Lou: What’s the fellow’s name on third base?
Bud: What is the fellow’s name on second base.
Lou: I’m not askin’ ya who’s on second.
Bud: Who’s on first?
Lou: I don’t know.
Bud and Lou: Third base!
On the mythical St. Louis Wolves team in Abbott and Costello’s famed routine, the third baseman’s name is I Don’t Know. Bud and Lou could not have used a more appropriate moniker for the poor fellow. In the history of Major League Baseball, third base has been the most misunderstood, misrepresented and underappreciated position on the diamond.
No other position has been more difficult to scout or been home to a wider spectrum of ability; after all, it is where the great Brooks Robinson and, for a while, Dave Kingman played. Third baseman is a place of contradiction, an orphan position, a lonely station where few players want to play but where many have, briefly and often, poorly. It is a position about which many questions are asked, and so often the answer is: I Don’t Know.
This is relevant again because the Tigers are planning to play Miguel Cabrera at third base in 2012, and the Marlins will play shortstop Hanley Ramirez at third. This is not a story on whether Cabrera or Ramirez can play third, it is a story about the position and its understated degree of difficulty because it requires so much: offensive production, great hands, quick reactions and quicker feet, a strong arm and a very large dose of courage.
I was there for the first game in spring training that Alex Rodriguez played at third base after his trade to the Yankees before the 2004 season. Rodriguez had moved from shortstop, a position he had played his entire career, a position that he was on his way toward becoming the best ever to play, someday replacing Honus Wagner. But Rodriguez moved to third in order to play for the Yankees. In his first game at third base, the second batter of the game, the Phillies’ Jason Michaels, whistled a one-hopper past A-Rod’s left ear. A-Rod never even moved.
“That was quite an introduction to third base,” I said to him after the game.
“I never saw that ball,” he said.
“Did that ever happen at shortstop?” I asked.
“Never,” he said.
Cal Ripken began his career as a third baseman, moved to shortstop for 15 years, then moved back to third. “I used to get hit in the cup at third, then I moved to shortstop, and I never got hit in the cup,” he said. “Then I moved back to third, and got hit in the cup again.”
That is what Ramirez is in for. That is what Cabrera is in for again in his move back to third base after four years away from playing the position. When Chipper Jones moved back to third base after a year in left field, the first chance he got was one of those diabolical, top-spin, in-between-hop smashes to his left. Miraculously, he handled it cleanly for the out, and later said, “I’m glad I got a ball like that in the first game. The position was saying, ‘Welcome back.'”
Jones is an example of the lack of respect the position has received in baseball history. He is, by any definition, one of the five greatest third basemen of all time, and yet, it is amazing how many people question whether he is a Hall of Famer. That is not even a debate; he unquestionably is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, his numbers compare favorably to those of George Brett and no third baseman in history has a higher OPS than Jones. And yet, partly because of the position, people aren’t sure what to do with those who play third base. That explains, in part, why there are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than any position.
Jones was signed as a shortstop but was moved to third base after suffering a serious knee injury. Matt Williams was signed as a shortstop and was moved to third, as were Troy Glaus and many others. It is a difficult switch, especially late in a career. Just ask Rico Petrocelli and Jim Fregosi, who said it took a great deal of time getting used to being so close to the hitter. Doug Rader, a five-time Gold Glover at third, also was signed as a shortstop but was moved to third because of his size. He said playing third base “was like recovering a fumble.”
“I concentrated every pitch at shortstop, but you have to do it more at third,” Ripken once said. “You have to make yourself ready for your own safety. On a ball hit to third, you can’t afford to take a step back. You have to be like a hockey goalie. There’s some fear. And there is no comfort zone. You’re on edge. It’s a highly stressful, anxious position.”
No one played it better than Robinson, who won 16 Gold Gloves. He had great hands, and his body was seemingly relaxed at all times. He often took ground balls from his knees to get himself ready, and he was semi-ambidextrous: He writes and eats with his left hand.
“It’s much more difficult for a shortstop or second baseman to move to third than vice versa,” said Robinson, who was signed as a second baseman and moved to third. “At second and shortstop, you can position yourself after the ball is hit. You just don’t have time at third.”
Ron Santo, recently elected to the Hall of Fame as a third baseman, remembered playing deep at third one day in spring training in 1959 when the Dodgers’ Frank Howard came to the plate. “He was the biggest person I’d ever seen in my life,” Santo said. “He hit a one-hopper that hit me in the stomach and knocked me out. When I woke up in the hospital, there he was again, standing over me. I said, ‘Am I in heaven? Who is this giant?'”
All sorts of players in major league history have tried to play third. For some, it didn’t work as well as they hoped, so they moved to another position: Harmon Killebrew, Steve Garvey, Tony Perez and Richie Allen started at third and ended up at first. Near the end of his career, the Red Sox briefly put Carl Yastrzemski at third; it didn’t go well, and Yaz desperately asked former Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone, “Can you help me?”
In the late ’80s, Yankees manager Billy Martin played Don Mattingly a few games at third; Mattingly throws left-handed. Ryan Braun, the Most Valuable Player of the National League in 2011, started his major league career at third but was moved to left field, where he has become very good defensively.
It’s a cyclical thing, but the game has a number of very good third basemen these days, including Jones, Rodriguez, David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen, Kevin Youkilis, Pablo Sandoval and Aramis Ramirez. The Blue Jays have perhaps a new young star at third in Brett Lawrie. The Phillies have Placido Polanco, who didn’t wear a cup as a second baseman because it slowed him down making the double play, “but I definitely wear one now that I’m playing third,” he said with a smile. And the Cardinals have David Freese, who won the MVP of the 2011 NLCS and World Series.
And now, two more stars will move to third base — Ramirez and Cabrera. Will Ramirez adjust to being so much closer to home plate? Will Cabrera move well enough to play the position? Will they continue to hit at the same rate they did at their previous positions?
I don’t know.
That’s third base.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book “Is This a Great Game, or What?” was published by St. Martin’s Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN
Kurkjian: There’s nothing easy about playing third base
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