The changing center-field culture
As the game shifts in emphasis, so does one of its marquee positions
Every five years in baseball, there is a new generation of ballplayers that becomes the staple of the major leagues. It could be because of a shift in emphasis. Maybe pitchers had a new pitch of choice (the cutter, the split). Maybe the stadiums changed (AstroTurf came on the scene, then it quietly went away). Maybe the game opened up to new markets (enter Japan, the advent of Latin American academies, the ebb and flow of African-American participation).
No matter how you look at it, the game changes and the players who play it change. The game usually goes back to center, never getting too far from itself, but in my nine-season major league career, I saw a number of cultural shifts.
One clear shift occurred when the power game took over in a blaze. At first, there were questions of juiced baseballs and smaller parks. Then the questions pointed toward the players themselves, with widespread access to a chemical edge easy to find.
It would only make sense that, during that power surge, the purpose of defense also would change. My expertise was center-field focused. I trained with the likes of Jimmy Piersall to master being the leader of the outfield. I used to hear a lot about how the game would celebrate being strong defensively "up the middle," even with a loss in offensive production. Piersall would be almost livid when I hit a home run, yelling, "Don't mess up your swing and forget to play defense!"
I came up knowing about Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno, Garry Maddox, Dale Murphy, Dwayne Murphy, Rick Manning and the list goes on. These were players who, for a long period of time, were associated with what it meant to be a center fielder. They were specialists; they knew their craft; and their hitting was seen as a bonus. Gary Pettis was loved by his pitching staff as he took away hit after hit, year in and year out. No one worried about his bat.
But by the time I was getting into the swing of my career in the late '90s, this was about to change, and quickly. Once my offensive production slowed in 2002, the next-best option in center field was a player who could hit. Bobby Abreu took over for a while; Jason Michaels took over in another stretch; and then Ricky Ledee took over, too. It didn't seem to matter what the player's center-field résumé looked like as long as he could hit. There was no doubt that all of them had much more run-generating productivity than I did.
During this time, it wasn't happening just to me or just in Philadelphia. All of baseball went back to the little league days when you stuck someone out in right field with defense being a low priority. The game accepted the fact that you might have given up two runs a game from your defense in exchange for the one run a game you drove in. This became how an outfield started to be built.
Soon, it was a better strategy to have your best offensive outfield out there until necessary. Center field was no longer a specialty position from Inning 1 but rather a place where you could put another bat. Sure, you would try to get the most skilled player out there, but he didn't need to know the craft of it. It was decided that this could be taught to any good athlete. So you started seeing anyone and everyone in center field.
One argument for this trend was that center field was the "easiest" of the outfield positions. In center, the ball doesn't hook and dip as much as it does in the corners. That might be true, except there are a lot more balls coming your way that become two bases or more if you don't get to them. It goes down as only a double, but a center fielder has to be precise because one bad move and you are running full speed -- in the wrong direction.
When the Yankees released me in 2005, I was battling for a fourth outfielder slot. Bubba Crosby was the ultimate winner of the job. Because they didn't select him for his ability to be a big-time offensive force, he played here and there, mostly giving way to a smorgasbord of center-field starters who were learning on the fly. Second baseman Tony Womack was out there, Hideki Matsui -- whoever they thought could hold it down until they thought they needed defense (the ninth inning, maybe).
It only makes sense that a generation of specialists were lost when the bat became the only king. I came up and competed against Jim Edmonds, Andruw Jones, Kenny Lofton, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Cameron, Torii Hunter and what seemed like excellent center fielders on every single team. Then, it slowly became big bats and less glove. I recall noting the mark of excellence being when a center fielder reached 400 putouts in a season (it has happened 125 times since 1954, with some players accomplishing the feat multiple times). I only did it once; Jones did it five times. You have to cover a lot of ground to pull that off.
Will there be a rebirth of the center fielder? As the power emphasis has slowed (largely from the awareness of performance-enhancing drugs), defense is coming around again, as is the speed game. You see young outfielders such as Austin Jackson, Chris Young, Adam Jones and Franklin Gutierrez holding it down. But they have to hit, and hit well, to stay in that lineup. That was not always the case.
It is going to take some time for this group to be veteran enough to be the gold standard of consistent dominance on the glove side of the game. The established, regular defensive experts have been washed away in the power game. Hunter is now a right fielder. Curtis Granderson will be jockeying for playing time in center with Brett Gardner because of health issues or because he would provide more value to his team in a corner outfield spot. And when you don't stick to one position (and yes, right field, left field and center field are three different positions), it is a lot harder to excel at it.
When Robin Yount moved to center field from shortstop, he played nothing but center field and ended up having an amazing 443 putouts one year. That is unheard of in 2011.
The talent is there -- always has been, always will be -- to have game-changing center-field defense. But where a center fielder's value is placed is different. It is much harder today to specialize in being a center fielder because you cannot let your bat slide for even a second. When it does, a much lesser defender will replace you even if it is only for the first six innings. Then, once you become enough of an offensive force to meet the requirements of a corner outfielder, they might move you and look for the next bat to take over center and grow that player into another corner outfielder. Have bat, will travel. At least, for now.
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 in May 2010. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville