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The low regard in which previous generations held third base is no longer evident, and this is as it should be. True, third basemen are recruited primarily to be power hitters in the middle of the lineup. True, a third baseman is less important to a team's defense than the up-the-middle positions. But the famous put-down made by Hall of Fame Second Baseman Frankie Frisch rings hollow today. "There's nothing tough about playing third," he said. "All a guy needs is a strong arm and a strong chest."
To be frank, Frankie, a third baseman must be deft enough to field bunts and dribblers on the run and throw in one fluid motion: agile enough to react to hard-hit balls to his left and right; and fearless enough to take direct shots off his body. "You don't see too many muscle-bound third basemen," says Bell. Nor many fainthearted ones. "When you reach the point you're too slow to get out of the way," says Detroit's Tom Brookens, "it's time to quit." He's kidding, of course. A fielder who plays "matador" defense won't last long; at third you take your lumps and learn to love it.
"You don't think about getting hit by batted balls," says Brett, "any more than getting hit by pitched ones." Nonetheless, a third baseman's pain threshold is only so high. "Maybe that's why there are so few of them in the Hall," says Parrish. "It's such a demanding position that few can hit with power and field well over a long career." Robinson's 23-year stint (1955-77) is the exception. Among the good third basemen who missed being elected to the Hall, Al Rosen lasted just seven full seasons and Billy Cox 10.
"Fielding at third is total concentration," says Schmidt. "If I could concentrate on every ground ball hit to me, I don't think I'd make more than five or six errors a year. And concentration is especially important when you're switching from AstroTurf to natural grass. You can fail to get your glove down, look away, wait for the ball to come to you and still make the plays on AstroTurf because the bounce is usually uniform. I think AstroTurf causes defensive players to become lackadaisical. Then they switch to natural grass where they have to charge the ball, and they're in trouble. So you have to concentrate all the time."
Even if a third baseman is slow, he can compensate with fast reactions, sound baseball instincts and aggressiveness. "What made Brooks a great third baseman," says Brett, "was that he charged everything. He reacted as the ball was coming off the bat, sometimes as it was coming to the bat." By contrast, the sure-handed but slow-footed Reitz was traded to the Cubs last winter because the Cardinals feared he wouldn't get to the slow rollers caused by the sinking, split-fingered fastballs of Bruce Sutter, the man they were trading for.
The most overrated attribute—Frisch notwithstanding—is a strong arm. Robinson had an average arm but a quick and accurate release. The most overrated statistic is errors, the most underrated, chances. In 1974 Robinson was awarded the Gold Glove over Milwaukee's Don Money although Money had fewer errors (five to 18) and a higher fielding percentage (.989 to .967). But Robinson accepted 543 chances to Money's 472 and the voting wasn't close.
Third basemen can't agree on their most difficult play. A drive down the line, some say. "The two-hopper," argues Nettles. "You can't go in or back and you don't get any perspective on the ball." Most third basemen fear the surprise bunt. "You have to field it one-handed because you're moving at top speed," says Robinson. "If you field the ball with your left foot forward, you can throw right away, but it's awkward to bend down with your right foot forward. I always used a little stutter step to get the left foot in front." Even an expected sacrifice bunt can be tough, especially if there are runners at first and second. Then the third baseman must instantly decide whether to retreat to third for the throw or to field the ball himself.
Thus, instinct wins out over intelligence. "Next to the catcher, the third baseman has to be the dumbest guy out there," says Seattle rookie Dave Edler. "You can't have any brains to take those shots all day." Parrish prefers the word flaky. "A guy who can't be afraid to move up on the ball," says Eddie Mathews, "or play in on Ralph Kiner when a line drive could kill you. A guy who's right in there on the field or in a fight."
Third basemen are survivors. According to a study by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, third basemen live longer than any other players. But they've got more going for them than longevity. "You're the voice of the team," says Horner. "You direct traffic on pop flies and bunts." Because they have less time to react to batted balls than middle infielders, third basemen must position themselves for hitters more precisely. "I've studied the position inside out," says Schmidt. "A guy's cheating himself and his teammates if he doesn't take advantage of that knowledge."
The most celebrated defensive third basemen of all time were Traynor, Robinson and Clete Boyer. Traynor was an excellent batter who hit .320 from 1920 to 1937, but his defense was particularly notable in an era when third basemen were considered fixtures rather than fielders. "He was a big rangy guy who took a bent-over stance with his hands on the ground," says Hall of Fame Pitcher Burleigh Grimes, Traynor's teammate in 1928, '29 and '34. "He was the first player I ever saw cross over and backhand balls hit down the line. Before Pie, they were all doubles." Traynor was so dedicated that if he made an error in a game he would stay for an hour afterward taking grounders. And that's not just another baseball legend.