Cumberland Times-News

Mike Burke - Sports

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

1
Text Only
Mike Burke - Sports
  • O’s, Pirates will be buyers, but when?

    Not that we should expect any blockbuster deals to go down as Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline approaches, but the names you hear in Baltimore are catcher Kurt Suzuki and starting pitchers Ian Kennedy, A.J. Burnett and Jorge De La Rosa.

    July 27, 2014

  • Peanuts and Cracker Jack beat any foam finger

    Times have changed, and for the better, as this week marks the third year in a row NFL training camps have opened and have not taken center stage in the cities of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington. That, of course, is due to the play of the three baseball teams that inhabit said cities, the Orioles, the Pirates and the Nationals — two of whom hold first place in their respective divisions, with the other one entering play on Wednesday just 2 1/2 games out of first.

    July 23, 2014

  • Opposition and inclusion understood

    Those of you who have been here before know how I feel about the late great Len Bias, who I will remember foremost as Leonard Bias, the polite, spindly Bambi-eyed kid from Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School, who could throw a dunk through the floor, yet had the most beautiful jump shot I have ever seen.

    July 17, 2014

  • Further proof you should never bet on baseball

    Had you known in March that ...

    July 16, 2014

  • What have we learned this past month?

    Some serious soccer withdrawal is on the horizon for disciples of the Beautiful Game as the month of mania concludes Sunday with the World Cup final. Germany and Argentina, I believe?

    July 11, 2014

  • A man of the Midwest, of Cumberland, and a friend

    His obituary was neither extravagant nor trumpeting. Yet it was a fitting tribute to the man and the life he lived. It was succinct yet sincere. Like the man, it was gracious and understated, and it was filled with love and with warmth, and all of the names of his family and the things in his life that made him memorable.

    July 9, 2014

  • Reign of the entire planet is at stake

    I’ve given up my LeBron Hate. Don’t misunderstand, I have no LeBron Love or even LeBron Like. It’s more like LeBron Lethargy, although that’s probably too strong of a way to describe my indifference because, while I never root for his teams, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him when he’s playing.

    June 15, 2014

  • This German is one ugly American

    Our soccer friends are beside themselves because the World Cup began yesterday. Look to a watering hole near you for a large collection of soccer enthusiasts when the United States plays its first game (match?) Monday against Ghana.

    June 12, 2014

  • Terps look to the West, like what they see

    What a perfectly strange and wonderful weekend it was for area high school football, and we’re just a third of the way through June. Not strange in a negative way, mind you, but strange as in, boy, this doesn’t happen too often around here any more, much less twice in the same weekend.

    June 11, 2014

  • In the know are these Go-Go O’s

    They are a team that led the American League in home runs last season with 45 more than the league average. Then they add a player who currently leads the majors in homers and is on a pace to hit 58 for the season. They are third in the American League in batting average and sixth in slugging percentage. Yet they are 13th in runs scored because they believe in the double steal and try to steal home with a 53-home run hitter at the plate with two outs in extra innings. They continue to have a hitter who delivered 51 doubles last year put down sacrifice bunts, and they employ a third-base coach who is under the impression his job is to collect tolls on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge ...

    June 8, 2014