Ripken, Robinson say Tejada will thrive at third base

Shortstop has the arm and reflexes, just needs experience at new position

February 06, 2010|By Dan Connolly | dan.connolly@baltsun.com

As Miguel Tejada attempts to make the switch to third base in 2010 after playing shortstop his entire major league career, he can look to Orioles history for guidance.

Thirteen years ago, another proud and aging superstar made the short but potentially treacherous trip from shortstop to third base at Camden Yards, and did so without difficulty.

It just took time, patience and repetition, said Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

"I think the hardest part is reworking the thinking about the position," said Ripken, who was the Orioles' everyday shortstop from 1983 to 1996, before moving at age 36 to make room for shortstop Mike Bordick.

"As a shortstop, you have learned it, you have learned all the movements. When the ball goes up, you know where you are supposed to be, where you are supposed to cut off the relay, where you are supposed to line up," Ripken said. "It's second nature. At third, or at a different position, you have to think all over again, 'OK, that's my job now.'"

Tejada, 35, has spent 13 seasons in the big leagues, playing in the field in 1,846 games -- all at shortstop. He did, however, play third in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

At some point, Tejada said, he expects to seek advice from Ripken and New York Yankees converted third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

If Tejada reaches out, Ripken has a few simple suggestions.

"I think the first [thing] is to fully commit to it, and it sounds like he is," Ripken said. "He has the physical skills to be a really good third baseman, so he shouldn't doubt that. But don't think that you are going to be over there for a little while and then go back to your old position. Fully commit to it and work hard at the things that you need to work hard at. And don't get discouraged."

Ripken said his father, Cal Ripken Sr., the organization's legendary instructor, estimated it took a player about 100 games to figure out a new position. Ripken said that proved true in 1997, even though he had played third previously in the minors and early in his big league career.

"Toward late August, I started to feel much more comfortable and thinking more like a third baseman than a shortstop," Ripken said. "So, it takes a little while to grasp it."

Ripken isn't the only Hall of Famer that thinks Tejada, with his athleticism and rocket arm, will be fine at third once he gains experience there.

"Miguel knows most of the players in the American League. He knows who bunts, who doesn't bunt and how fast they run," Brooks Robinson said through a spokesperson. "I think he is going to do great."

Robinson, who is recovering from December abdominal surgery, started his pro career at second base but made the switch to third in the minors. Of the 2,900 games in his big league career, all but 30 were at third (25 at second base and five at shortstop).

"I think it is much more difficult to go from short to third than it is to go from third to short," said Robinson, who is widely considered the best defensive third baseman in history. "At third base, you really have to take the ball as it comes. Third base is a reactionary position, and it might take him a while to get used to it."

Robinson said Tejada's biggest challenge will be adjusting immediately when the ball comes off the bat. When playing the "hot corner," a third baseman makes split-second decisions on charging balls, blocking them or backhanding them.

"You just have to take the ball as it comes," Robinson reiterated. "At shortstop, you have time to move around and play the ball on the hop you choose. At third base, you have to get in front of the ball, catch it or knock it down and throw the runner out."

Ripken agrees that a third baseman must possess the ability to "goalie-up." The balls come so quickly and at varying angles -- sometimes slicing off a left-handed hitter's bat, sometimes hooking from a right-handed hitter's -- instead of an often straight, up-the-middle path to a shortstop.

"Sometimes [at third] you just have to act as a goalie and get in front of it and give up your body and block the ball as best as you can," Ripken said. "Sometimes it's the goalie mentality that you have to have. And I think Miggi has that. He has never been scared to block a ball from the catcher or stay in there longer on a double play."

Like Tejada, Ripken was hesitant to switch from shortstop to a position less engaged on every pitch.

"I can't speak for Miggi, but when I was out at [short] you could see the signs, you were into the game, you were making decisions on the fly, you felt like you had so much more to give the team by taking in so much data," Ripken said. "And going over to third base, sometimes it felt like you were just a spectator. Sometimes when a ball was hit, you really didn't have any responsibility. ... So, giving up that important responsibility or that feeling you were in the middle of the game, sometimes it is hard."

But, in 1997, when the slick-fielding Bordick became available in free agency, Ripken said he realized the team would be better with Bordick and him together on the left side of the infield.

Two years ago, Tejada didn't want to make the move, but he now welcomes it, saying it could extend his career. Embracing that change is key, Ripken said.

"I think there is a physical side and then there is a mental side," Ripken said. "But Miggi's got great hands. He knows how to catch a ball, and he's got a great, strong, accurate arm."

So Ripken doesn't hesitate when asked whether Tejada will succeed in his new role.

"There's no doubt about it."

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