Play Deep: I Can Be Centerfield

Two of my favorite musical treats are listening to the album Play Deep by The Outfield (of “Your Love” fame) and “Centerfield” by John C. Fogerty, of Creedance Clearwater Rival fame. I think of baseball when I hear them…go figure.

The purpose of this post is not to describe my musical likes but to list the best centerfielders and offer my undying love of Centerfield play.

I grew up playing outfield, most often centerfield, in the mid-late 1980’s, which explains the music tie-in. I always felt a bond with that position even though I played everywhere on the ball diamond, except 2nd base, even into high school. I am left-handed so you try to figure out why I caught, or played 3rd base as late as my junior year in high school. But my real love was centerfield. The vast expanse was a place I could go to work out things. I did my best in centerfield, even though it took until my senior year before the high school coach would stop playing me in right field (arm) or pitching (but never taught me anything I did not all ready know.)

During this era, there were only a few guys I really respected as centerfielders. Mind you, there are always a few really good ones, but rarely so many as the list later will reflect. Brett Butler and Kirby Puckett come to mind as vastly different, but solid day in, day out players of the 1980’s. Butler was a master of the bunt. Kirby was a clutch hitting, spectacular fielding at times CF in Minnesota, thus the HOF induction.

Centerfielders are known usually for their great defensive skills or uncommon power/speed combination. Most hit high in the batting order, either 1st because of their speed, 2nd because they can handle the bat or 3rd-4th if they can slug. This is not an absolute; just more often than not if they are going to play over a decade for any team(s).

The best ones of all time are a roll call of the immortal players. Only around 100 men have amassed 1,000 games in centerfield through 2005 season. Currently 16 of those are HOF players.(With another 5-6 possibly inductable after their careers are over: Ken Griffey Jr., Carlos Beltran, Steve Finley, Andruw Jones, Bernie Williams and Jim Edmonds.)

Six of those HOF men played in the late 1940’s through 1960. Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Larry Doby, Richie Ashburn, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. A few of their contemporaries were:

  • Jimmy Piersall – Boston Red Sox/Cleveland
  • Bill Virdon – Pittsburgh
  • Vada Pinson – Cincinnati
  • Curt Flood – St. Louis
  • Jim Landis – Chicago White Sox
  • Willie Davis – LA Dodgers

The 1950’s saw most every team have at least a competent CF running the outfield, if not spectacular. Of this group a few generalities existed:

  • Mantle, Mays, Doby and Snider were the best sluggers.
  • Ashburn, Mays, Piersall, Flood, Landis and Virdon were likely the best glove men.
  • Mays, Ashburn, Pinson and Davis were stolen base threats.
  • Snider and Mays likely had the best arms.

Mays is considered the best all-around CF of his day for a reason. His numbers are compiled in neary 3,000 games as a CF. Tris Speaker is the only other CF to amass over 2,500 games.

Centerfielders with 3,000 hits: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Robin Yount ( shortstop then move to CF for 1,000 games) and Rickey Henderson (started off as CF before spending most of his career in LF.) Even Lou Brock started out as a Centerfielder for the Cubs, but spent more time in LF and did not amass a significant game time in CF.

Centerfielders with 500 home runs: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr.

An applicable quote from a great Centerfielder:

“Well, my dad taught me that there’s three parts. There’s hitting, there’s defense, and there’s baserunning. And as long as you keep those three separated, you’re going to be a good player. I mean, you can’t take your defense on the bases, you can’t take your hitting to the field, and you can’t take your baserunning at the plate. But defense, is number one.” – Ken Griffey, Jr.

Defense is number one.

The best ones get to balls. Always. Ask Vic Wertz about Willie Mays. Ask the few living Negro Leaguers about Cool Papa Bell or Oscar Charleston. Many a centerfielder has changed the game with his glove. As the table above reflects, quite a few of the greats are on the list, particularly those in the 1950’s, highlighted in bold. It should be noted that Brett Butler and Kirby Puckett are high on the list of getting to balls.

If I had things to do over, I would have played centerfield for a minor league/semi-pro team for as long as I could. Maybe to make it to the show for a day, if two or three injuries happened. My best days in life involved playing baseball.

Last summer, I played in an adult league, a few pounds from by optimal playing weight. But I enjoyed chasing down balls and making the ultimate play: throwing a runner out a home. I did that 3 times. Not as much juice on the ball as I use to have, but accurate and the runners were dead in the water rounding third. The grass feels better under your feet after a throw or a great diving catch. The fence pats you on your back after you avoid a crash into it. And the sun gets out of your eyes on those elevator shots a few wannabe sluggers hit.

Put me in coach, I’m always ready to play….

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