"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.