------------------------------------------------------------------ FROM TY COBB'S tenacious play in the early 1900s to Willie Mays' defining catch in 1954 to Ken Griffey Jr.'s spectacular defense today, center field has always been center stage for baseball's greatest athletes.
Put me in coach
I'm ready to play
Look at me
I can be
- John Fogarty, 1985 ------------------------------------------------------------------
There is something timeless about center field.
It is the expanse that connects us to baseball's roots, the facet of the diamond that traces a clean line down through the game's storied seasons.
Home plate was once round, the mound once flat. Bases have varied in number, and basepaths in distance.
But center field is unchanged since the game was played on meadows and prairies, the Elysian Field of baseball's history, the tie to those pastoral days when baseball was truly a pastime.
The names of those who have found greatness in the heart of the outfield come to us softly, like the echoes of little ones calling across a sleepy morning sandlot: Cobb ... Speaker ... DiMaggio ... Mays ... Mantle ...
Center is where managers play their Olympians, those who go fastest, longest, highest. It is the position for those who can, in the only words of instruction Ken Griffey, Sr. ever gave his son, "Just go get it."
The center fielder is the quarterback of the outfield, calling teammates off when there is time and relying on them to get out of the way when there is not. But mostly, he or she is defined by legs and instinct.
"Your best athlete is in center field," said Ken Griffey, Jr., who plays with everyday flair and fleetness that invites comparisons to past greats. I guess for most of them, Willie and DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, you hear about how natural they were."
Willie Mays, of course, bound all the beauty of his position into one play 40 years ago. In what may be the most celebrated play in baseball history, he took a huge hit away from Clevelands Vic Wertz.
It happened on Sept. 29, 1954, with the first game of the World Series tied 2-2 in the eighth, in the spacious Polo Grounds. Powerful Wertz, already 3-for-3, came up with one out, Larry Doby on second and Al Rosen on first, and crushed a ball to dead center over Mays' head, seemingly certain to break the tie and give Cleveland the first game.
But Mays turned his back to the plate and ran and ran and ran. "I always played shallow when I was young," Mays said. "As a kid I felt I could go back to catch anything."
The ball kept traveling and so did Mays. Finally, looking back over his head, he made the catch over his left shoulder roughly 440 feet from home plate. The Catch. Somehow he brought himself to a quick stop, whirled and made a desperation heave that kept Doby from scoring and forced Rosen to stay on first.
"The ball was hit high," Mays said recently in the San Francisco Examiner. "I knew I could get it. The thing I worried about was getting the ball back to the infield. I don't know how I stopped after I caught it. I just stopped quickly and made a complete turn, and as I turned the ball left my hand and I went all the way around.
"What I'm really proud of, only one guy advanced. I didn't see all this. I went down after the throw. But I think it was a tribute to me to keep the runners close." No one scored. Dusty Rhodes later hit a home run to win it for the Giants, and they went on to sweep the Series.
Mays ironically does not think that was his best catch, reserving that honor for a leaping grab he made to prevent a home run while crashing into right fielder Bobby Bonds at Candlestick Park. "But when you do something in the World Series," Mays noted, "it becomes an important thing in your life."
Speaker `was amazing'
Jimmy Reese, 92, is one of the few who can compare all-timers of yesteryear with the players of recent years. A coach emeritus with the Angels, Reese began his major-league career as Babe Ruth's roommate with the Yankees in 1930. "Tris Speaker (Cleveland, Boston, 1907-28) was a wonderful center fielder," Reese said. "Played shallow because the ball was dead in those days. He was amazing going back."
Speaker's 448 assists and 139 double plays are still major-league career records.
Reese recalled that Lloyd Waner (1927-41) was a superb outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose Forbes Field was so spacious they stored the batting cage there against the fence - during games.
Cub great Hack Wilson (1923-34) might have been the most unlikely looking center fielder ever. At 5 feet 6, he wore a size 18 collar and size 6 shoes. Yet he could run down a ball, leading the league with 400 putouts in 1927.
Reese never saw Ty Cobb (1905-1928) and Eddie Roush (1913-1931) play; like the rest of us, he has only heard stories of Roush's meticulous play and Cobb's notorious ferocity. He said DiMaggio, Mays and Mantle, "reached another level. Speaker was in that group. But when you talk about men who could do it all, this is the group. All had that baseball sense you can't teach."
Junior measures up
Reese said he "respected Paul Blair and Fred Lynn in recent years," but hadn't seen much of Griffey. "From what I have seen," the old coach said, "he could be as good as anyone ever."
That is what they said of Pete Reiser, whose career (1940-42, 45-52) started out so well with the Dodgers. Leo Duroucher said Reiser "had everything but luck." What might have been a great career was cut short by injuries suffered running into walls. Reiser was carried off the field 11 times, once receiving last rites. As a result, padding and warning tracks came into general use.
A quarter century later, Fred Lynn (1974-90) hit a few walls in what started out as a potential Hall of Fame career in center for the Red Sox.
"Four of the eight Gold Gloves I won in right field were because I had Freddie playing center beside me," said Dwight Evans, now a Colorado coach. "He was the best instinctive outfielder I ever saw. Deceptively fast, great arm, but most of all unerring in running routes to the ball."
Lynn and the Griffeys are linked in a triangular sense because of plays made against Fenway Park's center field wall. In Game 5 of the 1975 World Series, Lynn had robbed Senior of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch at the wall at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. In Game 6 at Fenway, Griffey hit the same ball and ...
"This time Freddie ran out of room," Griffey recalled. "I can still see him crashing with his back against that fence then falling in a heap on the warning track."
Griffey got a triple. Lynn stayed in the game. Fifteen years later Junior made an amazingly similar play at Fenway, his back seemingly pinned to that same wall as he robbed Ellis Burks of extra bases.
The best center fielder Senior played against was Garry Maddox, who won eight Gold Gloves playing for Philadelphia from 1975-86. But Griffey played with one of the best, too, in the Reds' Cesar Geronimo, who could go get it with the best but was better known for his strong arm.
"Maddox was amazing," Senior recalled. "He got a super jump, had super reactions. You'd be on base when someone smacked a ball in the gap and Maddox made you think twice about running even though you just knew it was going to fall in. With him, you just never knew for sure.
"The Chief (Geronimo) could run, had long strides and soft hands. But there were times when you knew he was sitting back on a ball, so someone would run. Once they ran, he was like a cat. He'd hurry up, then throw them out. Period."
Griffey said Maddox's silky play was remindful of Paul Blair, who roamed center with renowned grace for Baltimore from 1964-76. "Both of them made things happen," he said.
Don Baylor, Colorado manager, played alongside Blair for six years. "Paul was the best I saw before Lynn came along and he was kind of a throwback to the old days; he played shallow," Baylor said. "Yet while he cut off line drives, he also got back so well he caught everything hit behind him. And I do mean everything. And I never saw him run into a wall. He always knew where the wall was."
The Oriole pitching staff loved Blair.
"One day in the old Met Stadium in Minnesota, Earl (Weaver) had him playing back and Steve Braun got a ground-ball double up the middle into the long grass," Baylor said. "Dave McNally said to Blair, 'I don't care what Earl says, when I'm pitching you play where you want to play."'
Fear rules today's center fielder
Most of today's center fielders play Joe Valachi style, back to the wall so that no one gets behind them.
"They're scared of a ball hit over their head," Baylor said. "Many more balls are hit in front of them, but they lack the confidence to go back on a ball.
"Junior is different. He can make all the plays. He probably gets his good instinct from his dad, and he plays with confidence. He's one of those rare ones that just when you think he's in top gear he kicks it to another level."
Curiously, Junior does not put his ability with that of DiMaggio, Mays, Maddox and Blair. For all his ability, he said his play is not instinctive.
"I started out as a pitcher and first baseman," he said. "I went to the outfield when I was 14 and I had to learn to play center. Dad didn't help me. He just told me `Go, get 'em.' "
Junior got his first lessons from Willie Stargell, who was a coach with Atlanta when Senior played for the Braves in 1986-87. "Willie taught me footwork, positioning, how to get a jump, how to read a ball," Griffey said.
"And I learned right along with Junior," Senior said. "I could never tell Junior anything because we didn't know exactly what to do. Coming up with Cinci, they did not coach us, they just told us, `Go catch it; if you can't catch it, pick it up and hit the cutoff man with your throw.'
"And Stargell knew his stuff. He had learned outfield from Roberto Clemente. Junior was 17 and I was 36 and there we were taking instruction together."
Where does Senior think his son fits in with those men he saw excel in center. "He's a little better than the others," the father said. "He does so many things well in the field, with such instinctive ability. He may be more in the range of Mays or DiMaggio, but I don't want to compare like that."
Griffey's outstanding plays litter the recollections of the last half-decade. His own favorite is personal. "When I cut in front of Dad and took a ball almost out of his glove the first time we played together," Junior said, laughing. "As I passed him going back to center he said, `You're grounded 'til your 30.' "
While the son is warmed by the historic chance to play alongside his father, the father is more objective. "More than I enjoyed playing with him," Senior said, "I enjoy watching Junior play."
Bob Sherwin of The Seattle Times staff contributed to this story.