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Mark Belanger finished his career with the Dodgers

40 years ago, LA signed a defensive specialist as an insurance policy at shortstop.

Forty years ago, during an offseason in which MLB teams were allowed to conduct major league transactions, the Dodgers signed a seasoned veteran to a team that just won the World Series.

1983 Topps Mark Belanger

Mark Belanger was a part of five World Series teams in Baltimore, and won eight Gold Glove Awards, more than all but three shortstops in MLB history (Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio). After 17 years with the Orioles, it was clear the beloved shortstop’s time there was done, such that he got a standing ovation during his last game in Baltimore, in 1981.

Interestingly, Belanger was no fan of how Earl Weaver, his manager for 14 of 17 years in Baltimore, handled his departure. Weaver himself retired at the end of 1982 (he would come back in 1985, and manage parts of two more seasons), and the then-Dodger Belanger was asked if he sent a wire of congratulations to his former manager.

“No, just like he didn’t say thanks when I left,” Belanger told the New York Post. “When I walked off the field in Baltimore for the last time there were 40,000 people standing and clapping, and one sitting.”

Okay then.

Belanger did not arrive in Los Angeles with any fanfare, with the Dodgers properly calibrating their expectations for a veteran about to turn 38 years old. Multiple newspaper reports characterized Belanger as “an insurance policy” for incumbent Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell, himself a veteran but five years younger than Belanger.

The Associated Press mentioned manager Tommy Lasorda noting Russell was injury prone, after Russell missed about 30 games in each of the previous two seasons. The San Bernardino Sun went as far as to say general manager Al Campanis “admits he is unsure how long Bill Russell can continue to be the Dodger regular at shortstop.”

All-Star shortstops were on the move at the winter meetings in 1981. Ozzie Smith was traded by the Padres to the Cardinals in a deal that included Garry Templeton on December 10. The Dodgers were rumored to be interested in Smith, but after he went to St. Louis they settled on signing Belanger the next day.

Free agency was a little weirder back then, with teams bidding on available players in a free agent re-entry draft. You may remember this from Steve Garvey’s departure from the Dodgers after the 1982 season.

Ron Guidry was the most popular free agent that winter, with 17 teams bidding on his services, a process that for upper echelon players netted compensation to the former team (though Guidry that winter re-signed with the Yankees). The Dodgers in these years were mostly in the shallower end of the free agent pool, still gun shy after the duel disasters of signing Dave Goltz and Don Stanhouse two years prior. In the free agent re-entry draft, the Dodgers selected only four players, per the Associated Press: outfielder Glenn Adams (signed with Blue Jays), Belanger, pitcher Joaquin Andjuar (stayed with the Cardinals), and outfielder Dave Collins (signed with Yankees).

Because Belanger was drafted by fewer than four teams, he became eligible to sign with anyone. On December 11, 1981, he became a Dodger.

Belanger was the quintessential example of a defense-first shortstop. He hit .228/.300/.280 in his 18 seasons, a 71 wRC+. The slugging percentage, which especially stood out on the back of his 1983 Topps card, is the third-lowest in the live ball era (1920-present) by any player with at least 3,000 plate appearances (a total Belanger more than doubled).

Almost three quarters of Belanger’s Wins Above Replacement (the Baseball Reference version) were attributed to his defensive work.

The Dodgers never really needed to cash their insurance policy in 1982, during which Russell played 153 games and hit .274/.357/.340, with career bests in on-base percentage and wRC+ (100). Belanger’s playing time was sparse, starting only 12 games all season, with his busiest stretch getting four starts in a 16-game span from July 31 to August 15. Belanger’s last career start came on August 29, with 31 games remaining in the season.

Belanger with the Dodgers was used as a late-inning defensive replacement at shortstop 32 times, and once more at second base. He pinch ran 10 times and pinch hit four times. He had 12 hits in 50 at-bats, walked five times, and laid down a pair of sacrifice bunts, hitting .240/.309/.260. Belanger’s lone extra-base hit with the Dodgers came in his second game of the season, a sixth-inning double off reliever Renie Martin at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers released Belanger after the season, and he retired as a player.

But Belanger, who was on the executive board of the MLB Players Association while playing and one of the most vocal players during the 1981 strike, soon joined the MLBPA as a special assistant to Marvin Miller and Don Fehr, the first former player hired to work for the union.

Belanger worked for the MLBPA for 15 years until his death in 1998. In 2021, the union honored Belanger with its Curt Flood Award.