Witnessing a renaissance at third base

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!

How perfect. 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 baseball history, third base has been the most misunderstood, misrepresented and underappreciated position on the field. It is a place of contradiction, an orphan position, a lonely station where few players want to play.

If it is supposed to be an offensive position, why have only five primary third basemen in history accumulated 2,500 hits, but second base has produced 10? Why are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than any position? Is there another position that has seen a wider spectrum of defensive ability? (Brooks Robinson and Dave Kingman, briefly, played at the same time). Is there another position with body types as different as those of huge Scott Rolen and little Chone Figgins? When you ask "why?" to these questions, as we did with Rays manager Joe Maddon, you get the quizzical look, which you never get from Maddon because he is so smart, so observant about the game and so gifted with the language.

Maddon rubbed his hand through his gray hair, and said, "I'm nonplussed. I don't know."

I don't know.

Third base.

"It's a very difficult, demanding position," said Brooks Robinson, one of the 10 third basemen in Cooperstown, one of the two or three best ever to play the position, a 16-time Gold Glove winner. "It's a reflex position, but it also requires a lot of finesse: charging the bunt, the topped ball, going to your left. And you also have to hit to play third. You can give up some offense to play second and shortstop. But you have to drive in runs at third."

Playing third base requires a combination of quickness, courage, power, a strong arm and tremendous hand-eye coordination: At that position, more than any other, you have to be able to play the piano, and move it, too. No one did that better than Mike Schmidt, but not many players in history have been up to it. The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera was moved from third base to first base last season, and the Brewers' Ryan Braun tried third for one season, then was moved to the high-fly safety of left field. The Padres, Mets, Dodgers and Orioles -- to name a few teams -- have had long gaps in their history between quality third basemen. In the Padres' first 23 years, no third baseman drove in 65 runs in a season.

But third base is making a comeback. Look around. The Braves' Chipper Jones won a batting title last season, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and will retire likely as one of the five best third basemen of all time. In 2007, Alex Rodriguez became the first third baseman to hit 50 home runs in a season; that year, Boston's Mike Lowell drove in 120 runs, and was named MVP of the World Series. David Wright is so good and so young, he might someday be considered the greatest position player in the history of the Mets. The Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman just had his 30-game hitting streak end this week.

I like to think of myself as having been a hell of a defensive shortstop, but I was a terrible third baseman. I never saw the ball coming off the bat.

-- Jim Fregosi

And then there is the Rays' Evan Longoria. He is the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, and began this season with 44 RBIs in his first 32 games -- the fifth-most RBIs in the first 32 games by anyone in history, behind only Babe Ruth (1927), Cy Williams (1923), Jimmy Foxx (1938) and Roy Campanella (1953). At 23, Longoria is one of the best players in the league, "as good a defensive third baseman as I've ever seen," said Rays veteran coach Don Zimmer. Longoria is so gifted at the plate, he takes batting practice against a machine that fires tennis balls -- some of them marked with a black spot, some with a red spot -- up to 150 mph. At 100 mph, he can identify the color of the ball that's coming, then will hit the black ball to the opposite field, and pull the red ball.

How can he do that?

"I don't know," teammate Carlos Pena said.

Third base.

We can, with mass statistical projection, look ahead 15 years and realistically see Jones, Wright, Longoria and maybe Zimmerman in the Hall of Fame, with A-Rod as a half-and-half, shortstop/third baseman, in Cooperstown. So, why are there so many good ones now?

"I don't know," Robinson said.

Third base.

"How many are converted shortstops?" Maddon asked.

Rodriguez was a shortstop until he joined the Yankees in 2004. Jones began his pro career as a shortstop. The Cardinals' Troy Glaus was a shortstop in college, as was Braun. Longoria was a shortstop until 2004 when, after his freshman year at Long Beach State, he was moved to third base because of Troy Tulowitzki. The Brewers were going to draft Tulowitzki as a third baseman, but they didn't because he wanted to remain a shortstop. This spring, Michael Young was moved from shortstop to third base by the Rangers.

It's only 30 feet to the right, but the transition from shortstop to third is difficult because third is so much closer to the plate, the ball arrives so much quicker and there is no time to set your feet. Former Angel Jim Fregosi moved to third base after 11 years at shortstop. "I like to think of myself as having been a hell of a defensive shortstop, but I was a terrible third baseman," he once said. "I never saw the ball coming off the bat. You can't see the hitter's hands come through the hitting zone like you can when you're at shortstop."

Longoria is a tremendous defensive third baseman. "The hardest play for me when I moved over was the angle of the throw on the slow roller," Longoria said. "It took me my whole first year there to learn how to make that play. Third base is not the easiest position."

Cal Ripken made the transition as smoothly as anyone, but he began his big league career as a third baseman. "I used to get hit in the cup regularly at third base," he said. "Then I moved to shortstop and didn't get hit in the cup for 15 years. Then I moved back to third and got hit in the cup. 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."

Jones played third in the major leagues for seven years, moved to left field for two, and has been back at third for five-plus seasons. "My first game back, I got a rocket ground ball," he said. "I wanted someone to hit me one of those so I'd know I could still do it. Two years away from third, I wasn't sure."

The first game Rodriguez played at third base, in spring training 2004, the Phillies' Jason Michaels hit a one-hopper that shot past him. "I never saw it," Rodriguez said. "I never had a ball at shortstop that I didn't see."

Former Cubs third baseman Ron Santo never saw the ball that Frank Howard hit at him in spring training 1959. "He was the biggest person I had ever seen in my life," Santo once said. "He hit a one-hopper at me 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?'"

No shortstop gets knocked out by a ground ball. Shortstop is fun; third base is not, especially when the hitter is strong enough to whistle a line drive past the third baseman's ear, and also fast and capable enough to drop a bunt, forcing the third baseman to play in. "Playing third," said five-time Gold Glove third baseman Doug Rader, "is like recovering a fumble. It takes a special guy to play there."

Robinson was special, but he signed as a second baseman, then was moved to third after 50 games "because the Orioles didn't think I had the range to play second, and they thought I'd hit some home runs," Robinson said. "Third base is the classic get-in-front-of-it-and-knock-it-down position. The play I found the hardest was the backhanded play over the bag; it's much easier going to your left than to your right at third. But I always found a way to be around the ball. I played basketball in high school, and I was always around the ball. The difference between an outstanding third baseman and a good one is God-given timing."

There was a day when teams would put almost anyone at third base. Kingman played there. Carl Yastrzemski was tried there (it didn't go well) briefly, as was Johnny Bench. Don Mattingly, a left-handed first baseman, played a few games at third base for Billy Martin.

But that isn't happening nearly as much anymore. And, it appears, more kids are growing up to be third basemen. From 1965 to 1991, only 26 third basemen were taken in the first round of the June amateur draft. But in the past four years (counting supplemental picks), 18 third basemen have been taken. In 2005, Alex Gordon (Royals), Zimmerman and Braun were taken with the second, fourth and fifth picks. Longoria was the third player taken in the 2006 draft. Last year, the Pirates made Pedro Alvarez the second overall pick in the draft; he might be the best prospect in their system.

Why were so few third basemen drafted in the first round for so long, and lately, so many?

"I don't know," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said.

Third base.

"I think there were so few taken for so long because third base is where you moved after you got to pro ball -- it's where a lot of shortstops were moved," Melvin said after thinking about it. "The profile of the third base position has changed. We're not just putting anyone over there anymore. With the emphasis on defense today, I think teams are looking at third base more for defense because they're getting more offense from defensive positions like shortstop and center field. When Ryan Zimmerman was drafted, they said that he would win a Gold Glove at third base, but there was a question out there whether he would hit. He just hit in 30 consecutive games. He became a good hitter very quickly."

Maybe there are more Ryan Zimmermans on the way. The Brewers' Mat Gamel, drafted in the fourth round in 2005, was called up to the big leagues Thursday. The Marlins' third baseman of the future, Chris Coghlan, a No. 1 pick (supplemental) in 2006, was recalled this week, and put in left field because there was a need. Maybe another David Wright has been drafted in the past five years. But, at third base, it's always so hard to tell.

"There are so many good third basemen out there now," Robinson said. "There are so many classy guys playing the position. I think it's a cyclical thing. They come and they go."

Usually, more go than come. Will that continue? Or will more third baseman continue to thrive?
Robinson laughed and said, "I don't know."

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 became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.