This recent article on ESPN, There’s Nothing Easy About Playing Third Base, brought a flood of terrifying memories back. Even in my best baseball seasons, I was nowhere near a Hanley Ramirez or Miguel Cabrera, but I know even these guys must have some nerves about switching from their more comfortable positions on the field to the hot corner in this upcoming season.
As the article illustrates, when you’re playing third, there is often zero time to react. There are even times when you don’t even see the ball, but somehow your animal instincts of survival kick in and by some magic or stroke of God, your glove stops the ball before it tears a hole through you. Either that or it just streaks past you leaving you on your heels, with no way of covering your dumbfoundedness. Or there is another possibility…
I was 13 or 14 and I didn’t play a whole lot of infield, but one year during all-star practice, the coach wanted to try me out at third because I had fast feet and a strong arm. For most of the week I played well in that position, even with an all dirt infield (which allows the ball travel that much faster without grass to slow it down). It was Friday and we were taking our final workout for the day. The way we did it, as each position fielded their last round cleanly, they left the feild. 1st and 3rd were the last positions, all the other infielders and outfilders were sitting on the bench, watching the final round. I squatted slightly in a ready position, trying to ignore the knot in my stomach that formed every time just before the swing of that bat. The coach hitting infield pactice that day was Bret, a lean, salty contstruction worker with an out-of-date mullet, a mustache, and 3 wive’s names—2 of them ex-wives—tattooed on his right pec. (Yes, he showed his tats to us, and yes, the ex’s names were crossed out in ink.) He tossed the ball in the air and brought the bat’s head swiftly down on it. There was less than a second before that ball flew through the air and bounced on the ground right in front of me. I wasn’t thinking, I was reacting. My mechanics kicked in and I got the glove down to keep the ball from sailing into left field. It hit the heel of the glove though and shot straight up to my throat. The next few moments were really blur. I heard a muffled chorus of “Ooohhhhhh!” from the bench, and I couldn’t breathe with pain shooting all around my throat and neck. Bret was yelling, “Take another! Take another! C’mon!!!” and I was trying to signal I couldn’t breathe while bending over and feeling scared and sick. Finally, my hand felt it’s way to the spot the ball hit and there was an indentation where my trachea was. I squeezed on either side and it popped right back out like a plastic pipe. Air rushed in followed by an immediate burning sensation and the worst sore throat I had ever experienced. I wasn’t crying—which is a very important point if you know baseball—but my eyes were watering from the few moments of missing oxygen. I wiped them down though, got back into position, and fielded another one cleanly because I knew Bret wasn’t going to stop yelling at me until I did.
When I came into the dugout, the usually ruthless group of guys showed serious concern. They knew baseball and they knew that third base is no joke. You take your lumps at that position and you have instant, lasting respect, even from the biggest shit-talkers. Bret, of course, blew it off. He said, “Ah, that’s nothing, come here, feel this,” putting his hand on his windpipe. I, naturally, was reluctant to put my hands on any grown man, and Bret seemed especially unsafe. He didn’t wait though and grabbed my hand and placed it on his throat, moving it side to side. I felt a strange, clicking as he moved his throat with my hand and he said, “Yeah, see?! Plastic baby! Had part of it removed from chewing too much tobacco!” He was actually proud and I was actually grossed out and a little thankful that I was me, and not him.
About an hour after practice, not only did a massive bruise appear, and a really, really sore throat, but so did the seams of the ball. A perfect, purplish-burgundy print that made me feel pretty damn special. I didn’t end up playing third for the all-star games and that was fine. For a brief minute in high school I tried to overcome my fear and try out at that devlish position, but ultimately stuck to pitching and outfield. I wasn’t cut out for it and few really are. Third base is no joke and I have a lot of respect for anyone willing to play there, even if they are getting paid a couple million a year.