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.
April 5, 1992
Lou: I don't know.
Bud and Lou: Third base!
-Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
On the mythical St. Louis Wolves team in Abbott and Costelio'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 major league baseball history, third base has been the most misunderstood, misrepresented and underappreciated position on the diamond. No other has been more difficult to scout or been home to a wider spectrum of ability. (What other position can say that Brooks Robinson and Dave Kingman played it at the same time?) Third base is a place of contradiction, an orphan position, a lonely station where few players want to play but where many have, briefly and poorly.
Let's begin with these questions.
•If third basemen average only three chances per game, why is third base considered by some to be primarily a defensive position?
•If third base is, instead, a hitter's position, why have only four third basemen in history had 2,500 hits, while seven second basemen have reached that mark?
•Why are there only seven pure third basemen in the Hall of Fame, the fewest of any position?
In regard to that last question, here's the list from Cooperstown: Home Run Baker, Jimmy Collins, Fred Lindstrom, Pie Traynor, George Kell, Eddie Mathews and Robinson. The most magnificent of the seven, Robinson, considers that list and says, "I was amazed there are so few. I've thought about why. I don't know."
I don't know. Third base.
Here's another question: Why did seven teams enter spring training this year with a black hole at third base? Consider some numbers: In 1991 only two teams got 100 RBIs out of third base, the San Francisco Giants (100) and the Chicago White Sox (104). The Oakland A's third basemen hit .219 with four homers last year, New York Yankee third basemen had almost as many errors (37) as RBIs (39), and San Diego Padres third basemen hit .194. The Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Yankees and Padres all entered spring training asking themselves, Who's on third?
That's nothing new for the Padres. In their 23-year history they have used 72 third basemen; none ever drove in more than 65 runs in a season. The Mets have used 89 third basemen in their 30-year existence. The Baltimore Orioles have been through 37 since Robinson retired in 1977. The Yankees have used 30 third basemen since Graig Nettles was traded after the '83 season. The Dodgers have tried 25 since Ron Cey was dealt to the Cubs in 1982; and since Cey left Chicago after the '86 season, the Cubs have had a revolving door at third.
Why have so many teams been unable to fill the position? "I don't know," says Giants general manager Al Rosen, a former third baseman who was the American League MVP in 1953. "I don't know."
Is there no easy explanation for the shortage of standout third basemen in the last few years? Here's one you could try: Nobody wants to play there. In today's game, in the era of multimillion-dollar salaries, some players are actually given their choice of position to play. And they're not picking third base. When Bobby Bonilla toured the country in November offering his services as a free agent, teams gave him the option of playing rightfield or third base. He chose the Mets, and he chose rightfield. A no-brainer. Bonilla's new teammate Howard Johnson (page 76), who has served hard time at third over the past few seasons, gleefully accepted a move to centerfield this year.
Can you blame them? Who would want to stand 90 feet from home plate, face a daily assault of white rockets, dread in-between hops and nasty topspin grounders when the alternative is the high-fly safety of the outfield? Who would want to play a position that's much like that of a hockey goalie but without the pads or the mask? Who would want to put himself through this?
"I don't know," says Boston Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell, a former minor league third baseman.
I don't know. Third base.
Here's another explanation for the shortage. Given the qualifications for the prototypical player at the position—power at the plate, a strong arm, quickness afoot, great hands, split-second reactions, an unusually high level of concentration and a heart as big as the base itself—third is the most demanding position on the field. Those who don't produce enough with the bat are sent to the middle infield. Those who aren't agile enough move to first base or behind the plate. Those who don't have the reactions, but have the bruises, relocate to the less dangerous surroundings of the outfield.
"Third base is a complete-player position, and there aren't that many complete players around today," says Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine. "If a shortstop is great defensively, he plays. It's usually the same at second. If a catcher is strong defensively and hits just a little, he's going to play. First base, you can be lousy defensively if you can hit. Leftfield is a good hitter's position but doesn't require a good fielder. In centerfield, if you're great defensively, but a so-so hitter, you can play. Rightfield is the only other position like third base, where you have to be a good offensive and defensive player."
Frank Malzone, a brilliant defensive third baseman who also produced a lot of runs for Boston from 1957 to '65, says, "I've always said it takes the most overall ability to play third base. People say I say that because I played third. But because I played third, I can say that. I know what it's like down there. The position's never gotten the recognition it deserved."
By around 2005 three players—Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Wade Boggs—will have increased the Coopers-town population of third basemen to 10. But that will still be the fewest Hall of Famers of any position.
The third baseman has been an ever-changing breed. Until around 1930, during the Dead Ball Era—when bunting was at a premium—third basemen were defensive specialists. But by the '40s, third base had become more of a hitter's position. Mathews, who belted 512 career homers, turned it into a power spot by the mid-'50s. The '60s featured five of the top third basemen in history—Robinson, Mathews, Ron Santo, Ken Boyer and Malzone—but that decade also emphasized the schizophrenic nature of the position as big batmen such as Harmon Killebrew, Richie Allen, Tony Perez and Steve Garvey struggled to play the hot corner and eventually had to move.
The mid-'70s brought an emphasis on defense, with Robinson, Schmidt, Nettles, Aurelio Rodriguez, Buddy Bell, Ken Reitz and others. But the '80s gave us Bonilla, Kevin Mitchell, Ron Gant, Pedro Guerrero and Von Hayes—sluggers who finally had to be moved from third for their own safety, and for the safety of those in the box seats behind first base.
The '90s? "When you look at the prototype third baseman, how many are there today?" asks former third baseman Doug Rader. Well, there are perhaps two: San Francisco's Matt Williams—"the next Schmidt," says former teammate Terry Kennedy—and Robin Ventura of the White Sox, who reminds some of Brett. Yes, there is other talent: the Cincinnati Reds' Chris Sabo and the Toronto Blue Jays' Kelly Gruber have complete-player qualities, the Detroit Tigers' Travis Fryman has great potential, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Steve Buechele had a big all-around season in '91, and the Atlanta Braves' Terry Pendleton won the National League MVP award last year. But the recent trend has been more toward using natural middle infielders—such as Gary Sheffield, Tony Phillips, Ernest Riles, Jim Gantner, Scott Leius and Lenny Harris—at third, purely for defensive purposes. And a lot of teams would be delighted just to have one of those guys.
Since the June free-agent amateur draft began in 1965, only 26 first-round picks were listed as third basemen (as opposed to 114 shortstops and 256 pitchers). Why so few pure third basemen? "I don't know," says Blue Jay vice-president Pat Gillick.
The shortage begins in Little League. "Third base is a position like catcher," says Robinson. "Parents say, 'I don't want my kid catching.' And they don't want them playing third, either." Rico Petrocelli, Boston's Triple A manager and a former Red Sox third baseman, says kids shy away from the hot corner. "Kids know the ball comes at you real hard, real fast," he says. "It's the old 'Just knock it down.' Who wants to do that?" Oriole manager John Oates, a former catcher, says, "The one position I'd never want to play is third base. It's just no fun."
Shortstop, on the other hand, is fun. The most talented kids on most Little League or high school teams usually play shortstop and pitch. Same in college. Consequently, in the June draft there are hordes of hotshot pitchers and shortstops, and not many third basemen.
"Scouting today is about tools: How fast can a guy run—god, that's a big issue," says Rader, who won five Gold Gloves at third for the Houston Astros from 1970 to '74 and is now the A's hitting coach. "How many third basemen run real well? Third base is about quickness, not speed. It's tough to scout quickness. It's how fast you go from point A to point B, not how fast you can run 40 yards."
Even if a player is drafted as a third baseman, says McIlvaine, "player-personnel people look at him and say, 'Hey, he can't play third base [in the majors].' So they move him to the outfield or to first base or to catcher. Teams have to be much more patient with third basemen."
Oakland's Terry Steinbach, Toronto's Pat Borders and California's Lance Parrish are among active catchers who were drafted as third basemen but were quickly moved behind the plate. Greenwell, Devon White, Phil Plantier and Otis Nixon are among outfielders who were drafted as third basemen but were moved in the minor leagues.
According to Karl Kuehl, special assistant for baseball operations with Oakland, scouting third basemen is trickier than scouting other positions. Says Kuehl, "Who would have ever thought Wade Boggs would become the defensive third baseman he is today? I remember Billy Martin saying Nettles would never be able to play third base. They said Ventura was too heavy afoot, but he's already damn good. Maybe scouts look for too much at third. I don't know."
Boston leftfielder Greenwell, recalling his third base days, smiles and says, "I was putting up big numbers in the minors, and Wade [Boggs] was putting up tremendous numbers in the big leagues...but the real reason I moved to left was because I was not a third baseman. The ball is hit to you so fast. You've got to have a tremendous amount of talent to play third, more than at shortstop. To play third base for 15-20 years, like Brooks Robinson, you have to have amazing talent. At third I got black eyes, I got bruises on my chest. I haven't been hit in the eye one time in leftfield."
Boston's Plantier switched "because I got tired of trying to catch ground balls with my face. I tried for two years. But after I got 21 stitches under my eye on a two-hop topspinner, I figured I wasn't so dumb that someone had to tell me I couldn't play there. Some guys can do it, some guys can't. I have tremendous respect for people who can play third. They've got some sweet reflexes."
Carl Yastrzemski, a splendid defensive leftfielder and a pretty good first baseman, was tossed over to third base in 1973 and played 31 games there. He was horrible. He found, like most outfielders, that the throwing mechanics from third are different from those in the outfield. The throw from third requires a strong arm, but a quicker release. No time to wind up. "Yaz asked, 'Can you help me?' " says Malzone. "They didn't try it again."
It's difficult to find outfielders who made the switch to third base with success. Mike Shannon did it for the Cardinals in 1967. "But if you had asked Mike to catch trucks with his hands, he would have tried it," says St. Louis manager Joe Torre, later a teammate of Shannon's. "Mike's kind of crazy."
A third baseman has to be a little crazy. Rader was: He was known to hit his head against concrete walls. "I loved to play as shallow as I could," he says. Shallow or deep, there is danger. Santo remembers playing deep at third one day in spring training in 1959. "[L.A.'s] Frank Howard came to the plate," Santo recalls. "He was the biggest person I'd ever seen in my life. 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's this giant?' "
At times the position makes you crazy. Petrocelli says, "When I faced a pull hitter who could hit homers but could also bunt, like Paul Blair, it drove me nuts."
Says Rader, "I don't think many guys today fit the mold at third base. You have to be real aggressive, a tough s.o.b. I signed as a shortstop, but from the time I signed until the day I reported, I grew two inches and gained 20 pounds. When I got to my first spring training, the clubhouse guy, Whitey Diskin, asked me who I was. I said, 'I'm Rader, the shortstop.' He said, 'You might be Rader, but you're no shortstop. You're a third baseman.' "
The Giants' Williams says, "You have to want the ball hit to you every play, and you want it hit to you hard every play. It's a good feeling to make that dive." Says Malzone, "You can't have any fear of the baseball. At third, if you have any fear, you're done."
"You make plays without even seeing the ball," says new Cub and former Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre. "Boggs made an unbelievable play against us last year. I asked him, 'How did you do that?' He smiled and said, 'I don't know.' "
Shortstop has traditionally been considered baseball's ultimate skill position, and it is true that shortstop requires more pure athleticism—speed, range and agility—than third base. But shortstop is also safer. "I used to get hit in the cup regularly at third," says Cal Ripken Jr., the Orioles' All-Star shortstop, who played third for three years in the minors. "At shortstop I've never been hit in the cup."
Jim Fregosi, now manager of the Phillies, was moved from shortstop to third base 11 years into his major league career. "I like to think of myself as having been a hell of a defensive shortstop, but I was a terrible third baseman," he says. "I never saw the ball come off the bat. You can't see the hitter's hands come through the hitting zone like you can at shortstop."
Robinson, who signed as a second baseman but was moved to third after 50 games in rookie ball, says, "It's much more difficult for a shortstop or second baseman to move to third than vice versa. At second and shortstop, you can position yourself after the ball is hit. You don't have time at third."
Says Oates, "I bet you could take any third baseman, let him play shortstop, and he'd do better as a shortstop than as a third baseman." Rader agrees: "When I played a little shortstop after playing third, it was cake." (It's not unanimous, however: Williams, who signed as a shortstop, claims it's much easier to move from shortstop to third base—and he's his own evidence.)
Malzone says, "It takes talent to play shortstop, but a talented shortstop will have an easier time there than at third. He knows what pitch is coming, because he can see the signs. He's not involved in bunt plays. There's more to playing third base than people think. It's not an active position, so you may go until the seventh inning without getting a ground ball, then get a real tough one. You have to concentrate on every pitch."
"People think the positions are similar, but they're not," says Ripken. "At shortstop there's a lot of responsibility, but it's structured responsibility. Depending on the hitter, you might shorten up a little, but there's not a wide range of positioning like at third. I feel as if I concentrate on every pitch at shortstop, but you have to do it more so at third. 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. There's no comfort zone. You're on edge. It's a highly stressful, anxious position."
"It's time that third basemen get the respect they deserve for their defensive skills and for what it takes to play there," says Petrocelli. "I think what we have to do is to make third base a more glamorous position."
Petrocelli pauses a moment, then says, "I don't know."
Role Call in Cooperstown
In a position-by-position count of Hall of Famers, third base comes up short.