For Carlos Beltran, right (field) is right
At first, longtime center fielder may feel like a "caged beast" in his new position
Carlos Beltran's week reminded me of something.
In my first professional spring training with the Cubs, I learned a hard lesson. One morning, during an outfield drill with our instructor, Jimmy Piersall, we decided to work on communication. So Jimmy would throw balls between the center fielder and the corner outfielder to teach you how to call for the ball if you thought it was in your territory. It is a given that the center fielder is the captain of the outfield and has priority when he calls the ball, but sometimes there are these perfectly hit balls that come down right when you both are converging on the spot and that's when things get fun.
On one toss, Piersall threw a ball between me and my right fielder, Paul Torres. Paul's nickname was "Kong" so you can imagine that my 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame was no match for him. The ball was right in between us; I called it late and too softly so Kong just went after it until we ran into each other.
When I was drafted, my best attributes were my speed and my defense, so after these sessions with Piersall, he saw that I needed to work on being a leader in the outfield if I was going to be a center fielder worth his salt. "You have to yell it! I got it! I got it!" he would say.
I came to learn that playing center field comes with a lot of responsibility. You have to know every hitter in every detail. What does he try to do with two strikes? Does he hook outside pitches and create topspin on the ball by the time it reaches you? Is he in a slump and slicing everything he hits? How is our pitcher going to try to get him out? Is our shortstop, Tomas Perez, going to stop chasing that popup that drifted into the outfield when I call him off?
But most importantly, you need to know where you are relative to the entire defense, not just your fellow outfielders. There is no other player on the field who has to always compare his position with everyone else on the field, even the umpires. It was not unusual that once a game, I would signal the second-base umpire to slide a step or two to the left or right because I couldn't see home plate. If he didn't, I might have to move out of the ideal position to properly defend the hitter.
As the captain, your biggest responsibility is your corner outfielders. You have to spend most of your defensive day moving these guys around like army men on your game board. You hope to have good outfielders who did their own studying and know exactly where to be before you have to try to scream over 40,000 fans and against the wind to move them.
Beltran knows exactly what I am talking about.
My gift was an ability to know relative distance. I could just know if Bobby Abreu was too close or if Pat Burrell was too deep. Or maybe Sammy Sosa was still upset at his last at-bat and didn't look at me or Alex Rodriguez hated going back on popups. Alex loved that I learned from Piersall to scream at the top of my lungs to call off drifting infielders.
After years of committing to this idea, that you are in charge and have to eat, sleep and drink positioning, it is hard to let go of playing center field. No center fielder in his right mind would want to play left or right.
So when I read that Beltran, who turns 34 on April 24, relinquished his role as captain of the outfield in favor of Angel Pagan and would be the right fielder of the New York Mets, I knew that he would have trouble with it. It has nothing to do with his lack of understanding of the "why." He is not 100 percent healthy, he won't take reps in the outfield for a while, and he wanted to eliminate the team distraction of an outfield controversy, not to mention that Pagan has done a fantastic job out there. But in the same breath, Carlos must be saying "I can still do it."
The trouble he is having is because of what happens when you play center field for a long time. It becomes part of your essence: You lead, you are all-knowing, you make decisions, you don't have time to flirt with the girl in the stands, you don't have time to work on your batting stance after a terrible at-bat, you don't have time to chat up your teammates in the bullpen. You are "on" all of the time and quite frankly, left and right field are boring to a center fielder.
That is not to say left and right field are easier. The balls hook and slice, dip and dive a lot more in those corner spots; you may even have to deal with ivy-covered brick walls or dozing ball boys. Then add the Green Monster or Minute Maid pinball machine and you become a billiards player more than an outfielder.
But center field is where you see it all even though you are the farthest from most of the action.
We also have to remember that Beltran was a force of nature for years. I remember my only year in the American League, 2003, with the Texas Rangers. Kansas City came to town and here strolls in Beltran. I knew a little about him from my time in Puerto Rico, but not as much as I found out in our series with the Royals.
This guy literally beat us in every way you can beat a team, by himself. He hit a home run, he stole bases, he robbed a home run from us, he hit fastballs, he hit off-speed pitches, he threw out a guy at home with a rocket arm. He truly looked like a man amongst boys. His final line for the three-game series: 9-for-12, 5 runs, 1 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 8 RBIs, 2 BB, 2 SB, 0 K's.
Then when he was traded to Houston and I was with the Phillies, I warned my teammate Todd Pratt about him. I told Pratt that this guy is the real deal. He proceeded to hit a home run in each game of the three-game series, including one over the train tracks to go with three stolen bases. It was ridiculous.
When you reach the highest level of the high, at a skill position where you have led and been the best, you don't like to concede that someone else will be the starting center fielder, unless you are Angel Pagan (apparently he is ready to give it back when Beltran is ready). Nevertheless, Beltran will still have the instincts of a center fielder, the panther roaming the pasture that is not sure how to act when his territory just got cut in half.
When Laynce Nix came up with the Rangers, he was a center fielder by nature, but I was the center-field sheriff in Texas, so he had to play some right field to get his feet wet. One game in Baltimore, a ball was hit between us and we both had to slide for it. Neither of us backed down, and we collided. Just like with Kong, I gave away a lot of pounds and was sore for days, although Nix admitted that he woke up the next day "with a gorilla on his chest." Nothing is more dangerous than two center fielders in the same outfield with a lot of leadership experience. Nothing brought this to light more than the nasty collision between Beltran and Mike Cameron in 2005. In 2011, let's keep our eyes on Angels outfielders Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells. OK, Torii plays right field now but not in his mind.
So Beltran has to be careful. He will feel like a caged beast, now knowing that right field is his position, that this may not be a temporary New York Met state of mind while he gets healthy. He will feel like everything is too close to him, that he should overrule the misguided positioning of someone with less experience as the captain. I played a lot of corner outfield as I faded away from the game. I made a point to always be in position before the center fielder even thought to move me, sometimes helping young guns like Marlon Byrd with some tricks.
No matter what you do, there will always come a day when you know that you have lost a step. You will deny it, you will fight it, but objective evaluators will know right away. As my mentor and legendary Phillies center fielder Garry Maddox told me: "I knew I was done when a ball was hit in the gap, and everything in my soul told me to do what I do best -- react, sprint to the landing spot, cut it off at the gap. The only problem was my body hadn't moved."
Beltran isn't there yet, but he knows this is Step 1 of the 10-step program that pushes you out of the game, and like any good center fielder, he will not accept it lying down.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11, 2010. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.
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