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Green: Infield shift is as old as radio shtick

By Jerry Green, Special to The Detroit News
Boston Red Sox batter Ted Williams, left, here chatting with  Cincinnati Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski, had to contend with the infield shift in his Hall of Fame career.

Detroit — This would have driven Abbott and Costello daft.

You remember Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, I presume. At least, you recall your grandparents snickering about Abbott and Costello's ancient "Who's On First" bellybuster:

Abbott — "On our team, Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third . . ."

Costello — "What's the guy's name?"

Abbott — "I'm telling you, Who's on . . ."

Costello — "The names of the guys on the baseball team? Who's on first?"

Abbott — "Yeah, Who's on first . . . "

Costello — "What are you asking me for?"

Abbott – "Oh, no, What's on second . . ."

Costello – "I'm not asking you who's on second . . ."

Abbott – "No, Who's on first, What's on second . . ."

This slapstick goes on and on with high-pitched, whining Costello and dour Abbott on radio and then later on the new creation called television. And now available via YouTube, all eight minutes before the routine ends, Abbott, squat, in in his floppy hat, swinging a baseball bat goaded by straight-man Abbott.

Funny as it was 60 years ago.

Costello — "Oh, I don't give a darn . . ."

Abbott — "No, that's our shortstop."

What's funny now is who(m) Brad Ausmus has playing in right field when the Tigers put the shift on against a left-handed batting pull hitter.

Nick Castellanos! That's who.

A third baseman stationed in right field, short right. Where's the right fielder JD Martinez? He's in regular right fielder, deeper, and pulled tight to the right field line.

And where's the second baseman? What — Ian Kinsler — he's on second, a step on the outfield grass, around far away from second base, to the right of the third baseman in short right field.

And who's guarding the left side of the infield? The shortstop, playing close to second. And the left fielder is way over toward second and the center fielder is in right.

Third base and left field have been, basically, abandoned.

What's more comical is that the shift works.

Ausmus used this alignment the other day against three left-handed hitters on the Yankees. There were wide open spaces on the left side of the field with Brian McCann, Chase Headley and Garrett Jones at bat.

Three stubborn guys.

Bunter's paradise

Rather than bunt toward the vacant lot in front of third base or aim for the deserted wasteland in left field, they kept trying to beat the shift and bash the ball into right field.

They refused to bite at the bait.

Ausmus' shift worked as designed every time. More or less.

Castellanos — I Don't Know's on third — tossed out Headley from right field.

And Castellanos managed to throw McCann out once on a grounder that was first bobbled in right field. By the third baseman. A step faster, McCann would have reached on an old-fashioned Error-5 by Castellanos on a groundball through the infield into right field.

Alas, McCann drove in the deciding run on a sharp grounder that was too hot for Miguel Cabrera standing alongside first base — and the Tigers missed a double play.

But the shift was effective. And the Yankees responded with their own shift against the Tigers' Alex Avila. But the Yankees did it with their second baseman in short right and their shortstop around beyond second base.

It seems that the cockeyed shift is now in high fashion in Major League Baseball.

But it has yet to intrigue Rob Manfred, the still damp baseball commissioner. One of Manfred's first brainstorms after being elevated to Bud Selig's puppet was to declare that all such shifts should be banished from the game.

Wonderful, the commissioner of baseball meddling with the strategies and tactics of managers.

The issue was quickly dropped.

Splendid Splinter's ire

The shift is at least as ancient in baseball as the classical Abbott and Costello "Who's On First" routine.

Back in the 1940s, it was a strategy aimed at Ted Williams. Not only the greatest hitter of baseballs since Ty Cobb in the 1920s, Williams carried an immovable streak of stubbornness. He would not budge from his hitting philosophies.

It is not likely that Lou Boudreau was the first to use a shifted infield and outfield trying to thwart a particular and damaging hitter. But Boudreau gets much of the credit for the shift that is now in vogue today's baseball.

One Sunday in Fenway Park, Boston, Boudreau, as the player-manager of the Indians, sprung a shift against Williams. Williams was a deadeye left-handed pull hitter. He had hit .406 a few seasons before.

Boudreau, playing shortstop for the Indians stationed himself around beyond second base. His center fielder played far toward right field. The left fielder stood in virtual center field. And the right fielder was steps inside the line. The third baseman was positioned close to second base.

And Boudreau dared Williams to hit the ball toward the barren turf in left field — and Fenway's magnificently reachable left-field wall. Williams accepted the challenge. Always, with regal stubbornness.

Ted declined to bunt toward the abandoned third-base area. He refused to aim to hit toward the open spot in left or the wall, so close and so appealing.

He swung as he always did — and pulled some vicious shots through the right side of the infield, into right field. And so often over right field into the Fenway bleachers.

Boudreau's shift, so cleverly designed, could not contain Ted Williams.

But the modern shift does work against today's mere left-handed, pull-hitting mortals.

Costello – (In a squeaky streak) "Who's in right field."

Abbott – (Straight) "I Don't Know."