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Third Base (Life Used to Be So Hard)
Posted By Greg Prince On July 11, 2006 @ 7:42 pm In Main Page | Comments Disabled
When the National Leaguers take the field tonight in their previously futile quest for pride and home-field advantage, there will be a historic moment. David Wright will cross a foul line and position himself at third base as the first Met ever elected to man the hot corner in the Midsummer Classic.
Don’t think that’s significant? Then you haven’t been paying attention.
Perhaps the most amusing thing said by any Met since 2006 began was by Eli Marrero after he was acquired in exchange for Kaz Matsui. When told by Willie Randolph that one of the spots where he’d be filling in would be third base, Marrero confessed he had never played there before, but “how hard can it be?”
Oh Eli. We love that what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Perhaps you were basing your assessment on seeing who plays third base for the Mets most days. Despite how hard he works, it almost seems succeeding at baseball is easy for him. David Wright isn’t a perfect fielder, but the occasional rushed throw (short squibs, poor footing) hardly detracts from his status as the best all-around player in the game among those who call third home.
Who you like better? Scott Rolen? Aramis Ramirez? Morgan Ensberg? Miguel Cabrera? Larry Jones? Alex Rodriguez? Would you trade for any of them right now or next year or in five years if you had to give up David Wright? Is there anybody who’s as good as David Wright at third who figures to keep improving? Knowing what you know as Mets fans (61 homers, 216 ribbies, .306 average in essentially two full seasons), is there anybody you’d rather watch in all of baseball represent you and your interests for 162 games to say nothing of on a larger stage?
If the 2006 All-Star Game is David Wright’s coming-out party, then the home run hitting contest was his debutante pre-show. It’s not an event to be taken seriously, but the ESPN audience learned two things watching David swat horsehide at this exhibition within an exhibition.
• He takes everything that involves a baseball seriously — not Gregg Jefferies, I’m so angry I could stamp my little feet seriously but David Wright, I come to beat you, I come to kill you, no matter how wide my grin appears seriously. He displayed what he’s all about while waiting for his next ups last night. When one slugger is at the plate, the rest of the players, even the competing swingers, generally huddle on the grass and yuk it up. But while David’s rivals were batting, David’s eyes were on fire. He was focused on defeating them. Later he relaxed a bit and was a gracious runnerup when Ryan Howard took the trophy (the Home Run Derby seems to be the Phillies’ ceiling) but it was clear that David Wright doesn’t take part in activities and not plan to win them.
• You underestimate David Wright at your own peril. There were eight contestants in the Derby. ESPN’s crew looked everywhere but directly at David for their story. Why should they have bothered with Wright? He’s not a classic slugger; his righthandedness doesn’t play to PNC’s porch; he’s a line-drive hitter. By the end of the evening, there was still a tinge of disbelief that he was in the finals. It had only a little to do with power. If it had been a fungo contest, David Wright would have been in the finals. If it had been a sack race in the Bradys’ backyard, David would have taken Greg, Marcia and Peter to double-overtime. He may be relatively new to you in the rest of the world, but we know from what chant vis-à-vis M-V-P! M-V-P! So will you, soon enough.
Apparently the fans are ahead of the chattering classes on this one. He won the third base election going away. Topping Rolen was no easy feat; St. Louis comes out to vote. David Wright, as the premier player on the National League’s premier team, is too good to be ignored by anybody. So good, in fact, that it’s blessedly easy to ignore what has come before him.
Since his “sure, whatever” acceptance of his wide-ranging utility duties, Eli Marrero has, in fact, played third base for the Mets. With two innings at Yankee Stadium on July 2, he became the 133rd third baseman in Mets history. Earlier in the season, Jose Valentin became third baseman No. 132. Nothing much was made of it. Last year, Chris Woodward and Miguel Cairo played third as Mets for the first time. It wasn’t a story that the tally of Met third sackers had reached 131.
On July 21, 2004, David Wright became the 129th third baseman in the history of the New York Mets. That was also the day it became safe to stop keeping track.
It wasn’t always like that.
It used to be a matter of faith that third base at Shea Stadium was the hottest corner in the National League given the sparks that flew every time its door revolved. You couldn’t grow up on the Mets in the 1970s without being told third base had been trouble town dating back to 1962. You couldn’t celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Mets without a quick stroll down misery lane in An Amazin’ Era, the otherwise brightside VHS look at Mets history up to and including early 1986. The highlight of the tape was the ditty composed to honor “the 79 guys who played third for the Mets,” starting with No. 1 Don Zimmer and running up to No. 79 Tim Teufel.
Linz, Mantilla, part of the story
Randle and Phillips
And Youngblood and Torre
Moock, Hunt & Hurdle
No hoi polloi
Gardenhire and Klaus and Foy
The cassette wasn’t in stores two weeks when Gary Carter would make it 80. The list would hit 90 in 1992, 100 in 1995 and just keep shooting ever upward…Excelsior! as we say in New York.
Except we rarely said it about third basemen anywhere in this town. Quantity, yeah, but quality was a whole other thing. You know New York is the capital of baseball. You know we’ve had three storied National League franchises here plus a representative from the American League. You know we’ve had some of the most famous players and most famous moments in the sport. But did you know that when compared to other glamorous, Gothamous penthouse positions, third base has been a ghetto?
Quick: Where’s the Willie, Mickey and/or the Duke of third base? Who’s on the level of Yogi, Campy and Kid? Is there a Seaver vs. Catfish equivalent on the far left side? Hernandez-Mattingly even?
New York hasn’t been bereft of good third basemen, but they haven’t been a municipal landmark. The Dodgers were almost out of Brooklyn before their top tertiary defenseman, Billy Cox, displayed his line of leather. He was described by Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer as “solitary, strange, gifted and troubled.” Before Cox, it was the names of third base Bums that were most intriguing: Jersey Joe Stripp, Cookie Lavagetto and the one my father liked to throw at me, Frenchy Bordagaray. I thought he was making that one up.
Actually, the most famous aspect regarding third base and the Dodgers was that they once had three baserunners stand on it. For what it’s worth, neither Dazzy Vance, Chick Fewster nor Babe Herman was a third baseman.
As for my Giants, their leading third baseman, probably, was Freddie Lindstrom, best known for being terribly young — 18 when he came up —and terribly unlucky — two bad-hop singles handcuffed him in the 1924 World Series which wound up transferring the title to the enemy Senators. He would recover, hit well and eventually make the Hall of Fame, but his induction is considered in some circles one of those Veterans Committee backslapping jobs.
Other greats who played third base for the Jints include Bobby Thomson and Mel Ott, but the fact that they aren’t really known for their third base tenures kind of proves the point that third base wasn’t a pressing priority at the Polo Grounds. Art Devlin played more games at third than any New York Giant; if you can find a bar that takes bets on such things, go win yourself a bar bet.
The Yankees? Jumping Joe Dugan…Red Rolfe…Clete Boyer…Graig Nettles…talents all. But were they ever the main men on the Bronx Bombers? Not in the shadows of the Babe, the Clipper, the Mick and Reginald Martinez Jackson they weren’t.
Today, third base is where it’s happening in New York. The Yanks have A-Rod, the most accomplished athlete in the sport. As a player, he’s excellent. As a personality, he’s eczema. But you can’t have it all.
Oh wait — we can. We do. We have David Wright. He hits and fields and talks like a human being and comes through in the clutch practically every time the clutch gets in his way. He’s a joy from every angle. And he plays third base for the New York Mets.
You kidding? He is third base for the New York Mets.
Smith and Jones and a Stearns named Dude
Samuel, Valentine, Reynolds, Bressoud
For the first time in 45 years, that’s an inarguable good thing. Not that there haven’t been fleetingly transcendent performers where Wright is now ensconced, but they never seemed to last. Perhaps Bill Shea made an indemnification payment of sorts to the other NL teams in order to secure an expansion franchise for New York…
Your fears about a large-market team automatically overwhelming the National League are unfounded, nevertheless we promise that for the first four decades of operation, we’ll take the field with no more than eight good players at a time. We’ll scrape by at, uh, third base. And if one of those fellas starts to succeed, we’ll move him or trade him.
Got any other explanations? I’m stumped.
I can accept that the first three years of Mets baseball offered a sideshow parade of Johnny Stephenson, Amado Samuel, Pumpsie Green, Ted Schreiber, Sammy Drake and fifteen others who followed Zimmer at third. They were losing 340 games and I was either too unborn or too insentient to suffer through it. Implicit in that is I’m accepting Don Zimmer as the first link in this chain of pain.
I understand that sometimes you have to toss a Phil Linz, a Joe Moock, a Bob Heise out there. Heck, I can even see that there might be a need for Jerry Grote, like Gary Carter would one Fight Night in Cincinnati, to take off the tools of ignorance and man the bag of bad vibes.
I can deal with the deal that brought us Joe Foy who brought us no joy and that Jim Fregosi wasn’t George Brett and that Roy Staiger never grew into Ron Cey and even that Phil Mankowski was undeniably Phil Mankowski. I can live knowing that Wayne Garrett proved remarkably difficult to supplant.
I survived an entire season of Richie Hebner.
Heidemann, Hickman, Kingman and Cook
The weird part is that starting late in 1980, our third baseman became less bizarre and more competent. We had good ones. I’d dare say we had one or two on the verge of greatness. But, in deference to Bill Shea’s codicil of concession, each of them had to be disappeared in undue time.
Hubie Brooks? Batted .307 as a rookie. Overcame jitters to become a reliable glove. Then he was moved to short. Then he was moved to Montreal for Carter. No complaints there per se, but I thought Hubie was the answer.
Ray Knight? Rough first full year in ’85. Excellent second full year in ’86. World Series MVP. Was not brought back in a haggle over veritable pennies.
Howard Johnson? Wasn’t even supposed to get the job for good. That was Dave Magadan’s. But HoJo homered and stole, homered and stole. Every other year he was an ungodly combination of power and speed for an infielder. Was the first Met 3B to make the ASG — even started as a replacement for Mike Schmidt in ’89 (only the Mets would wait 28 seasons to claim the best third baseman in the league and then see him lose the All-Star balloting to someone who retired in May). As his final wonderful season, 1991, wound down, the Mets knew exactly what to do with their best third baseman ever: make him an outfielder. The Shea outfield swallowed HoJo whole. His bat was never heard from again.
Dave Magadan? Terrific first baseman for a year. Fought off Bill Pecota at third for another year. Then he was gone in the ’93 expansion draft.
Bobby Bonilla? A third baseman who moved to the outfield who eventually moved back to third base. It was all management could do to make him the moveable object of Baltimore’s affections.
Jeff Kent? After he couldn’t play second and before he turned into the greatest-hitting second baseman ever, he tried third for us. He didn’t like it, which was OK since we didn’t like him.
Edgardo Alfonzo? One too many moves. He was the best-fielding third baseman we ever had before becoming the best-fielding second baseman we ever had until he was yanked back to where he started. Sadly, his back turned him into a range-free third baseman.
Robin Ventura? The cause of that first wave of deFonziefication. Ventura was as real a deal as there could be at third for the Mets. Won our first Gold Glove there. Hit like he never heard of Pumpsie Green. A dream. Must’ve been. Followed an MVPish ’99 with a so-so 2000 and a hurtin’ 2001. He was not asked to complete his contract in New York.
Hubie to Ray to HoJo to Mags to Bobby Bo to Kent to Fonzie to Robin to Fonzie Redux (with a touch of Butch Huskey, Alvaro Espinosa and David Lamb thrown in to keep us honest). These were good players. They were not Foygosis. All of them except for Magadan weren’t long removed in one direction or the other from All-Star status when they played third for the Mets, and Magadan had competed for a batting title in the very recent past. From 1981 through 2002, third base, for the most part, wasn’t the province of the Danny Napoleons.
Bailor, Moran, Boyer and Foster
Some are losers
Some are winners
Hiller, Schreiber, Staiger and Zimmer
I thought we had third base solved. And then came 2003 and Ty Wigginton.
I’m sorry, I really am. Ty Wigginton was a hard-nosed player. I never saw anybody corral a ground ball with more determination and less regard for his own well being than Ty Wigginton. And Ty was not beyond slugging here and there, which is good because it lends credence to a nickname me and some friends sitting down the third base line gave him one chilly April night. We called him Sluggo…not for his hitting, but because he looked like Nancy’s pal  from the creepiest comic strip  this side of Mallard Fillmore.
I hated the 2003 Mets because they had Rey Sanchez. I hated the 2003 Mets because they had Robbie Alomar. I hated the 2003 Mets because they had Mike Stanton. I hated the 2003 Mets because…need I go on? The point is I didn’t hate the 2003 Mets because they had Ty Wigginton. I was, however, crushingly depressed by the 2003 Mets because Ty Wigginton played 155 games at third base for them.
And because Jay Bell subbed for him 14 times.
But never mind that. And never mind the obvious good-guyedness of Ty Wigginton. Never mind the heat Wiggy generated in the home portion of the 2004 Subway Series and the hefty contribution — 6-for-12 and the Sunday game-winning dinger off Tom Gordon — he made toward sweeping the Skanks (donations like that usually get a hospital wing named after you). Never mind Ty Wigginton’s hard nose and shaved head and endless insistence on approaching the game the right way if not necessarily the spectacularly able way. Most of all, never mind that Scott Kazmir isn’t the only former Met property having a bang-up year in Tampa Bay. Ty Wigginton is down south hitting his share of homers (16) and holding down second base and relatively flourishing in obscurity.
Less than a month after dismantling the Yankees, we traded Ty Wigginton to the Pirates and I never minded one bit. Because it meant that David Wright was up to stay and David Wright, unlike his worthy predecessors of the preceding quarter-century, wasn’t going anywhere…in the good sense. With Wright’s arrival, the Zimmer-Wigginton epoch was over. With Wright’s recall, recalling Met third base travails became trivial, not troubling.
David Wright is the best third baseman in Mets history. When all is said and done, even though the saying and doing is barely out of the first inning, we will likely recall him as the best third baseman New York has ever seen. And as great as the feats in front of him will be, he is to be admired now for something he’s accomplished already: He has put all the laughable, cryable, mystifyable connotations attached to “playing third base for the New York Mets” far, far behind us.
It’s no wonder that so many of us are willing to wear his name and number on our backs.
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URLs in this post:
 Nancy’s pal: http://scoop.diamondgalleries.com/scoop_article.asp?ai=2581&si=126
 the creepiest comic strip: http://www.toonopedia.com/nancy.htm
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