It has been the location of baseball’s glamour profession, the real estate of Ty Cobb and Tri Speaker, annexed by Joe DiMaggio. Hallowed ground fought over for supremacy by Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, who all played a subway ride away from each other.
Its vastness has both swallowed the slow and incompetent whole and enabled the fleet and light-footed to appear as gazelles with mitts. John Fogerty wrote a song about it.
There’s a mystique about baseball and center field. It ranks in sexiness with the football quarterback. You think of a center fielder and a bunch of other s-words come to mind.
Sleek. Silk. Smooth. Slender.
The ace center fielder stands six-foot or a tad taller, has the body fat of Jack Sprat and lopes. He is the robber of home runs, the snagger of triples. He covers more of the diamond than a tarp. He’s not only the center fielder, he’s half a left fielder and half a right fielder, too.
It’s a position that is unforgiving to the butchers who would give it a go, because center field isn’t played, it’s conquered. Many an incompetent have dared wander into its jaws and were never seen again. Speaking of which, anyone see Ron LeFlore lately?
No position in baseball can rival center field when you’re talking style points.
The Tigers’ Austin Jackson is a conqueror. He’s the best center fielder in Detroit since Cobb. And I’m not forgetting that Al Kaline played a couple seasons in center.
Jackson is a loper. He possesses that brilliance all the ace center fielders have had since the dawning of the 20th century: the innate ability to break for the baseball at the crack of the bat, take the most efficient route and arrive just in time for the ball to settle into the glove.
Center-field greatness is passed down, like an Italian family business.
It was early in the 2006 season when I cornered Tigers first-base coach Andy Van Slyke in the glorified closet that passes as the coaches’ office at Comerica Park. The main topic of discussion was his then-new job as coach, but I had to bring up center field.
Van Slyke, in his prime years with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1980s and ‘90s, was widely renowned as one of the best center fielders in baseball. He was a tall, galloping man who held dominion over the position.
I wanted to know how he learned to play center field so damned good.
“Well, I used to work with Bill Virdon a lot in Pittsburgh,” Van Slyke told me, and he needn’t have said anything else, though he did.
Virdon, with the Pirates in the 1950s and ‘60s, was one of the premier center fielders of his day, though he was far overshadowed by the New York trio of Mays, Mantle and Snider. Virdon could go and get it, so when Van Slyke mentioned Virdon’s name as a tutor, I understood completely.
Van Slyke told me that Virdon worked with him for several years every spring training, imparting his wisdom about routes and jumps and footwork, about angles and awareness.
Virdon passed center field down to Van Slyke. I’d be beside myself to find out from whom Virdonlearned.
Third base, on the other hand, is a position that a century’s worth of players have spent making look easy, when it’s anything but.
Third base can’t match center field in sexiness, and part of that is because where the center fielder can take, ahem, center stage for what seems like an eternity as the lofted baseball heads for the deepest part of the ballpark, the third baseman has a split second to make his move.
The third baseman has to have the reactions of a hockey goalie and the fearlessness of a fighter pilot. He can spend half a game on his stomach.
But a great third baseman makes it all look so easy. No matter how hard hit a ball, no matter if it’s skidding along the grass or bounding rapidly by, the great third baseman gloves the ball with seemingly routine effort and rifles a throw to first base to nip the runner by a quarter step. Every time.
It can be very impressive, but it’s rarely sexy. Center field is sexy.
That’s part of what Miguel Cabrera is up against, in his apparent two-man race for the AL MVP with the Boy Wonder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels.
Trout plays center field, Cabrera third base, and I believe that’s a big reason why Cabrera isn’t considered a shoo-in for the award, despite being on the cusp of capturing baseball’s Triple Crown (leader in BA, HR and RBI) for the first time in 45 years.
Trout is a marvelous baseball player. He is, at 21 years of age, one of the very best players in the game, already. He hits for power, for average and occupies another glamour position—that of lead-off hitter.
“Batting lead-off, and playing center field…”
There is still magic in those words.
Cabrera is having a season that would be a runaway MVP year in just about any other, except for the kid Trout and his highlight-reel play in center field, which has combined with the power and cunning batting eye to give Cabrera a run for his money.
Trout has dropped off, however, at the bat in recent weeks. He hit .284 in August and is at .257 in September. His team is still in the playoff hunt, as is Cabrera’s, so that’s mostly a wash.
It would be easy for MVP voters to become enamored of Trout’s position of glamour, to recall the feats of derring-do he’s accomplished in center field, look at his total offensive numbers (not just the ones since August), and award him not only the Rookie of the Year, but the big enchilada, too.
Those voters will try to justify their vote by pointing to Cabrera and his sometimes uneven play at third base, which isn’t as sexy as center field to begin with, and offer that up as a reason to go with Trout as MVP.
If a man can win the Triple Crown, or come so damn close to it that we’re still wondering if he can do it on Sept. 22, his defense would have to be a combination of Dave Kingman and Dick Stuart’s to cancel it out enough to take him out of the MVP race.
Cabrera is no Brooks Robinson at third base, but he’s not a butcher, either.
If, as an MVP voter, you’re insane enough to wonder whether Cabrera’s glove has actually robbed the Tigers more than his bat has provided, then your vote should be revoked post haste.
Mike Trout has had a brilliant year, maybe the best of any AL rookie in decades. He has Hall of Fame potential. And he plays center field.
Miguel Cabrera might win the Triple Crown. He plays third base. So sue him.
Just be sure to vote for him as MVP before you do.
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