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Published: 3/19/2003

Move to third fun for Munson

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

LAKELAND, Fla. - When Eric Munson found out the Detroit Tigers were moving him from first base to third base in the off-season, the first person he called was Eric Chavez.

Chavez, the Oakland Athletics' All-Star third baseman, is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner. He's also Munson's best friend.

They started playing T-ball together at the age of 5 in San Diego and remained teammates all the way through Mount Carmel High School.

“We had some pretty good teams,” Munson said yesterday at Joker Marchant Stadium. “Very good, in fact. And Eric and I always talked about playing in the big leagues. But I always thought it was going to be me playing at first or catching, not at third.”

The 6-3, 230-pound Munson was the third player chosen overall in the 1999 amateur draft after an All-American career as a catcher at Southern Cal. He was moved to first base after turning pro because the Tigers weren't big on his future as a backstop.

Now he is being asked to play his third position in five seasons.

“I don't know if I'd call it a hard transition; it's been fun,” said Munson, 25. “It kind of re-energizes you a little bit when you're learning a new position. I think it's good for me. I haven't thought too much about my hitting this spring. I've just really been focusing on my fielding.”

He's gotten a few good fielding tips from Chavez, the 10th player taken overall by the Athletics in the 1996 draft.

“Eric told me the main thing is to be aggressive,” Munson said. “At first I felt a little awkward at third base because I'm on the other side of the field, so my body is moving the other way. But I'm getting used to it now.

“I don't think I'm going to embarrass myself over there. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm a Gold Glove player, but I'm comfortable enough to play there. It's something you just don't learn right away. It's going to take time.”

Not only is Munson getting a crash course at the hot corner, he also is on the hot seat. The left-handed hitter is out of options, meaning he can't be returned to the minor leagues unless he clears waivers, which isn't likely.

The Tigers already have invested $6.75 million in Munson.

“We have to make a determination on him,” manager Alan Trammell said yesterday. “He either makes our club or we have a good chance of losing him. I don't want to say that he has to make the club as a starter, though.”

It's possible Munson could work as a part-time DH and third baseman once the Tigers go north. Veteran Dean Palmer, trying to rebound from two injury-plagued seasons, and rookie Travis Chapman also are in the mix at third base.

“I'm not quite sure where I stand right now,” Munson said. “Hopefully, I'll have an opportunity to help the team at third or first or as a DH. I'll do whatever they need me to do.”

Munson did play some third base in high school.

“He's progressing very well,” said Tigers hitting coach Bruce Fields, who managed Munson last year at Triple-A Toledo. “He's making adjustments day-to-day and he's making the transition to third base look real easy, which it's not.”

Munson, who has had three September stints with the Tigers in his first four seasons, batted .262 in 136 games with the Mud Hens a year ago. He led the team in games played (136), at-bats (477), home runs (24) and RBIs (84). He also drew 77 walks but struck out 114 times.

In 18 games with Detroit, he batted .186 with two homers and five RBIs.

“They put a lot of pressure on Eric when he first came here,” catcher Brandon Inge said. “They kept telling him, `You have to hit, you have to hit.' Because he was a highly skilled player, 10 different guys offered their opinions and tried to change his swing and tweak it. That slowed everything down. I think he's finally made the adjustments and he's maturing into a pretty good big-league hitter.

“I've seen him in here every day doing some footwork and taking ground balls and working on his fielding. A lot of times he's out there on the field getting in extra work after everybody else is gone. He's determined to make this switch to third base a successful one.”

TIGERS ROSTER: The Tigers optioned pitchers Shane Loux and Eric Eckenstahler to the Mud Hens. They reassigned nine others to their minor league camp, including pitchers Fernando De La Cruz and Chris Mears, catchers Robinson Cancel and Luis Taveras, infielders Danny Klassen, Warren Morris and Kevin Witt and outfielders Craig Monroe and Ernie Young.

Detroit still has 36 players in its major league camp.

YANKEES 10, TIGERS 5

LAKELAND, Fla. - Raul Mondesi and Hideki Matsui - playing designated hitter for the first time - homered for New York.

The Yankees scored two runs on the first five pitches from left-hander Andy Van Hekken (0-3) in the five-run first inning.

Eric Munson had a single and a double and drove home two for the Tigers.

The announced crowd of 8,237 was a spring record for newly enlarged Marchant Stadium



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