The closest race in this year’s election of baseball All-Stars was also the most disheartening. Neck and neck in the balloting at third base in the American League, swapping the lead twice in the stretch run, was a pair of players batting under .250: 40-year-old legend Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles and David Bell, a 28-year-old mediocrity with the Seattle Mariners. In the end, tradition beat out ballot-stuffing, and Ripken—buoyed by his announcement that this would be his final season—squeaked out a win by 44,000-odd votes.
In some sense, either Bell or Ripken would have been a perfect representative. For all the reputation that right field has as the Elba of Little League, it’s the so-called Hot Corner where the big-league teams stash their odds and ends: superstars on the downside, surplus utility infielders, young guys who aren’t good enough to play anywhere else.
Historically, third base is the weakest position in the game. The Hall of Fame has fewer third basemen (nine) than any other position, and there’s no Mays-versus-Mantle-versus-DiMaggio debate to be had. You’ve got your supreme third-base slugger, Mike Schmidt. You’ve got the supreme third-base fielder, Brooks Robinson. There are others, and giants among them: George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Pie Traynor. But what is a giant without a landscape to give him a sense of scale?
In the American League—with the exception of Angels’ star Troy Glaus—the landscape is barren. Consider this brief history: David Bell plays third base because the Mariners took second base away from him and gave it to Bret Boone (now an All-Star starter) last off-season. Ripken plays third base because the Orioles set it up for him as a sort of on-field retirement home, after 16 Hall of Fame-caliber seasons at shortstop. Yet as recently as 1999, Ripken was plausibly the best third baseman available for the All-Star game, batting .313 with 12 homers at the break. If anyone deserved starting honors more than Ripken that year, it was 37-year-old ex-shortstop Tony Fernandez of Toronto. In 2000, the Blue Jays dumped Fernandez and installed young utility man Tony Batista at third; Batista responded by making the All-Star team himself and hitting 41 home runs. Last month, with Batista batting just over .200, the Jays tried to demote him to the minors, which enabled the Orioles to grab him off waivers. So, last year’s rising All-Star is now backing up Ripken.
Things are a bit better in the National League, where the Braves’ Chipper Jones, a perennial standout, is joined on the All-Star team by defensively inept Padres slugger Phil Nevin and eye-popping Cardinals rookie Albert Pujols. Maybe Pujols is for real, and he’ll duel Jones for starting honors for the next five or 10 years. Or maybe not. Scott Rolen, the N.L.’s last hot youngster, slumped this year and missed the cut. Pujols has played nearly half his games at other positions and could easily end up playing right field or third base. They come and go, third basemen.
This lack of sustained brilliance is sort of mystifying. Played well, the position calls for both a quick glove and a strong throwing arm. Third basemen are supposed to hit for both average and power. The prototype third baseman, in brief, should be a comprehensively well-rounded ballplayer. So, why are most third basemen such pellets?
The answer, I suspect, is that player development is not Aristotelian. Young players tend to get noticed by being outstanding at something, not by being fairly good across the board. In the infield, they are either nimble fielders (i.e., the shortstop type) or prodigious power hitters (i.e., the first baseman type), but not both. So, third base is where the rejects land—the oafish guys who don’t quite have the pop to play first (Nevin), or the banjo hitters who aren’t quite sharp enough afield to play shortstop (Bell). Moving to third is usually a demotion, as when the Red Sox slid John Valentin over from shortstop to make room for Nomar Garciaparra. And leaving third looks a lot like a step up: When Jim Thome blossomed into a top-class slugger, the Indians moved him across the diamond to first.
In part, too, today’s third basemen look bad because the fielder directly to the left of them has gotten so much better. Shortstop was once something of a necessary evil; if a guy could meet the defensive demands, his team would overlook it if he couldn’t hit at all (this blueprint fits even Hall of Famers like Phil Rizzuto). But the last two decades have brought waves of Latin American players to the United States, and Latin American baseball esteems the shortstop above all other positions. Thus, what used to be a dumping ground is now a glamour position, manned by the likes of Omar Vizquel, Miguel Tejada, and Rafael Furcal.
And that trend is exacerbated by Ripken’s own legacy as a big, slugging shortstop. When Earl Weaver moved his 6-foot-4-inch rookie from third base to short in 1982, he changed the blueprint for the position. Ripken’s success—345 home runs as a shortstop, seven years leading the league in assists—led other teams to try keeping strapping young hitters at short, further constricting the supply of third basemen. Thus we have today’s so-called Big Three shortstops, Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. A generation or two ago, they all might have played third base. In Rodriguez’s and Garciaparra’s cases, this means fans get to see greater offensive artistry at short than they would have in the past. Jeter, though, is a lackadaisical defender whose range is slipping further below average each year. He’s a guy who belongs at third.
But he’s a superstar, and this generation of superstars plays short. When their skills start to fade with age, then they too can just slide over to third base. There will almost certainly be a vacancy.