Dodgers Try Again, Find Charm at Third

Doing nothing in Dodgertown. Nothing doing in Dodgertown. No commotion. No turmoil. No no-shows. Oh, OK, so Alfredo Griffin is tardy. Visa problems. Or MasterCard problems. Something. Yawn. You check it out with General Manager Fred Claire anyway. "Must be a slow news day," he says. The man was a sportswriter once. He knows slow news when he reads it.

Tom Lasorda tries to help. Mister Ragu informs you that Dodger $uper$tar$ Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson have just offered him $20,000--seriously, 10 grand apiece, to be paid to Lasorda's favorite charity--if the marinara addict can undergo withdrawal and lose 20 pounds by the All-Star break. Tommy accepts the pepsin challenge. Bang the Tums slowly.

Mike Marshall also tries to help. He creams a home run in batting practice. Then he goes into the Gibson Gait. Toward first base Marshall moseys, dragging one of his legs beside him as though it were pegged. Around first base he limps. At second base he pumps his fist. At third he thrusts it skyward. The guy does Gibson better than Gibson. After baseball, he can make a pretty good living as a Gibby impersonator.

Camp is calm.

Better still for the Dodgers, third base is calm. Third base's dust has settled. Third base is no longer manned by I Don't Know. Third base no longer belongs to Grade A grounder-butchers Pete Guerrero or Bill Madlock. Third base belongs to Jeff Hamilton, the good-hands man from Michigan, our man from Flint--who, Lasorda wastes no time in proclaiming, just happens to be "the best-fielding third baseman in the league today, bar none."

For once, the Dodgers know how hot their corner is. Over five of the last six seasons, their Opening Day third baseman has been either Guerrero (1983, 1985, 1988) or Madlock (1986, 1987)--both of whom you might remember from the mini-series Lonesome Glove. For 1984, by the way, the starter at third was German Rivera. You might also remember German. Then again, you might not.

What a mess third base has been. Over their 30 years in Los Angeles, the Dodgers have used 76 third basemen. Seventy-six third sackers in the big parade. Not once, from 1958 through 1966, did the Dodgers start the same third baseman in the season opener. They tried Dick Gray, Jim Baxes, Junior Gilliam, Tommy Davis, Daryl Spencer, Ken McMullen, John Werhas and John Kennedy before Jim Lefebvre, who made two openers in a row. Then Bob Bailey. Then Bill Sudakis. Then Steve Garvey for two years. (That's right--at third.) Then Billy Grabarkewitz. Then McMullen again. Until, finally, Ron Cey.

"The year before Cey took over," Claire recalls, "our third basemen made, I believe, 53 errors. Cey cut it to 10."

For a time, the Dodgers played good infield defense. Then came the years when Guerrero or Madlock did the best they could at third --"I could . . . farther than Madlock could move for a grounder," Lasorda says, profanely but accurately--while Steve Sax was busy endangering the lives of spectators behind the first-base dugouts with his throws from second base. In 1987, the Dodgers led the National League in errors.

Now, not only are they world champions, but the Dodgers believe they have as air-tight an infield as anybody's anywhere. Put Hamilton and Griffin on the left side, Willie Randolph and Eddie Murray on the right side, and relax at last. Claire, for one, claims this infield could well be the best any Dodger club has ever had, with no disrespect to the Cey-Russell-Lopes-Garvey or Gilliam-Wills-Neal-Hodges around-the-horns. None whatsoever.

Hamilton is the missing link, the long-missing dependable third baseman. He is Gold Glove material, particularly with Mike Schmidt in decline.

"Instincts," Lasorda says. "He's got instincts like a Brooks Robinson out there. He's quick from the waist up. This guy makes plays Madlock and Guerrero only dreamed about. Without a doubt, without a doubt, he's the best third baseman in the National League, and I'll tell that to anybody. I'll shout it to the world."

Hamilton steps into a Vero Beach batting cage.

"This man! This man right here! Gonna be one of the greats!" Lasorda shouts, going into his act. "Hambone! Show us what you can do in there, Hambone! This man's gonna hit 20 homers for us! Show me that stroke, Hambone! Do me a favor! When they bring you to New York to accept the most valuable player award, be kind to the old man who taught you everything you know!"

Hamilton, who says about a sentence an hour, smiles and strokes liners to left.

Realistically, he should hit about .250, showing occasional power. Fifteen homers would be nice. Hamilton has enough power. He hit six last season in limited duty, including a ninth-inning job off John Franco of Cincinnati on Sept. 11 that gave the Dodgers a 5-3 victory.

Hamilton admits he feels better at the plate, more relaxed, and that he benefits from knowing, as he never knew before, that the job is his. What he hopes to do is rid himself of any reputation he might have as good-field, no-hit.

"When I was younger, I never got any special attention for my fielding," he says. "I was known more as a hitter."

For the record, in the minors, Hamilton hit .335 at Lethbridge in 1983, .332 at San Antonio in 1985, and .313 and .360 at Albuquerque before two mid-season call-ups. The guy's no stiff. But, in the majors he has had a tendency to uppercut the ball, and to pull everything to left, even if he has to lunge across the outside corner to reach it. The manager has enrolled him in a "University of Lasorda" hitting course, and tutors him daily.

"Here! Look here!" Lasorda says, rushing into the cage.

He yanks the bat from Hamilton's hands.

"See this part right here?" Lasorda asks, pointing from the trademark to the tip. "This is where you'll make your living! This is where the great hitters make a million bucks! You've got to drive the ball, Hambone! Throw your bat into the pitch and drive it! Drive it!"

Hamilton drives a couple, then steps out of the cage.

"I already believe I can do the job," he says softly. "What I need to do is make everybody else believe it."

We who follow the Dodgers want to believe it, just as we want to believe Lasorda will win his bet. We like Hamilton's chances better.

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