•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?