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DODGERS HOPE HAMILTON OR SAX COMES UP WITH THE ANSWER : It’s No Joking Matter: Who’s on Third?

Times Staff Writer

Each day, the Dodgers plant Jeff Hamilton and Steve Sax at third base and hope that, by the end of the spring, one will take root and sprout into the well-rounded third baseman they have long tried to cultivate.

Combative experiments such as this are not unusual at this time of year. And the Dodgers, whose logo this season should be a question mark, have set up an intriguing battle for the position.

So, they are approaching the Hamilton-Sax runoff accordingly. Already this spring, Dodger coaches have hit them ground balls until their spikes burrow into the ground. Manager Tom Lasorda has added ample fertilizer, comparing Sax’s dubious defense at third to that of Brooks Robinson and saying that Hamilton has the potential to hit as well as Steve Garvey.

Hamilton and Sax are a study in contrast, both in personality and physical attributes. The outgoing Sax, 28, is a proven hitter whose throwing (at second) has been erratic at times. The introverted Hamilton, 23, is a solid fielder whose sporadic hitting has so far stunted his career growth.

Short of cloning the best of each player and sculpting a third baseman such as, well, Ron Cey, the Dodgers will have to decide between Hamilton and Sax by the end of the month, at the latest. Now that spring exhibition games are almost under way, the two will likely wage daily battles to impress Lasorda and the staff.

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Whatever the decision, it is going to have serious ramifications. If Sax makes a successful transition from second to third base, Hamilton has indicated he will likely request a trade. If Hamilton wins the job and Mariano Duncan proves himself at second base, Sax might find himself on the trade market.

“I don’t want to go back down (to the minor leagues) again,” Hamilton said. “I’ll say to them, ‘If you can’t use me, let somebody else use me.’ I’m tired of this. I’m not saying I’m going to be a good major league player, but I’ve got to have the chance to see for myself. I’m not going to be one of those guys they keep lingering on and then, one day, cut loose.”

Trade ultimatums are not new in the spring, but this is not an ordinary competitive situation. For one thing, there is no rivalry. If Hamilton hits well enough to become the third baseman, it won’t bother Sax, who figures he would return to second and Duncan to the bench.

That’s only one possible scenario.

If Sax is at third, it leaves the Dodgers’ infield particularly vulnerable at the corners--Pedro Guerrero is at first base--and leaves Hamilton pining for a trade. If Sax returns to his former position, Duncan will grudgingly sit, after working all winter at second base.

Another consideration, which appears remote at this time, is that the Dodgers will scrap the entire experiment and trade some of their overstocked talent for an established third baseman. Third base has been a Dodger weakness since Cey was traded in 1982. Eight players did time there last season, including Hamilton (35 games) and Sax (1). Already, the undesirables have been weeded out. The Dodgers tried Mike Marshall at third, but he didn’t warm to it. For the briefest moment, they thought about moving Guerrero back to third for the first time since 1985.

But this spring, the Dodgers say they are striving for permanence at third. They certainly have put in the time. Lasorda has exhausted his various motivational tactics and has worked at finding new ways to change Hamilton’s soft-spoken personality and convince Sax that he can be, gulp, another Brooks Robinson at third base.

The anatomy of the Dodgers’ latest struggle to fill the third base void began as early as December and likely will continue until the end of spring, perhaps longer.

Hence, a chronology of events and images, as viewed first-hand or told by the principals:

Friday, Dec. 11: Two days after the conclusion of the winter meetings, the Dodgers consummated a five-player trade that brought shortstop Alfredo Griffin, apparently solving the club’s problems at that position.

Asked about the alignment of the infield, Lasorda said that Guerrero would play first base, Duncan would move to his more natural position of second base and Griffin would play every day at shortstop.

And, at third base?

Sax.

“Jackie Robinson moved from second base to third,” Lasorda told reporters. “So did Pete Rose. One is in the Hall of Fame, and the other is going to be. So, I’d hardly say it’s a demotion.”

Saturday, Dec. 12: The phone rang at Sax’s Manhattan Beach home. It was Lasorda on the line, waxing optimistic and asking Sax if he would like to do lunch soon.

“I knew either something was up, or he was hungry,” Sax said, laughing. “Yeah, I had thought about (third base) for a while and, you know, I had questions. But they told me they felt I could do it and it would be best for the team. I said, ‘OK. “‘

Lasorda doesn’t remember what he ate for lunch that day, but he recalls Sax’s reaction to his idea.

“He was a little reluctant at first,” Lasorda said. “But after a while, he was real receptive to it. He understood my point, and I understood his point.”

Tuesday, Dec. 15: Hamilton, who had been resting his badly sprained left ankle since Aug. 10, began working out in earnest with minimal discomfort in the ankle.

Before that, though, Hamilton kept in shape at home in Michigan by fishing every day.

“I just had to wait until most of the pain went away,” Hamilton said. "(Fishing) was pretty good exercise. I was walking a lot, 10 or 12 miles each day, to fishing holes.” Hamilton’s ankle injury last August came at the most inopportune time. The Dodgers, basically out of contention, had recently given him the third base job. Hamilton asked for a month of uninterrupted play to prove his worth as a hitter. Seven games--and seven hits--into it, he was injured.

“It’s not my fault, what happened,” he said. “I thought I was hitting the ball well. Seems every time I get something going, something happens.”

Thursday, Jan. 7--The Dodgers were spurned in an attempt to sign Gary Gaetti, the free-agent third baseman from the Minnesota Twins. Gaetti accepted the Twins’ offer, although it was a less lucrative deal than the Dodgers’. At a news conference in Minneapolis, Gaetti said: “I used to hate the Dodgers . . . I still do. I can say that now. I hate the Dodgers.”

Rebuffed but still undaunted, Fred Claire, club executive vice president, said that the Dodgers still will try Sax at third base. But rumors began that the Dodgers were interested in St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman Terry Pendleton.

Monday, Jan. 11--Dodger players living in Southern California during the off-season began voluntary workouts at Dodger Stadium. Sax worked on the rudimentary elements of playing third base with Dodger coach Joe Amalfitano.

Later in the morning, under Amalfitano’s supervision, Sax fielded ground balls and threw to first base. Most of Sax’s throws were accurate, but a few sailed over the first baseman’s head or underneath his glove.

Afterward, Sax huddled with Amalfitano.

“Steve came up to me and said, ‘Joey, do you think I can do it?’ ” said Amalfitano, a former major league third baseman. “I told him he could, but that the important thing was that he believe it. His attitude was very good at that point, much better than when I talked to him on the phone before.”

Friday, Jan. 29--The Dodgers agree to terms with free-agent outfielder Kirk Gibson, adding to the club’s abundance of quality outfielders. A month earlier, the Dodgers signed Oakland Athletics’ free agent Mike Davis. Reporters speculate that either Guerrero or Marshall will be traded.

Monday, Feb. 1--A noon news conference was called to announce the signing of Gibson.

Two hours earlier, Marshall fielded ground balls at third base with a considerable lack of confidence. Lasorda stands behind Marshall, shouting encouragement.

Lasorda later told reporters that he wanted all five of his power hitters in the lineup. The alignment, Lasorda said, might turn out to be Guerrero at first base, Marshall at third base, Gibson in left field, John Shelby in center field and Mike Davis in right field.

“I’m going to do everything I can to get all those guys in there at the same time,” Lasorda said.

Sax, meanwhile, was vacationing in a Mexico desert, hunting doves.

Tuesday, Feb. 2--After arriving in Vero Beach the previous night, two weeks before he was required to report, Hamilton began practicing at Vero Beach High School. It rained that day and most of the week, so Hamilton mostly worked out at a local health club.

Was he trying to send a message about his desire to Dodger management?

“Not really,” he said. “I just wanted to get here and get settled. (But) I do everything that’s asked of me. I never complain, never doubt what they do. If that’s not good enough for them . . . “

Wednesday, Feb. 10--Another Dodger Stadium workout. This time it involved both Marshall and Sax, close friends, fielding ground balls at third base.

Marshall eventually moved to first base to handle Sax’s throws. Sax was fielding some hard-hit ground balls, coming from a batter hitting a ball that was being tossed. He resembled a fisherman reeling in a marlin. He reared his glove back and tugged at some grounders.

Amalfitano, stopwatch in hand, timed how long it took Sax to release the ball after it left the bat. Sax wondered how much time he would have to throw out runners.

“He was averaging 4.4 to 3.7 seconds throwing the ball,” Amalfitano said. “The average runner will make it to first in 4.5 or 4.6. But it depends on the speed of the ball hit and the speed of the guy.

“I’m going to say this about Saxy: He’s got very good arm strength. He’s got quick hands and feet. All these things we’re working on, he’s anxious to take them into spring training.” After the workout, Marshall told reporters that he had no desire to play third. Sax overheard the comments and said to the reporters jokingly: “I’ll either be at third, second or working at the concession stand.”

A few nights later at a banquet, Lasorda said the Marshall plan at third was definitely off.

Thursday, Feb. 18--A few hours before the Dodgers’ chartered flight was scheduled to land in Vero Beach, Lasorda was soaking in a whirlpool in the clubhouse at Dodgertown.

He noticed Hamilton walking into the clubhouse. He told Hamilton about Wes Parker, the former Dodger first baseman who developed confidence and became a good major league hitter. Lasorda told Hamilton that he, Lasorda, would be in the Hall of Fame if he had had Hamilton’s ability to match his own desire.

Lasorda concluded the speech by saying: “You stick with me, I’ll take you to the big leagues.”

One witness to the incident said that Hamilton responded with a blank stare.

Monday, Feb. 22--Hamilton made it a habit of taking extra batting practice late in the afternoon, under hitting coach Manny Mota’s supervision. A few days earlier, Lasorda was the batting practice pitcher for Hamilton, but not on this day.

“We’re trying to make him crouch down a little more this year,” Mota said. “Last year, he hit standing straight up. Now, he’ll be able to hit low pitches better.

“He was so anxious last year. He wanted to do too much. It caused him to go after bad pitches. I think he’s more disciplined at the plate and has better knowledge of the strike zone.

“We want him to learn to use the whole field, go with the pitch. We’re giving him a lot of breaking balls. He’s got enough power to drive (the ball) to all fields.”

Wednesday, Feb. 24--The balance of the Dodgers’ 40-player roster reported, including Sax. Pronouncing himself fit and eager start spring training, Sax tried to diffuse the impending competition with Hamilton.

“If Hamilton plays good at third, where do I go?” Sax asked. “Back to second, right? So, I’m not concerned. I’m going to work as hard as I always do, but I’m not worried.”

While some Dodgers were taking batting practice later in the day, Sax took ground balls at third base. Amalfitano did the hitting and infield coach Bill Russell the coaching. Sax handled balls much smoother than a month before, but the accuracy of his throws to first still were erratic.

Lasorda mused about Sax’s past throwing problems at second base, which reached their pinnacle in 1983.

“He ran into (a bad) stretch, and it was tough,” Lasorda said. “But he worked it out. Some guys never get over it. Who was that guy--was it (former major league catcher) Mike Ivie--who had to move to first base. Look at Steve Blass. Had some great years, and then . . . “

Meanwhile, Amalfitano said he has passed responsibility for Sax to Russell, the infield coach. Amalfitano said he wrote a report for Russell, detailing all he worked on with Sax the last month.

“Russell and I didn’t think we should confuse the kid, because it’s going to be tough enough on him anyway,” Amalfitano said. “Russell’s the infield coach, and he should be the guy working with him. I think (Sax) needs a good break out of the box in (spring games). Confidence-wise, it’s important to him.”

After his first workout, Sax told trainers his right elbow was sore from throwing. Trainer Charlie Strasser said it was a sprained ligament, but Sax continued to work out.

Friday, Feb. 26--Guerrero, the last Dodger to report, held a news conference after his first workout. Asked whom he wanted to start at third base, Guerrero smiled and said: "(Minor leaguer) Domingo Michel, because he’s my cousin.”

Saturday, Feb. 27--His golf cart parked behind the batting cage, Lasorda occasionally shouted instructions to Hamilton in the cage.

While Hamilton waited for his turn, Lasorda showed him how to swivel his hips into the pitch.

Hamilton occasionally nodded. Then, when he mashed a couple pitches into the outfield gaps, Lasorda rewarded him with high praise. “Beautiful,” Lasorda crooned. “Beautiful, Jeff.”

Later, Mota asked Sax if he was playing in that day’s intrasquad game. “No, I don’t feel ready,” Sax said.

“Don’t rush yourself,” Mota said.

Sunday, Feb. 28--At late morning, Lasorda called Hamilton into his office. Hamilton was in that stage between “doesn’t feel well” and “sick,” and Lasorda was trying to bring him back to life with a sermon on the advantages of extra hitting.

Feigning anger, Lasorda yelled: “You look at the guys here we had who worked at being hitters. Look at Garvey. When I first got him, he couldn’t hit to the opposite field. He worked. He worked. Then, he started hitting the ball to right field. Jim Murray wrote a column about him. Said that telling Garvey about hitting was like telling God about religion. But he had to work to get there. You don’t think he took extra hitting.”

Eventually, Hamilton left the office and went to the nurse.

Hamilton, who played in both weekend intrasquad games, was asked how he handles Lasorda’s motivational speeches.

“I know what he’s trying to do,” Hamilton said. “But how do you change someone’s personality? It’s easier to change my swing than my personality after 23 years.

“I’ve gotten this far with it. If I don’t make it in baseball, I’m not going to go home and kill myself. I’ll be the same person in and out of baseball. Hopefully, my performance will show them.”

Lasorda called Hamilton his spring “project,” and has set out to correct flaws in Hamilton’s swing and bolster his confidence.

“I have confidence,” Hamilton said. “I don’t need to be reinforced like that. He doesn’t have confidence in me . That’s the thing.

“Until he plays me and lets me show him how I can play, he won’t have it in me. I can’t do anything more than confront him and say, ‘Yeah, I got confidence. Now, play me.’ ”

Monday, Feb. 29--"Wait,” Sax called to an approaching reporter. “I know what you’re going to ask already. I’ll give you the answers.”

He paused, then began again.

“The spring’s going good for me . . . I feel good at third base . . . I’m not competing for a job . . . They are just going to decide who they’re going to put where . . .

“How’s that?”

Sax answered, but was pressed to explain, specifically, how he has adjusted to playing third base.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know.”

Sax then asked the reporter how Hamilton played in the intrasquad games. Given a positive response, Sax said: “I like Hamilton. The guy hit .360 in the PCL, so he can do it. All they need for him to do is hit .260 with about 10 or 15 home runs. And he’s a great fielder. We’ve got other guys who can hit.”

Hamilton again took extra batting practice, along with a few teammates. The pitcher, this time, was Lasorda. About 100 fans are watching batting practice, and Lasorda was giving them running commentary.

Lasorda was bellowing at Hamilton and others from the mound, while Mota talked softly from the side of the cage. Fans are loving Lasorda, who sounds as if he’s doing a lounge act.

As Hamilton lined a fastball to left field, Lasorda shouted: “Nice and easy, that’s what you need.”

A couple pitches later, Hamilton lined an outside pitch to right field, sending Lasorda into wild gyrations.

“Lord, Lord. He’s finally listening,” Lasorda yelled. “Thank you, Lord. Now, he’s not jumping for the ball.”

Hamilton’s expression did not change.

After 15 minutes, Mota told Lasorda that Hamilton was tired.

“He’s tired?” an incredulous Lasorda yelled. “If he’s tired, he goes to Triple-A. You stay until we’re done.”

At 5 p.m., the public relations staff issued post-workout notes, which included a Hamilton quote about his third base battle with Sax: “I don’t think its a big challenge, because I don’t think Steve wants to play third,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s too big of a transition.”

Tuesday, March 1--Sax was creeping in from third, anticipating a bunt. This made sense, since the Dodgers were working on drills on defending the bunt. When the hitter squared, Sax broke to home plate, but the bunt was pushed up the first base line.

Sax watched as Guerrero fielded the ball and threw to first base. “Saxy, get back to third,” several voices rang out. He turned and quickly retreated to third.

Sax did not make that mistake again.

“It’s a new position for him,” Russell said. “He’s going to make mistakes. It’s an adjustment. It’s a different position for his body. He did everything instinctively at second because that’s where he’s always played.”

Hamilton took his turns at third and booted one bunt. Later, he turned a double play, making a difficult throw from third to first.

Wednesday, March 2--The Dodgers spent a routine final day before the start of exhibition games. Running and stretching in the morning. Baserunning and bunting fundamentals at midday. Batting practice all afternoon.

For Hamilton and Sax, it was just one more day of fielding countless ground balls and questions concerning the Dodgers’ seemingly eternal third base question. But at some point during the Dodgers’ 30-day exhibition schedule, the Hamilton-Sax impasse will have passed.

“I don’t think they’d wait until the end,” Sax said. “Maybe with 10 days to go, they’ll get everybody together and make a decision either way. It’s too important to wait.”


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