VERO BEACH, Fla. — 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.
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?
"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.