ATLANTA - You hear baseball people lament the lack of fundamentals in today's game. You hear grizzled scouts and crusty old coaches complain that young players today don't know how to do the little things, at least not instinctively, the way the old-time players did.
The hit-and-run. The bunt. Hitting the cutoff man. Defensive positioning. Anticipating with the pitch. Increasingly, these are becoming lost arts.
And then the lifers see a kid like Edgardo Alfonzo come along, and their jaws hit the ground. Their faith is restored.
The New York Mets third baseman doesn't turn 24 until next month, but he's already a one-man instructional video.
It's not just the 21-game hitting streak Alfonzo recently lost. It's not just the fact he's committed three measly errors all season. It's not just the nightly fielding gems he seems to turn in. It's the whole package. The whole fundamentally sound, impossible-to-nitpick package.
"Not many guys do it all," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine. "Fonzie does."
This has been a gradual progression. The Caracas, Venezuela, product is not some hotshot rookie who might fall on his face next week. He spent four years in the minor leagues and achieved top-prospect status. When Dallas Green chose to break him in slowly with the Mets in 1995, Alfonzo didn't complain.
He played some second base, some shortstop, some third. He would have strapped on the catcher's gear had the Mets had asked him to.
Alfonzo thought his time might come last year, but it didn't. He again got fewer than 370 at-bats to prove his ability, but accepted it like a pro.
This season started in much the same way. Then, by early May, Valentine decided Alfonzo deserved better. So he stuck him in the everyday lineup at third base and settled in for the show.
At last look, Alfonzo was hitting almost .330 and making Valentine look like a genius. The manager, in return, lavishes his young player with praise. He says there ought to be an investigation if Alfonzo doesn't win the Gold Glove. He says Alfonzo should have made the All-Star team. He says Alfonzo's going to make lots of All-Star teams in a career that could last another decade and a half.
"Right now, when you look up the definition of a good player, his face would be there," Valentine says. "He's letting people take notice that he knows how to play this game."
Thursday night Alfonzo turned in a performance for the ages. He went 3-for-5 with two RBIs, a run scored and a stolen base. He also wowed seamheads with some fancy bat work on a pair of hit-and-runs plays. Once, noticing a mind game in which Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser covered second base, Alfonzo adjusted in mid-swing and pulled a slider through the left side. In the late innings, with the Braves playing the same cat-and-mouse games, Alfonzo pushed a single past Mark Lemke and into right field.
Great stuff. The kind of stuff scouts will talk about all winter.
Alfonzo's numbers would have been even bigger had Andruw Jones not climbed the center-field wall to rob him of extra bases in the third inning.
A couple of innings later, Alfonzo found himself on second base, turned around and yelled out to Jones.
"Hey, what happened with that ball?" Alfonzo said. "Why'd you have to catch that ball?"
Jones wasn't feeling sympathetic. With a big laugh of his own, he explained the concept of reciprocation to Alfonzo.
"Why do you do what you do?" Jones said. "You dive this way, you dive that way, you catch all the balls."
Alfonzo liked that.
"This is a fun game," he said later. "You've got to have fun with this game."
And when you play it as well as Alfonzo does, what's not to enjoy?