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Transition to third is about commitment

by Jerry Crasnick
March 1, 2004

PHOENIX--A's third baseman Eric Chavez had two knee-jerk reactions, or one for each knee, upon learning that Alex Rodriguez will shift from shortstop to third base this season with the Yankees:

1) My streak of three consecutive Gold Glove Awards is in serious jeopardy. Or as Chavez so eloquently put it to several writers when the topic came up at A's camp: "I'm screwed."

2) Why in the world is the best shortstop in baseball switching to third base?

By now, we all know the reason. A-Rod, in his quest for a bigger stage, a winning atmosphere and a little less Buck Showalter in his life, would have traveled the globe for a change of scenery. As it turns out, he only needed to go 1,550 miles and 15 steps to his right.

The move from Dallas to New York will bring all sorts of new adventures. Rodriguez will experience the joys of Big Apple night-life and cuisine, hear his name pronounced by Bob Sheppard before each Yankee Stadium at-bat, and jockey for position with teammate Derek Jeter in that most hallowed of places--the New York Post gossip page.

In Texas, A-Rod only drank champagne on New Year's Eve. Now he better be doing it in late October, or George Steinbrenner will be an angry man.

While the move to New York should do wonders for A-Rod's "Q" rating and endorsement opportunities, the switch to third might be hazardous to his dental work. He's shifting from a position that places a premium on fluidity and grace to one that requires a quick first step and a big set of . . . well . . . you know whats.

Chavez, who's so skilled at third that even A-Rod might not be able to break his Gold Glove streak, fails to grasp the logic. He would have shifted Jeter to second base if necessary before moving Rodriguez to short.

"If you're in control of your team, you want to put the best guys out in the field you possibly can," Chavez said. "Derek is a good shortstop, but A-Rod is the best. To me, it's handicapping your team to move him."

Historical precedent

Cal Ripken Jr., Rodriguez's baseball hero, was an all-star third baseman in the minor leagues before taking over as Baltimore's full-time shortstop at 22. Ripken spent 14 seasons at the position before reluctantly switching back to third at age 36.

Rodriguez, a baseball history buff, is no doubt conscious of the Ripken parallels as he prepares to make the change. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, he's built like a third baseman and hits with classic corner-infielder power. He probably would have made this move eventually; the Yankees just sped up the process.

The decision to play Rodriguez at third and keep Jeter at shortstop is based on protocol as much as practicality. The scouts and statistics say Rodriguez is superior defensively. But Jeter is the Yankees' team captain and was a pivotal player on four World Series championship clubs. It would be an affront to his ego to ask him to change positions to accommodate A-Rod. So for the sake of tradition and clubhouse harmony, he stays put.

One American League scout said Jeter is well-suited for second base because: a) he's adept at going to his right, and b) he's capable of pivoting at second and making a quick, flip throw to first to complete the double play.

But you don't slap a guy in the face when he's got rank. It was dumb enough when the Mets decided to mess with Jose Reyes' future by shifting him to second base to make room for Kaz Matsui. It's something else for Jeter, a five-time all-star, to risk blowing out a knee on a pivot because A-Rod wasn't happy making $25 million a year in Texas.

Rico act

Ripken isn't the only precedent for A-Rod. Rico Petrocelli was 27 years old and a two-time American League all-star in late 1970 when Red Sox management asked if he'd be willing to move from short to third to make room for Luis Aparicio.

Petrocelli arrived in Winter Haven, Fla., several months later with a new glove and an open mind. He had Frank Malzone to tutor him on the nuances of his new position, but the extent of the change didn't resonate until he experienced it first-hand.

The adjustment was mental as well as physical. As a shortstop, Petrocelli was in the middle of cutoffs and relays and helped set defensive alignments. He was responsible for covering second base on steal attempts and directing traffic on pop flies in the infield.

Third base, he discovered, was notable for its extended periods of inaction interspersed with flashes of terror and opportunities for embarrassment. You can get lost in a daydream for five innings playing third. Then the first ball hit at you is either a line shot at your forehead or a nubber requiring you to charge, field the ball barehanded and throw off-balance across your body. It's less a defensive position than a self-defense position.

"At shortstop, you see the ball going into home plate and you can get a little jump because of the angle of the bat," Petrocelli said. "You get an idea if the ball is pulled or hit the opposite way. At third base you don't see that. When a righthanded batter swings--bang--the ball is hit towards you. It's all reaction."

Just ask Carl Yastrzemski how easy it is. The Red Sox played him at third out of desperation for 31 games in 1973, and Yaz made 12 errors. His glove was a weapon of mass destruction.

Friendly advice

Most scouts and personnel people think A-Rod has the ability to win a Gold Glove at third--and soon. If anything, his range and some of his other defensive attributes are wasted at the position.

In Florida, A-Rod planned to acclimate himself with help from Graig Nettles and Luis Sojo, with a little Willie Randolph thrown in. Hey, these are the Yankees. Why have one coach work with a player when you can have three?

If Chavez has one piece of advice for his new Gold Glove rival, it's to be as decisive as possible.

"I don't care if your first step is going straight back or straight in. Just do it," Chavez said. "At shortstop, you have a little more time and you can fine-tune how you're going to play the ball. At third, you play the ball the way the ball dictates you have to play it. There are no choices."

In other words, don't be afraid of commitment. Best of luck in your transition to the hot corner, A-Rod. And don't forget to wear your cup.

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