Cumberland Times-News

Columns

June 5, 2014

Ryan, we hardly knew ye ... at least at third base

— The best defensive third basemen I’ve been lucky to see play are (in no particular order after Brooks) Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Ron Santo, Graig Nettles, Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado and Ryan Zimmerman.

We all know about Brooks, Schmidt and Santo because they’re in the Hall of Fame, but a lot of younger fans might not be familiar with Nettles, who had a good, clutch bat and could pick it with anybody of his era (1967-88). For more on Nettles, see the 1978 World Series highlight tape.

Then there is the current day group of third basemen, led by Texas’ Beltre, whom I would take on my team in a heartbeat for both his bat and his glove. He’s as good as it gets. (See, Cal? There’s a polite way to say it.)

On any given night Machado, who is a shortstop by birth but who has been playing third base for the Orioles for two years now, does things with the glove, his range (see shortstop) and unbelievably powerful and accurate arm that you probably have never seen before. That’s on any given night.

His body and his skills are remarkably similar to his boyhood hero, the young Alex Rodriguez (see shortstop also moved to third). Say what you will about Rodriguez because it’s likely true. But when he came up with the Seattle Mariners he was a baseball sight to behold. And if Machado modeled his game after Rodriguez’s (and he likely did) he couldn’t have chosen a better game to model it after. But then, of course, all the fun with sharp medical instruments began and Mr. Rodriguez is now no longer received in a proper MLB home, but I digress.

As for Zimmerman, while Beltre’s style at the hot corner is solid, borderline spectacular and dependable, and Machado’s is out and out electric, Zimmerman’s style was pure beauty. In fact, Zimmerman played third base as beautifully as You Know Who, and that’s a comparison these admittedly biased eyes have made only once in this life.

Ah, you noticed we have Zimmerman, the face of the Washington Nationals franchise, playing third base in the past tense. How observant for those of you who don’t follow the Nats as closely as I do with the sound turned down.

Actually, using the past tense may not be entirely accurate because, given the injury cycle that has hit the Nationals this season, anything and everything is possible. The fact is, however, Zimmerman, who just missed 44 games due to a fractured thumb, came off the disabled list Wednesday and made his first start in left field.

Why would they put the second coming of You Know Who in left field? There are a number of reasons: Zimmerman’s chronic shoulder problems might make it impossible for him to play third base permanently, outfielder Bryce Harper is still on the disabled list, and the Nats are pleased with the play of young Anthony Rendon at third. Thus, for the betterment of the team, Zimmerman volunteered to go to left to get his bat into the lineup, and that is what he did on Wednesday and again on Thursday.

So what happens when Harper comes back to the team in July? Apparently, the plan of the Nationals brass is to have their former All-Star third baseman spell Adam LaRoche at first base against a tough left-hander, while also playing some left field and, when the occasion arises, some third base.

It can be so argued by one side that the Nats have made their face of the franchise a utility player, while it can be said by the other side, no, he’s just going to help the team wherever help is needed. Which, of course, is what a utility player does. We’re not here, though, to take part in that argument, although the thought of Zimmerman being relegated to a utility role is distasteful. But if you truly love the game of baseball and all that is good about it, the thought of Ryan Zimmerman not playing third base fulltime breaks your heart.

When the Nationals drafted Zimmerman with the No. 4 overall pick of the 2005 amateur draft, then brought him to the big leagues at age 20, it was a sure thing the fans were going to come to see him play, because, at the time, there was nothing else to come see play. The Nats were understandably horrible.

But as the Nationals have become a contender the past three years, through no small assistance from Zimmerman, fans not only came to see the Nationals win, but to see Zimmerman hit and to play third base. Like Brooks and few others since, people pay money to see Ryan Zimmerman play third base because he plays the position with the beauty, grace and know-how that Brooks Robinson did and few others have since.

At this stage it is not possible to put the mouth on the Nationals for sticking Zimmerman in left field and possibly other positions in the future, because it is what’s needed for the club, with Zimmerman himself insisting upon the arrangement with the Nats being in a position to win now.

Zimmerman is a pro’s pro. He is what the game is meant to be. On top of that, he may not be physically able to play third base on an everyday basis again. None of which makes it any less sad or upsetting. For once you find yourself saying you’ll never see a player play a position as wonderfully and as perfectly as a treasured player from your childhood did, another one comes along in your middle age and does. Then, in what seems like an instant, you may never really see it again.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com

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