#8 - Mark Belanger, SS (1965-1981)
It's safe to say that Mark Belanger never won a Gold Glove because he had a great year at the plate. He won eight of them in an eighteen-year career, thirteen of which he spent as a full-time player. Belanger won a Gold Glove in more than half of the seasons in which he played over 100 games.
He did all of this with a career batting line of .228/.300/.280, pulling off that impressive feat of having a slugging percentage below his OBP. A player might do this over the span of a season or two nowadays before they wash out. Belanger had 6,601 plate appearances in his big league career. If batting .200 is the Mendoza Line, perhaps having an on-base percentage of .300 should be the Belanger Line.
Belanger was a league-average hitter (by OPS+ of at least 100) exactly one time, in 1976, when his batting line rose to a scorching .270/.336/.326. None of that really mattered, because he wasn't playing for his bat. When up-and-coming manager Earl Weaver first encountered Belanger in the minor leagues, he said, "You're my shortstop if you hit .0001." He was safe in that regard, though there were two seasons where his batting average was below .200. In 1970, he even "won" a Triple Crown, if only they were scored like in golf - his batting average, home runs, and RBI were all lowest in the American League among qualified batters.
More than just about any of the other of our Top 40 Orioles who I never saw play, I wish I could have seen Belanger in action. I've heard enough stories from my dad about him and I would love to have been able to see it for myself. What must it have been like for hitters trying to get balls on the ground past the tandem of Belanger and Brooks Robinson? If Belanger had been able to hit close to as well as Brooks, he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame, too.
Instead, he's remembered as a defensive wizard, as well he should be. He was worth 41 Wins Above Replacement in his career, according to Baseball Reference. That's sixth-most in the history of the franchise. 39.3 of those wins were for his defense, which leaves him ahead of even legends like Brooks and Cal Ripken.
It's tough to imagine someone in today's game being so good defensively that they would warrant playing time for so long in spite of that kind of batting line. Maybe it was a stretch even in his era, but he had the loyalty of Weaver for a long time, and he rewarded Weaver for sticking with him over a long career. When Orioles pitchers were dazzling the league, Belanger played an important part.
As poor as he was at the plate, he still had a couple of pitchers to face who he hit better than others. Two of these happened to be future Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan. What was it about Blyleven that Belanger could solve him to the tune of a .321/.406/.375 batting line in 64 plate appearances? Or Ryan, the man with seven no-hitters, letting Belanger get on base at a .367 clip in 62 plate appearances in his career? Some things are not meant for mortal minds to know.
The Blade - so-called because he was so skinny, that's what he looked like in profile - played in the third-most games in Orioles history, with 1,962 games played. Though he wasn't known for hitting, his 1,304 career hits are 12th-most in O's history, with 33 triples being eighth-highest. He walked a little, enough that his 571 walks also place in eighth, and when he got on, he might steal a base: 166 career steals leave him in fifth, tied with the man he replaced at shortstop, Luis Aparicio.
Weaver always said the place for a sacrifice bunt was deep in your closet, but when Belanger came up to the plate, it was time to go digging for it. One place where he leads the franchise is in sac bunts, with 153. He was the exception to that rule.
His eight Gold Gloves and legendary defense will forever be a part of the annals of the franchise. He's an important part of every Orioles home game to this day. The story goes that in 1975, it was Belanger and his wife who suggested that the team start using "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" as the song during the seventh-inning stretch. Every time the Oriole Bird does his little hoedown on the home dugout, the Blade's will is done.
Belanger was elected to the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1983, not even a full year after his playing career had ended. As with the other greats, there was no doubt from the beginning that he was one of the best to ever wear the uniform. He passed away in 1998 after a battle with lung cancer. Belanger is buried in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the same town where he was once a two-sport star and where the Orioles found him as an amateur free agent back in 1962.