Major League Baseball
Coaching 3rd base unique art in trying to score
Major League Baseball

Coaching 3rd base unique art in trying to score

Published May. 16, 2011 2:34 p.m. ET

Tim Flannery watched the ball hit sharply to left field as Pat Burrell charged toward him from second base. Suddenly, San Francisco's third-base coach started wildly waving his left arm like a windmill.

He shuffled sideways toward home, keeping his eye on the ball while seemingly trying to stay in stride with Burrell as he shouted out instructions. Burrell was on his way to scoring a run.

Safe at home.

''To do it correctly, there are places down the line and up the line where you have to be to make a proper decision,'' Flannery said. ''It doesn't mean a guy's going to be out or safe. Sometimes that doesn't factor into a proper decision.''


Not every coach is as animated as Flannery. But all of them simultaneously juggle crucial bits of information to make split-second decisions that can be the difference in a game. How fast is the runner, how strong is the outfielder's arm, what's the score, the inning, how far will the ball carry against the wind?

All of that comes only after relaying signals from the bench to the batter and runners before the next pitch.

Often criticized, sometimes ignored and seldom praised, these coaches oversee an art form all their own.

''It's like performing at an auction. At third base, you're giving guys a million different signs and verbals and you've got to get all done before that pitch is gone,'' said Toronto bench coach Don Wakamatsu, a former big-league manager and third-base coach. ''It's verbal paralysis at times. It's a very, very difficult position.''

And there are rare occasions when a decision can cost more than an out, a run or a victory.

Reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton has been out of the Texas Rangers lineup since he broke a bone in his right arm on a headfirst dive trying to score April 12 at Detroit. The slugger made a daring dash to an uncovered plate on a foul popout after being told to go by third-base coach Dave Anderson.

The injury, and Hamilton's initial response to how it happened, raised eyebrows around baseball and magnified the decisions third-base coaches make every day.

''You might make 10 of the toughest plays right, and make one wrong and all of a sudden you're a scapegoat for it,'' Wakamatsu said. ''You've got to be a special breed. ... You might make 100 right calls and one wrong, and you don't have that opportunity like a player to go out and hit a home run.''

While Burrell scored on that one-out hit for San Francisco's first run in a 3-0 victory over Colorado, it is an expected part of the job of a third-base coach to occasionally have runners thrown out.

''If somebody says at the end of the year, 'Well, you didn't get anybody thrown out,' you're not a very good third-base coach. They can hire a school crossing guard to do that,'' said Flannery, a former major league infielder who is in his 12th season as a third-base coach and fifth with the defending World Series champion Giants.

''I'm passionate about it. I love it,'' he said. ''It's one of my favorite things to do in the world, to run up and down the line and be a part of the game. At 53 years old, it's almost like playing.''

Tim Wallach is in his first season coaching third base for the Dodgers. He knows his job is to help Los Angeles score as many runs as possible in different situations, but realizes ''you're going to be wrong more than a few times.''

Wakamatsu and no doubt some of the others remember plays that didn't work. That time he stopped his runner at third only to see Boston's Trot Nixon field a one-hop line drive in right field and lob the ball to second. Or when Wakamatsu told a runner to watch for a wild pitch and the player simply stood there when the pitcher threw over the catcher's head.

Colorado Rockies third-base coach Rich Dauer, another former major league infielder, said decisions can be more calculated by knowing the lineup, the score and who's pitching.

''The decision is probably already made before the play begins,'' Dauer said. ''It's easier for me to decide what we're going to do before I'm going to do it. ... Unless the ball just happens to be hit somewhere where I'm not expecting it, or somebody comes up with a great play that I'm not expecting, which does happen with the quality of the athletes, then the decision is probably 90-10 already made.''

Then there can be unique situations like when Hamilton got hurt. Should the MVP have just ignored his coach and stayed put?

''Any time that the player has the same view as the third-base coach - and Hamilton had that - that's not the third-base coach's call,'' Flannery said. ''That's their decision. (Former longtime Los Angeles Dodgers third-base coach) Joey Amalfitano said it best: 'Hit 'em on the back and say you're making $20 million, I'm making $100,000, you make the decision.'''

Anderson realized home plate was unprotected when catcher Victor Martinez and third baseman Brandon Inge both chased after a foul pop near the third-base dugout while the pitcher remained at the mound.

It was the kind of aggressive play the defending AL champion Rangers are known to try. Except this one didn't work out. Inge caught the ball and tossed it to Martinez, who scampered back to tag Hamilton as the MVP crashed his shoulder into the ground diving toward the plate.

Hamilton initially said he ran because he was told to by his coach and called the play ''stupid.'' Hamilton later met with Anderson and tried publicly to clarify what he said he meant - that he was disappointed about being hurt - and that he didn't blame the coach for getting hurt.

''It's an aggressive play that we tried to do and it didn't work. That took us a long way last year - a lot of those plays that we did. That's part of our game,'' Anderson said afterward. ''If he doesn't get hurt, then we're not even talking about this right now. ... My job at third base is two things: Make sure they get the signs, and try to score as many runs as we can possibly score.''

Dauer said the ''idea and thought'' in Anderson's decision was right, and he would have done the same thing with just about any of his Colorado players.

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said the problem wasn't Anderson sending Hamilton, but rather Tigers pitcher Brad Penny's failure to cover the plate.

''What happened to Hamilton is instinct. Who's to blame? Blame baseball. Don't blame anybody else. That happened in a fraction of a second, it's instinct,'' Guillen said. ''If you have to blame somebody, nobody was covering the plate. If somebody was covering the plate, that wouldn't have happened.''

Wakamatsu and Wallach both agreed with Flannery about players making the call when they can clearly see the ball. Both also said the only time runners really need the coaches is when they are coming around second base with the ball behind them in right field.

''Every time I tell somebody to come from first, they don't always come. Every time I tell somebody to stop, they don't always stop,'' said Wallach, a former All-Star third baseman. ''But good baserunners usually have pretty good instincts on what they're going to do, and we're there to help.''


AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco, AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver and AP freelance writer Travis Miller in Chicago contributed to this report.


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