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."