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Yanks Deftly Spin Move to Third

by Alan Schwarz
March 1, 2004

NEW YORK--Eric Chavez hates it. A shortstop his whole life, Chavez moved to third base after being drafted by the Aís. He handled it so well that he has won three straight Gold Glove awards.

And yet he hates third base.

"I donít feel comfortable," Chavez said. "When Iím playing third, I feel cut off. Every time I move over to short for Thome for the shift, Iím like, ĎThis is what baseballís supposed to look like.í "

Baseball is supposed to have Alex Rodriguez playing shortstop, but the reigning MVP and two-time Gold Glove winner is now going to move to third base, in deference to the inferior defender (and PR man), Derek Jeter. Talk about cut off--Rodriguezí developing legacy as the best all-around shortstop in baseball history was suddenly sliced and tossed away like one of George Steinbrennerís cigar ends.

Our view has changed, as will that of Rodriguez. In moving over to third base his entire perspective will change: heíll have to barehand bunts; backhand screamers down the line with reflexes considerably quicker than he ever required before. He does this having played not one inning as a professional at any position other than shortstop; at least Cal Ripken had played the position before. And Rodriguez does it in New York, where this hot corner is more like a crucible.

"I havenít spoken to anyone about playing third base," Rodriguez said. "This is all very new to me."

Derek Demurs

Yankees personnel spent most of the press conference at Rodriguezí unveiling trying to spin why--when everyone from scouts to statheads rate Jeter the inferior defender--their better shortstop is playing third base. "Because someone maybe has more ability, and can do certain things, doesnít mean youíre a better team that way," manager Joe Torre offered. "Itís something that you canít put down on paper."

Then I will: The Yankees simply donít want to dis Derek--their captain and key member of six pennant winners--and are willing to open a can of worms with this move, rather than a keg, by having Rodriguez shift instead. But with Rodriguezí ability and attitude, his end of that can should close pretty quick. (Jeterís will be pried open further with every misplay, which is silly but inevitable.)

The Yankees have assigned their former third base star, Graig Nettles, to work with Rodriguez in spring training on all the new moves heíll need. Balls will spin differently, and arrive faster. Rodriguez can handle that--he has great first steps to his left and right--but playing back will ease the transition.

"Like me, he could play deep and play the position almost like short," Nettles said. "You can get better hops when you play deep. If you play up close, youíre at the mercy of whatever happens."

Mark Newman, the Yankees VP of baseball operations, sees Rodriguez having to adjust even before the pitcher winds up. At shortstop, Rodriguez could see the catcherís signs and knew the planned location of every pitch; now he will have to get signs from Jeter. And with Rodriguez now off one side, his view of the action is less direct.

"At third base you have to watch the ball and then pick up the plate at some point," Newman said. "You can lose the ball a little bit on the way to the plate, and then you have to pick up this 90-mph orb in the hit zone."

From Arky To Alex

Others, of course, have made this switch and thrived. Mike Schmidt moved just as his career began, Ripken as his ended. Two Hall of Famers did it mid-career: Joe Sewell (with Cleveland in 1929) and Arky Vaughan (when traded from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn in 1942).

Many onlookers see Rodriguezí overall athleticism and see him making the switch deftly, taking spring training to be competent, one full year to be good, and the next to add another Gold Glove to his mantel. Ripken himself commented, "Heís got great hands and great instincts for the game. Adjusting to a new position always presents challenges at first, but nothing practice and game experience wonít take care of."

The same could have been told to Jeter, but the organization insulated him from baseballís bombshell by not even asking about third, or even second. Jeter got testy when reporters did it instead. "Iím playing short now. Thatís my job here," he said. "His job here now is to play third base." One Yankees official told me of the clubís approach to this one: "Who could play where best was not the issue."

So Rodriguez, one of the great athletes of our time, will now begin his crash course at third and hope not to muck up what has been an outstanding defensive resume. Perhaps he really will win a Gold Glove in his new home.

As for Chavez? He wonít mind. By that time, he will surely have escaped the trappings of third base, playing second for the Yankees.

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