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Thursday, March 4, 2010
Looking right at a new home

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

SARASOTA, Fla. -- At least they won't need a tour guide to find third base.

Fortunately for Miguel Tejada and Placido Polanco, it will be located exactly where it's been hanging out for the past 165 years.

But playing third base?

That's the whole new excellent adventure facing both these men this spring.

"I love shortstop," said Tejada, who has played 1,846 games in the big leagues at shortstop -- and zero at third base. "But I love playing baseball more."

Placido Polanco
The throw across the diamond might be the biggest adjustment for Placido Polanco.

"It's not a big deal, going to third," said Polanco, who has spent the past four years as a Gold Glove second baseman in Detroit. "I've been there before. And I like it."

But any time players this established make a change this significant, it is a big deal -- to their teams, anyway.

The Phillies made the surprising decision this winter to decline the option of a proven defensive magician at third -- that would be Pedro Feliz -- and committed three years and $18 million of their future to Polanco.

They did that even though Polanco will be 37 when that deal ends. Even more significantly, they did that even though he hasn't started a game at third since Aug. 3, 2005.

"When we were looking at the third basemen who were going to be available, to be honest with you, the only one who really popped out at me was Polanco," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Now I love Pedro Feliz. … But all around, we got better, because I'll tell you what Polanco is. He's a baseball player."

The Orioles, meanwhile, let Melvin Mora walk after six years at third. And as recently as six weeks ago, they still weren't quite sure who was going to succeed him.

But their attempts to trade for Kevin Kouzmanoff didn't work out. And they clearly weren't wild about the idea of playing the recently signed Garrett Atkins at third. But whaddayaknow, there was Tejada, still a prominent member of baseball's long unemployment line in the third week in January.

So on Jan. 23, the Orioles signed him for one year, at $6 million -- to play the position people have thought for years he ought to move to. And it's no coincidence that the people who have long thought that would include his previous employers -- the Orioles.

"I actually talked to Miggy before we traded him [to Houston, after the 2007 season]," Orioles president for baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "We met before the season was over … and I talked to him about going to third. But he didn't think it was time yet. He thought he still had a few years left at shortstop. And to his credit, he went over to Houston, and he was an All-Star shortstop for two years. So who's to say he wasn't right?"

But then a funny thing happened to him this winter: Joblessness. And as reality dawned, Tejada quickly warmed to the idea that if he still wanted to be an everyday player, it was time to make the big move 50 feet to his right.

Once upon a time, another shortstop you might have heard of -- a fellow named Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. -- made this same move in this same town after 2,302 games at short. Two other men in the division-play era -- Alex Rodriguez and Tony Fernandez -- also followed that path after more than 1,000 games at short. So it may be rare, but at least it's not unprecedented.

Tejada says now that he really "put this in my mind last year." And he did, in fact, tell the Astros last fall that if they wanted him back as a third baseman, that was cool with him. But as he mulled his limited employment opportunities this winter and it became apparent that the best of those opportunities would come at third base, "I said I'm ready and I'm willing."

"I'm a little older now," said Tejada, who we now know -- since his little birth-date mystery has finally been cleared up -- will turn 36 in May. "So I think that, for my career, it's better for me to move now."

Whether he's right about that is something we won't be sure of for another seven months. But over in the other half of this tale, there's no dispute about whether Polanco could still play second. Last season in Detroit, he won his second Gold Glove in three years, committed two errors all season in 731 chances and led the major leagues in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). So obviously, the answer to that question is: Yeah, he could.

But for Polanco, too, this move was about career advancement, not position fixation.

When he hit the free-agent market, there were only four teams shopping for second basemen (Twins, Dodgers, Nationals, Diamondbacks), and not one of them was interested in committing for more than one year.

The Phillies, meanwhile, were kind of set at second, with some guy named Utley. But when they offered Polanco a three-year deal to play third, that ended the second-or-third debate real fast.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Polanco will be just the fifth infielder in the history of Gold Glove balloting to win a Gold Glove at either second, third or short one year and then primarily play a different one of those positions the next year. But he'll be the first player ever to win a Gold Glove at second base and then become an everyday third baseman the next year.

Miguel Tejada
If he wanted to keep playing, Miguel Tejada recognized there was no way around a move to third base.

So this could, and would, be a gigantic issue -- if Polanco hadn't spent so much of his career at third already. He played third base in college. He has logged 321 games there in the big leagues. And he had two seasons (2001 and '02, in St. Louis) in which he played 100-plus games at third before he had any seasons with 100-plus games at second.

But this is "not like riding a bike," he said. "I don't want to think like that. … I've played there before, but I haven't played it in four or five years. So I have to get used to it."

Yep, this is not a move he can make without some serious hard labor this spring -- just as Tejada isn't looking at a real leisurely spring himself. So let's take a look at some of their biggest challenges:

The Throw

This isn't as huge an issue for Tejada, who has been launching it from the shortstop hole all his life. But it's the biggest adjustment of all for Polanco, who has been dealing with a throw not even half this long for four years. So he is making extra certain this spring to build up his arm carefully and steadily.

"You know what will be hard for Polanco," said his old teammate, Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge, "is that when you're playing second base, you've got a little extra time. I know Polly. He doesn't like to make errors. But he'll make some errors this year. Those balls he used to backhand and just flip over to first, now he's got to plant and throw. Polly's one of the best fielders I ever played with. … But there are times at third you can't get on top of all your throws. There are times you have to throw from the side. And it will take some getting used to."

The Angle

This is another challenge that's tougher for Polanco. And it dawned on him immediately this spring, after all those years of seeing the game from the middle of the diamond: It's innately tougher to see those right-handed hitters and read the ball off the bat at third base.

"It's harder to get good jumps on the ball," Polanco said, "because when there's a right-handed hitter up, you're basically behind him. So you don't see the ball good off the bat. You have to look at the catcher, to see if he's setting up outside or inside, so you can cheat a step closer to the line if you have to."

The Bunt

Nothing, said Orioles infield instructor Juan Samuel, has concerned Tejada more this spring than how to approach the bunts (and squibbers) that will definitely be coming his way. And it isn't just learning to charge them that's the issue.

"As a third baseman," Samuel said, "you've got a lot of balls where you have to use one hand. You don't always have time to use two. So the drill we've been doing is, he gets on his knees and he uses one hand to field the ball. … And I want him to field a lot of bunts with one hand because we both know they're gonna bunt on him."

The Speed

Out there in the middle of the field, there is time. Perhaps not a lot of time. But time to read, time to adjust, time to see plays develop. But at third base? The game is played at double speed. And that doesn't merely make the game faster. It makes it more dangerous.

"You've got to be a little crazy to play third," Inge said. "I know the good man upstairs has taken care of me, because a lot of balls that come at me I know are traveling 100 miles an hour. And the worst-case scenario is that a ball could hop up and hit me right in the face. But when the ball is hit that hard, you can't turn away. You've got to be willing to get in front of it, use your body like a wall and knock it down.

"So for a guy like Polly, that's going to be the two hardest parts -- the throw and whether he's willing to stick his face in front of a 100-mile-an-hour meteor."

When that pronouncement was relayed to Polanco, especially the part about sticking his face in front of the 100-mile-an-hour meteors, Polanco laughed and rocked his head from side to side.

"When you see Brandon again," he replied, "tell him thanks for reminding me of that."

If it weren't Brandon Inge, though, it would be someone else. And sooner or later, the 100-mile-an-hour meteors would be introducing themselves to Polanco and Tejada personally. So there's only so much advice these guys can take, only so many drills they can practice.

Which means the real learning curve starts now -- with the games.

"In spring training, I want to be playing every day," Tejada said "I don't really worry about how much I'm going to hit. I know the hitting part is fine. Right now, what I need to worry about is playing a lot of innings at third base. I don't want to wait until the season. I want to do everything I need to do to learn in spring training."

Hate to break this to him, but his manager has other ideas about that playing-every-single-day-in-spring-training idea.

"I know he's going to need game time at third," Dave Trembley said. "But you've also got to balance it by being practical. He's a veteran player and an older guy. And these games don't count. You want him ready for the season."

Well, look out. That season starts in a month. So as spring training gets rolling, it will be rolling faster and harder than it ever has for two all-stars like Miguel Tejada and Placido Polanco.

After all, there's going to be a whole lot on the plates of both these men besides blackened grouper. And it might turn out to be a 100-mile-an-hour meteor.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.