he had Smith as a guest speaker when he was the baseball coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. On the way to that appearance, Ritch Price said Robby learned that Ozzie spent the last five minutes of infield practice every day on trick plays.
“He’d close his eyes, throw the ball across the diamond,” Ritch said of Smith. “He’d make jump turns and try to throw the ball across the whole field. Robby goes through his normal sequence defensively and then he actually stays out there for five more minutes and works on Ozzie Smith plays. That’s a play he actually works on in practice so that he can make it when he has an opportunity in games. And he learned that from Ozzie Smith when he was 7.”
Robby works on more than the jump turn during his five minutes of extra infield practice.
“Glove-flip double play, behind my back, in between my legs,” Robby said. “Just try to go with it, see what I can do.”
Price’s fancy glove work put the finishing touches on a productive night hitting out of the No. 2 hole. A left-handed hitter, Price walked and scored a run in the first, singled in the second and blasted a solo home run, his fifth, over the fence in right-center in the sixth. He finished the night with a .301 batting average and outstanding .461 on-base percentage.
Everybody loves hitting home runs. Price is no exception, but he knows that’s not what will keep him playing the game he loves.
“I don’t hit many home runs, but I kind of like the defensive aspect of the game,” he said. “I take great pride in my defensive ability. It’s fun getting the pitcher some outs, especially in key situations.”
Even during the height of steroid abuse in baseball, when America became fascinated with cartoonish-looking men sporting modern muscles bringing power hitting and power pitching to new heights, outstanding defensive plays juiced baseball fans, thanks in part to Baseball Tonight’s “Web Gems” segment. KU’s coach never has been more proud of one of his player’s consistent tendency toward Web gems as he is of his second baseman’s.