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"There are more good third basemen today than at any other time in history, and more good players at third than at any other position"
Given the position's new respectability, it's appropriate that two third basemen were the key figures in the pivotal inning of the 1980 baseball season. The World Series was tied at two games apiece, with the Royals ahead 3-2 and three outs from winning Game 5. As Philadelphia Third Baseman Mike Schmidt led off the ninth, his Kansas City counterpart, George Brett, moved even with the bag. Schmidt had homered earlier in the game but he had bunted safely the day before, and Brett was taking no chances. This time, however, Schmidt swung away and hit a hard shot to Brett's left that the diving third baseman knocked down but couldn't make a play on. Schmidt's single sparked a two-run inning that enabled the Phillies to win 4-3. They wrapped up the Series two days later.
As exciting as the Series was—six games, five decided by one or two runs—it was this Schmidt-Brett confrontation on a Sunday afternoon in Kansas City that epitomized the season: the two leading teams, the two dominant players, the best-played position.
Ah, third base—alias Thunder Alley, or, most commonly, the Hot Corner. It has had that moniker since a game in 1889 in which Brooklyn batters smashed seven line drives at Cincinnati's Hick Carpenter. Carpenter survived the barrage and set a gutsy example for all future third basemen, but for reasons that aren't entirely clear, only five major league third basemen, the fewest for any position, have entered the Hall of Fame. They are Jimmy Collins of the Boston Braves and Red Sox (in 1945); Pie Traynor, Pirates (1948); Frank (Home Run) Baker, Philadelphia A's and Yankees (1955); Fred Lindstrom, Giants (1976); and Eddie Mathews, Milwaukee Braves (1978). John McGraw (see box, page 61), although an excellent third baseman, was enshrined as a manager. Happily, this state of affairs is on the verge of drastic change. Harmon Killebrew, who came up as a third baseman and became the leading righthanded slugger in American League history with 573 home runs, was unaccountably passed over in his first shot at the Hall in January. He'll undoubtedly make it soon. In 1983 Oriole great Brooks Robinson should make it in his first year of eligibility. The future? "There are more good third basemen today than at any other time in history," says Robinson, "and more good players at third than at any other position."
The best in the business, of course, are the incumbent league MVPs, Brett and Schmidt. Ask baseball men whom they would choose to start a team and they'll invariably answer Brett, who batted .390 last year and led the Royals to their first pennant. In 1980 Schmidt won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove Award, led the National League in runs batted in (121) and homers (48) and also was the Series MVP.
But Brett and Schmidt aren't the only all-round performers at third. Buddy Bell of Texas hit .329 and won a Gold Glove despite the debilitating heat and bad-hop infield of Arlington Stadium. The Dodgers' Ron Cey hit with power (28 homers) and committed only 13 errors while playing most of his games on natural turf, too. The Yankees' Graig Nettles is a former home-run champ who at 36 can still make unforgettable plays in the field. Bill Madlock of Pittsburgh has won two batting titles and fields bunts as well as anyone in the game. Minnesota's John Castino and Boston's Carney Lansford are youngsters with virtually limitless potential; Larry Parrish of Montreal and Bob Horner (page 25) of Atlanta are among the game's most feared sluggers; and defensive star Ken Reitz of the Cubs uses his hands as deftly as a pizza chef. Indeed, only San Diego. Seattle. Toronto, the New York Mets and Chicago White Sox lack a proven player at the position.
Though Schmidt concedes that Nettles is best at making great plays under pressure, the Phillie is generally considered baseball's best all-round third baseman. He has all the requisites: a good arm, fine hand-eye coordination and excellent reflexes, but what separates him from the pack is a quality lacking in most men at his position: speed. Schmidt, who played some shortstop before moving to third, ranges as far afield as any infielder, cutting off grounders in the hole and running down foul pops for over-the-shoulder catches. "I'll tell you about his range," says Philadelphia Inquirer baseball columnist Allen Lewis. "I once saw Schmidt go to his left to cut off a ball in the hole. As he was moving and throwing to second for a force, he saw that his throw would be off line. It tipped off the second baseman's glove, and Schmidt never stopped moving. He ran down his own throw in short right field."
Fast enough to bunt and steal bases, Schmidt exploits his speed in the field. "I play way off the line and back in the outfield," he says. "I like to spice up the position." Unlike most of his peers, who recoil at the myriad horrors of their position, Schmidt considers it easier than any other except leftfield. "It's do or die," he says. "With the tough plays you've got nothing to lose. Most of them aren't made because the ball's hit so hard. So I'm relaxed. Maybe that's why I make more hard plays than the others.
"It's an instinctive, reflex position. I don't think it requires a lot of practice, like Larry Bowa puts in at short. About all I do is spend some time catching the ball and putting it behind my back and between my legs to develop a feel. You have to learn to cradle the ball, to have a limp body so the ball doesn't bounce too far when it hits you. And, of course, you have to enjoy playing out there."
Brett, an excellent clutch fielder who has overcome throwing deficiencies, is quick to agree. "When I came up," he says, "I never wanted to have a ball hit to me. Now I want 'em all the time."