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Standing in leftfield in a game for the first time this spring was like sitting at one end of a basketball court watching plays develop at the other. It's such a different perspective after so many years playing second. I found myself admiring just how easy major leaguers can make the game look. It was fun watching a guy like Luis Sojo, who's out there smiling and pickin' it, throwing the ball across the infield from all angles, over the top, sidearm. He's got such great hands and confidence, he makes playing the infield look like a day at the amusement park.
That's something I hope I can do again, to play with that kind of easy, loose confidence.
There's this feeling that's hard to describe. You practice to prepare yourself for a game, to condition yourself so your instincts will take over. You're not thinking about what you do if the ball's hit to you. You just react and make the play. That's a feeling every player works for. I'm sure it will happen for me again. I just don't know when.
I really think, deep down inside of me, something is going on. Something, somewhere along the line in my life, has affected me, and I don't know what it is. It's frustrating and it's puzzling. I don't ask, "Why me?" because I'm a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason. But I just have this feeling that, whenever this thing stops, I'll know it without even picking up a baseball and throwing it. When I get to the root of this problem, I'll know I'm better without even walking on a baseball field.
A lot of people have suggested that my throwing problems are going to be fixed simply by my going to leftfield for a while. I don't think that's going to be the case. That says this is something I can consciously correct. I know for sure it's not.
I can't even tell you when my problems started. I know some people think it might have something to do with me coming from Minnesota to New York in 1998, but I don't buy that. I think I made 10 errors in the first half of that season and three the rest of the way. The fact that I finished so strong tells me I was fine. Sometimes, I think if I could identify the origins of the problem, it would help me solve it. I don't know.
No one can say I'm in denial here. I'm not saying, "Throwing problem? What throwing problem?" Obviously, something's not right. But I don't think it has anything to do with baseball. I think if I were a guy who worked on Wall Street, or an artist, and this same thing that's going on with me, whatever it is -- I think it would come out in my work. It just so happens that my line of work is playing baseball in front of millions of people.
Is it ever going to stop? I hope so. But it's not something that more hard work is going to take care of. I've done everything possible. I reported to Tampa on Jan. 15 to work on things. I'd been lobbing the ball so much the last couple of years, I had to get a feel for the right release point to throw the ball on a line. And that wasn't easy. I'd forgotten how to feel loose. There was so much tension and stiffness. It took awhile to be able to play a normal game of catch again. I had to relearn little things, like staying on top of the ball and releasing out front, getting the left shoulder in line with the target, even just picking up the target. And I did relearn those things because I can go out there to second base right now, and I'll warm up and play catch, and I'll do it all day long. I can do that, no problem, like hammering nails, one good throw after another.
But for some reason, once I get into a game, something happens. Even the plays I do complete don't feel right. It doesn't feel the way it did all those years when all I did was grip the ball across the seams and throw it to first. It's puzzling.
I remember how it felt playing behind Scott Erickson in his no-hitter for the Twins, thinking, "Man, hit it to me , I want to make a diving play to save this thing." And then playing in two perfect games, thinking, "Come on, hit it to me." In the perfect games pitched by David Wells and David Cone, I had to make tough plays in the eighth inning. In Wells' game, I had this hot shot hit at me that I knocked down and casually picked up and threw over. And in Cone's perfect game, I went up the middle onto the outfield grass to backhand a ball, straightened and threw a strike. That's the best feeling you can have as a player.
People want to help, but it's not in my best interest to read most of the mail I get. These people, and the so-called experts, don't have a clue about me. If I haven't met them, how can they say, like, "one plus one equals two, here's what you need to do"? There are no miracles out there. Last year I ran into Steve Sax in Chicago, and we talked for about 10 minutes. It was like he could read my mind, because he'd gone through the same experience. But even so, there wasn't a lot he could offer except, "Keep working hard." If it were as simple as some people want you to believe, don't you think the Yankees would have gotten somebody to do something for me by now? I'd like a nickel for everyone who's said, "Don't think, just throw it." If it were only that easy.
I don't see how it can be a baseball thing. I've been playing my whole life. I was born into it. My dad was a pitcher in the Texas League and my Uncle Eddie was a leftfielder. (In Dallas, they called him the Mayor of Leftfield.) My dad then went on to be a high school coach in Houston for 25 years. I was around the game from the get-go, running around with the big guys when I was little, being a bat boy for all my dad's games. My parents never pushed it on me, but as a kid you're going to stick to something you are good at. And I was always good at baseball. Looking back now, I think I was good because I had so much fun. You have so much fun, you're going to come back for more. And I couldn't get enough.
I'm sure I came across as cocky, because I was confident, all the way up the ladder. As I got older, when people told me I wasn't going to make it because I was too small, it just drove me even harder to prove them wrong. My dad always taught me that, as a little guy, I had to pay attention to all the details, backing up bases, doing everything fundamentally right. That's always been the way I've tried to play the game.
Through the years, whenever I struggled, I always called my dad. Most of the time, like 99% of all position players, I'd call when I was struggling at the plate. My defense was always more or less a given. But those calls were always helpful. I had a personal coach who knew me better than anybody. But my dad's been struggling with Alzheimer's disease, and it's been hard not having him to talk to through this stretch. I know he would have had something to tell me. He's one guy who's been watching me play my whole life, who knows the ins and outs of me as a player and a person. It's been very, very difficult. But I have to accept that he can't help me this time.
Think of Kirby Puckett, who had to walk away from the game at 34 because of glaucoma. If Kirby can walk away with no regrets, I know it's because he left it all on the field. He had the most fun I've ever seen anybody have in baseball. He had a great attitude, great mood, smiling and laughing every day of his baseball career. Every day when he walked into the clubhouse, the place just lit up. He was one of a kind, the top of the totem pole as far as I'm concerned.
I'm not going to compare my situation to Kirby's, but I know I've worked hard throughout my career. With the help of so many people along the way -- coaches, teammates, you name it -- I became a pretty good major league second baseman. And if it were all to end today -- well, after a few days, anyway, I could look at myself in the mirror and feel good, knowing I got a lot out of myself, that I did all I could. When I stepped between the lines, I played hard and tried to play right, to slide into second hard, take the extra base, go the other way. As I've gone through this, I've realized that's about all I can control.
I swear, I would never trade any of this back for anything, not even the day last season when I hit rock bottom, making three throwing errors at home and asking Joe Torre to pull me. I told him, "You've got to get me out of here. I'm done hurting this team with my mistakes." He told me to go home, but he asked me to promise him one thing, that I would come back the next day. I didn't know how it was going to play out from that point, but I knew I could keep that promise, because I have so much respect for Joe.
My head was spinning. Luckily, I was with some people who cared about me. Jason Grimsley, probably my best buddy in the whole world, was there for me, and stayed with me the whole night. It was a rough night. But maybe that night, it was meant for me to realize that I had so many great friends, so many teammates who called and left messages, and that this one particular guy was going to be there for me no matter what. The next day, I went to the park and Joe said, "I want you back out there at second today." So I played. I said, "I guess it can't get any worse."
I respected Joe's decision that day, and I respected his decision to play Luis Sojo and Jose Vizcaino last year during the playoffs and the World Series. I'm not saying I didn't want to be out there. But I thought of all the times I was on the field, and there were guys on the bench who thought they should be playing but who still pulled hard for me. I wanted to be out there, but these are the guys you stand with, wearing the same uniform. I was in there rooting and jumping up and down and high-fiving. That's the World Series. That's what makes the Yankees great. The type of people on this team. Everybody's about winning, and that's why we've won so much.
This spring, Joe and I had one conversation before he moved me from second to left. He could see I was still struggling, but he wanted the switch to be a mutual decision. I certainly wasn't going to fight it. You can only play this game for so long, and you've got to take advantage of every opportunity you get. So I considered it almost an honor to be asked to switch positions, because it meant Joe still wanted me in the lineup. He told me the team needs me. That meant a lot. And it's not like I'm the first player in history who's been asked to switch positions.
I remember Joe telling people he hoped I didn't treat leftfield like the penalty box. There's just no way. He knows I didn't quit on second base. He knows the work I put in. Leftfield is a new experience, and I'm trying to savor it. I'm thinking this can only add to my knowledge of the game. I'm trying to learn things quickly. It's like I'm going back to all the things I always beat myself up over when I was trying to make it to the big leagues, to be the most alert guy out there, backing up bases and trying to always be in the right spot.
There are so many things you never think about until you play a new position. Man on first, a ball's hit to right. The leftfielder's got to back up third, along with the pitcher, in case there's an overthrow or a bad bounce. I'm trying to absorb myself in every last detail. My first exhibition game, first and third with one out, Alex Rodriguez hits a fly ball to me in deep left. As a second baseman, I know when that ball is hit, I'm yelling right away, "Second base!" I would have done that without even thinking. But as the leftfielder, all I was thinking about was catching the ball and finding the cutoff man. And I ended up throwing to Luis Sojo, who was lined up with the plate. As soon as I threw it, I was like, "You should have thrown to second." The thought process wasn't quite there yet. But I think in time, it will be.
The relief is in not having to deal with the everyday problem. Throwing won't be a problem in the outfield because, for the most part, you're throwing to an area. You're throwing to a relay man, and if the throw is two or three feet to his left or right, he can move with the throw. It doesn't require precision. I'm not thinking about it. I've only been out in left for a short time, but the only thoughts in my mind are on doing the job. There are no worries about making a mistake. So far I feel like I can just go out and play and try to get back to enjoying the game. Joe said the other day, "He looks like he's enjoying himself." Well, I don't know if that's the case yet, because I'm living it. But if he's seeing it, if it looks that way to him, then I think there's something to it.
I think I'm on my way back.
This article appears in the April 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.