Monday, March 21, 2016

Top 10 Yankee Center Fielders

There are glamour positions in sports. Quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Center for the Los Angeles Lakers. Goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens.

Baseball has a few also. The Giants, in both New York and San Francisco, have had several great 1st basemen. The Chicago White Sox have long specialized in great shortstops. The Boston Red Sox are renowned for their left fielders.

No position in any sport can compare to center field for the New York Yankees.

Ironically, the very fact of the longevity that some of these players had made it hard for me to get 10 men. And how do you choose between the top 2?

Well, I'm not going to put Jacoby Ellsbury on this list just yet.

10. Elmer Miller, 1915-21. Somebody had to be the starting center fielder on the Yankees' 1st Pennant winner, right? Actually... not that much of a somebody. He may have started all 8 games in the 1921 World Series that the Yankees lost to the Giants (that was the last time the Series was not a best-4-out-of-7), but he only made 270 plate appearances in the regular season. The rest of the team's center fielders that season aren't particularly noteworthy. But in that '21 Pennant season, Miller did bat .298.

9. Roberto Kelly, 1987-92. He was the Yankees' starting center fielder from 1989 to '92, and was the best native of Panama to play for the Yankees until Mariano Rivera. Number 39 hit 20 home runs with 69 RBIs in 1991 and made the All-Star Team in 1992. In 4 full seasons with the Yankees, he stole 151 bases.

But after the 1992 season, the Yankees traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. I thought it would be a great trade for both teams. As a righthanded hitter in Yankee Stadium, Kelly was hampered by Death Valley in left and center field (not as bad as in the pre-renovation Stadium, but bad enough), while Riverfront Stadium was hand-neutral. Plus, the artificial turf would help his speed, both in the outfield and on the bases. While the player the Yankees got for him seemed perfect for then, with a lefty swing meant for the Stadium's short porch in right, and he was a real hustler and a gamer.

Unfortunately for the Reds, while Kelly was an All-Star again in 1993, he got hurt, and bounced around the majors, having only 2 more good seasons before finishing his career with a brief comeback with the Yankees in 2000. The player the Yankees got for him? A bit more successful: Paul O'Neill.

8. Lawton "Whitey" Witt, 1922-25. Born Ladislaw Waldemar Wittkowski in Orange, Massachusetts, you might guess he was one of those guys that Harry Frazee sent from the 1910s Red Sox to the 1920s Yankees. Instead, he was a direct pickup from the ashes of Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, a rookie on the worst team (still, by winning percentage) in AL history, the 1916 A's that lost 117 -- but he did hit 16 doubles and 15 triples that season.

The Yankees got him in 1922, and he batted .297 and led the AL in walks with 89. The Yankees won the Pennant, and their 1st World Series the next season with Witt batting .314. But, like Bodie, his hitting dropped off dramatically, and 1926 (with the Dodgers) was his last season in the majors.

7. Mickey Rivers, 1976-79. The Miamian's real name is John Milton Rivers, and he was named for the English poet, author of Paradise Lost. As the great sportswriter Roger Kahn, schooled in the classics at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and New York University, put it, Rivers might be the only man named for John Milton who has never heard of Paradise Lost.

In 1974 and ’75, playing for the California Angels (as the Anaheim outfit was known at the time), he led the American League in triples. In ’75, he stole 70 bases, still a record for any player for an L.A.-area-based team other than Maury Wills. The Yankees picked him up for the ’76 season – which turned out to be his only All-Star season, and he was 3rd in the MVP voting behind teammate Thurman Munson and that bastard George Brett, with teammate Chris Chambliss 5th – and in his 3 full seasons in New York the Yankees won 3 Pennants and 2 World Series.

Mick the Quick is the 1st Yankee center fielder that I can remember. He was not an ideal leadoff man – he only drew 73 walks in his 4 Yankee seasons – but his crouch shrank his strike zone, enabling him to post .312 and .326 batting averages in his 1st 2 Yankee seasons. Overall, he was .295 for his career (.299 as a Yankee, .308 in postseason play), and stole 267 bases (93 as a Yankee).

In the 1978 edition of The Complete Handbook of Baseball, perhaps the defining literary work of my childhood, editor Zander Hollander (or somebody working for him) summed Mick up very well: "Walks like an old man, but runs like a scared rabbit." No, not even Billy Martin could make the Yankees a running team, but nobody could turn a single into a double like Mickey Rivers.

He wasn’t a Hall-of-Famer, he’ll never get into Monument Park, and if Number 17 is ever retired, it won’t be for him. He’s not even the greatest Mickey ever to play center field for the Yankees. But he deserves to be on this list.

6. Johnny Damon, 2006-09. It's easy to forget, but before the Orlando native proclaimed himself and his 2002-05 Red Sox teammates "Idiots," he was already a really good player. In 2000, with the Kansas City Royals, he led the AL in stolen bases (46) and runs scored. In 2001, he helped the Oakland Athletics reach the Playoffs. Then came his Fenway days, when his hirsuteness suggested breaking The Curse of the Bambino, long thought to be hard, was so easy, a caveman could do it. (Certainly, those Sox had their share of Neanderthals.)

But in 2006, the Yankees decided to try an old, previously successful strategy: If you can't beat 'em, sign 'em. Johnny got the haircut and the shave, and his 4 years in Pinstripes were all good ones, culminating in the 2009 World Championship, including his brilliant baserunning in Game 4, taking advantage of the lefty-pull shift the Philadelphia Phillies had on Mark Teixeira, leaving 3rd base uncovered. He and reserve Eric Hinske thus joined 1996-2002 Yank pitcher Ramiro Mendoza (who was on the '04 Sox) as the only players to have won a World Series with both the Yankees and the Red Sox since the 1920s.

Unfortunately, he played just 2 more games in a Yankee uniform (Game 5 and the clinching Game 6), and the Yankees didn't re-sign him. He'll never get a Plaque in Monument Park, and Number 18 will never be retired for him, perhaps even if he makes the Hall of Fame.

Is Johnny Damon a future Hall-of-Famer? He'll be eligible in the election to be held in January 2018. He has a .284 lifetime batting average (.285 as a Yankee), a 104 OPS+, 235 homers and 2,769 hits, including 522 doubles and 235 home runs. And he is a 2-time World Champion -- with, arguably, baseball's 2 most popular teams.

Baseball-Reference.com's HOF Monitor has him at 90 out of 100, their HOF Standards at 45 out of 50 -- both figures leaving him a little short. Their 10 Most Similar Batters to him include 5 guys who are in: Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar, Robin Yount, Lou Brock and Roberto Clemente; 2 guys who should be in: Tim Raines and Al Oliver; and 3 others who fall a little short: Vada Pinson, Steve Finley and Bobby Abreu.

5. Bobby Murcer, 1965-83. Or, more accurately, 1965-66, then he spent 2 years in the Army during the Vietnam War (stayed Stateside, no combat), then 1969-74, then he was traded to the San Francisco Giants, then to the Chicago Cubs, then back to the Yankees, 1979-83. Then served as a Yankee broadcaster, 1983-2008.

He was from Oklahoma, like Mantle, so he was the first "next Mickey Mantle." Considering the pressure Mickey was under to be "Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio all rolled into one," that was totally unfair. Besides, being Bobby Murcer was pretty good.

In 1971, Bobby batted .331, and led the AL in on-base percentage. In 1972 he led in total bases and runs. He was a 5-time All-Star (4 with the Yankees). In what amounted to just 12 full seasons, he hit 252 homers (175 as a Yankee) and 285 doubles (192 as a Yankee). His lifetime batting average was a fair .277, but his OPS+ was a strong 124.

His misfortune was the get to the Yankees right after the old dynasty collapsed, and to be traded away just as the new dynasty was being built. There was no shame in 1974 in being traded, even-up, for Bobby Bonds. But Bonds didn't work out, and after one season was traded to the Angels for the aforementioned Mickey Rivers, and also for Ed Figueroa. So, in a way, Bobby was traded for Mick the Quick and Figgy, 2 indispensable parts of the 1976-77-78 Pennant winners.

Bobby was brought back in 1979, gave a eulogy at the funeral of his dear friend Thurman Munson, and then, in that night's game, drove in all the Yankee runs with a 3-run homer in the 7th and a 2-run double in the 9th, Yankees 5, Orioles 4 in one of the most emotional games in Yankee history.

He was a member of the 1981 Pennant winners, but never got a ring as a player. In 1983, in order to bring Don Mattingly up to the majors (and to begin his own career as a beloved Yankee who never got a ring), George Steinbrenner asked Bobby to retire and join the broadcast booth. For 25 years, until cancer finished taking its toll, he delighted us alongside Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Tim McCarver, Michael Kay and Ken Singleton.

Okay, Bobby was not the brightest of men. In 1992, I was watching the Yankees play in Detroit on WPIX-Channel 11. And Bobby said, "The Detroit Tigers are very tough at home, especially when they play at Tiger Stadium." Putting aside the facts -- they lost 87 games that season, and were 38-42 at home -- Uh, Bobby, where else are the Detroit Tigers going to play at home? The Silverdome? Are they gonna go into Ann Arbor and play at Michigan Stadium?

It got worse: In 1999, when the Seattle Mariners left the dreary, gray-roofed Kingdome and got into the retractable-roof Safeco Field, Bobby looked at the unusually beautiful weather in the Pacific Northwest, and said, "Ah, gotta get that sun. Gotta get that Vitamin C." I half-expected Tim to yell, "It's Vitamin D, Bobby! The sun gives you Vitamin D! Vitamin C is what you get from citrus juice!" But Tim was too classy to say that on the air. (Yes, both moments actually happened. I still have them on tape.)

Still, it was a big thrill to meet him. On July 30, 1999, the Yankees beat the Red Sox 13-3 at Fenway Park. I was there, and loved it. On the way out, I unknowingly reached the press entrance, and, quite literally, bumped into Bobby and Tim. Nice guys. Good people. Good for the game, both of them. (Even if Tim's broadcasting does get on our nerves every once in a while.)

Bobby wore Number 1 in his first go-around with the Yankees, Number 2 in his second. 1 has been retired for someone else, and 2 will be. But he deserved to get his Monument Park Plaque while he was still alive. There is plenty of room in the new Stadium's Monument Park for more Plaques. What are Hank and Hal waiting for?

Knowing he might not have much time left, Bobby wrote a memoir, titled Yankee For Life. I got it, oddly enough, on his birthday, May 20, 2008. It turned out to be his last birthday. In spite of my comments about his thought processes, at no time does his book feel like a man's thoughts straightened out by a smarter man. It is a story of, told by, a very thoughtful and decent man. Mel Stottlemyre's book Pride and Pinstripes is also very good. Someday, I should do a list on the best books by or about the Yankees; the recent bios of Roger Maris and Thurman Munson were both really good, but I was rather unhappy with the recent one on Reggie Jackson.

4. Earle Combs, 1924-35. The Yankees could afford to lose Witt, because they now had one of several athletes (including a later Yankee, pitcher Jim Turner) known as the Kentucky Colonel. In 1925, his 1st full season, he batted .341, and that would be the 1st of 9 seasons in which he batted at least .300 (he batted .299 in another). He led the AL in triples in 1927, '28 and '30. His lifetime batting average was .325, his OPS+ 125. In what amounted to 10 full seasons, he had 309 doubles.

Good stats for a leadoff hitter, which he was, which is why, when the Yankees adopted uniform numbers in 1929, and decided (at least at first) to assign the numbers according to a player's place in the batting order, Earle Combs became the 1st Yankee to wear Number 1. Which, I suppose, made him the first Yankee to wear any number. (Well, not quite: The Yanks' first game of the '29 season was at home, so the 1st Yankee to be involved in a play would have been the starting pitcher, George Pipgras. The pitchers' numbers were assigned by seniority, and Pipgras wore Number 14, so that's the 1st number worn by any Yankee.)

Combs was also a fine center fielder, but, like Pete Reiser and Lenny Dykstra after him, he had a tendency to crash into outfield walls. Like Reiser but unlike Dykstra, the walls of his era were not padded. On July 24, 1934, in brutal St. Louis heat, he crashed into the wall at Sportsman's Park in a game against the Browns. He fractured his skull and his shoulder, and was hospitalized for 2 months. In spite of a brief comeback the next season, he was done. He did, however, return as a coach in 1936, essentially to teach his successor how to handle center field at Yankee Stadium. Worked pretty well.

Combs was a member of 4 Yankee Pennant winners (1926, '27, '28 and '32) and 3 World Champions (all but the first of those). His Number 1 has been retired, although not for him. Nor does he have a Plaque in Monument Park. However, he was the earliest (if not the first) Yankee center fielder elected to the Hall of Fame.

His managers couldn't praise him enough. Miller Huggins said, "If you had men like Combs on your ballclub, you could go to bed every night and sleep like a baby." Joe McCarthy said, "They wouldn't pay baseball managers much a salary if they all presented as few problems as did Earle Combs." And the greatest player of them all, his outfield mate Babe Ruth, said, "Combs was more than a good ballplayer. He was always a first-class gentleman."

3. Bernie Williams, 1991-2006. This guy was so cool, he even got a mention from the President of the United States on the 2002 season finale of The West Wing. He was smooth and graceful in the field and running the bases, just like our grandparents' generation said DiMaggio was. Actually, few players ever looked worse swinging and missing or fouling a ball off, but when he got a hold of one, he had a beautiful swing.

And he got a hold of a few. Lifetime batting average .297, including 8 straight .300 seasons, including the 1998 batting title at .339. An OPS+ of 125. 2,336 hits, including 449 doubles (2nd on the all-time Yankee list behind Gehrig), 55 triples and 287 home runs. He had 5 100-RBI seasons, 4 Gold Gloves and 5 All-Star appearances.

The native of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan is also the only Yankee to hit 2 walkoff homers in postseason play, both in Game 1 of an ALCS: 1996 vs. Baltimore (11th inning) and 1999 vs. Boston (10th inning). His 80 RBIs and 51 extra-base hits in postseason play are records, and his 22 homers would be if you don't count that cheating steroid freak Manny Ramirez. He made 12 trips to the postseason (every year from 1995 to 2006, and that doesn't count strike-shortened '94), winning 6 Pennants (1996, '98, '99, 2000, '01 and '03), 4 World Championships (1996, '98, '99, 2000).

Should Bernie be in the Hall of Fame? Baseball-Reference.com's HOF Monitor has him at 134 out of 100 (meaning he absolutely should be in), their HOF Standards has him at 48 out of 50 (just slightly misses). Their 10 Most Similar Batters, however, show no current HOFers, but some interesting players, including former teammates Abreu and Paul O'Neill and Ruben Sierra; also Will Clark and Reggie Smith, Magglio Ordonez and Scott Rolen.

I don't think Bernie will ever make it, but he sure had a great career. His Number 51 has been retired, and he has received his Monument Park Plaque.

2. Joe DiMaggio, 1936-51. Okay, how do I put DiMaggio at 2 and Mantle at 1? Simple: Mantle was a better ballplayer, and I'll explain why when I get to him.

Joe was named "Baseball's Greatest Living Player" at a special banquet honoring the 100th Anniversary of professional baseball in 1969, and that year, when Joe presented Mickey with his Plaque to hang on the center field wall -- this was the pre-renovation Stadium, no "Monument Park" yet, and Mickey was the first living person so honored -- Joe had to be thinking, "What about me?" Mickey had been told beforehand about this, and he had a Plaque to give to Joe, and he called Joe "the greatest player I ever saw" and added, "His oughta hang just a little bit higher than mine." And so they were hung on the wall, until they were moved into the renovated Stadium's Monument Park in 1976, where they remained until each man died and it was replaced with a Monument.

To look at some of the stats, it's really not clear why Joe is held in that kind of esteem. He played "only" 13 seasons, missing 1943, '44 and '45 in the Army Air Corps (forerunner of the Air Force) during World War II, and retired after the '51 season, having just turned 37, due to injuries catching up with him to the point where he said, "I no longer have it." He hit "only" 361 home runs and got "only" 2,214 hits.

But it's important to remember that those 361 homers were, at the time he retired, 5th all-time, behind Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott and Lou Gehrig. Which means Joe was 2nd all-time among righthanded hitters, behind Foxx. And that he was a righthanded hitter at the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium, with its 402 feet to straightaway left, 461 to dead center, and "Death Valley" in between. "In 1951, his last year, my first year, I must've seen him him 30 balls that went over 400 feet that were caught," said Mantle. In a ballpark that was fairer to him, he would have had 450-500 homers. As it was, he had 361, plus 389 doubles and 131 triples.

Only 13 seasons? He was named to the AL All-Star Team in all 13. He had 11 .300 seasons, peaking at .381 in 1939 -- no New York ballplayer has come within .015 of that since. He had 10 100-RBI seasons -- he was 34 before he had a full season with less than 95 RBIs. In 1936, he led the AL in triples; in '37, runs, homers (his 46 were a Yankee record for righthanders until Alex Rodriguez in 2005), slugging and total bases; in '39 and '40, batting average; in '41, RBIs and total bases; in '48, homers, RBIs and total bases.

He was named the AL MVP in 1939, '41 and '47 -- and deserved all 3: In case Red Sox fans want to speak up for Ted Williams, I remind you that the Yankees won the Pennant and the World Series in all 3 seasons, and the Red Sox were nowhere near contention in any of them (they were 2nd in '39 and '47, but a distant 2nd each time). The 56-game hitting streak in '41, as amazing as it is, is really just another one of those things that made him Joe DiMaggio. Like his fielding: He was regarded as the best defensive outfielder of his generation, like Tris Speaker before him and Willie Mays after him.

Ten Pennants (1936, '37, '38, '39, '41, '42, '47, '49, '50, '51 -- he was in the service in '43). Nine World Series wins (all of those except '42). He was the man who showed that the Yankees could survive the retirements of Ruth and Gehrig. Number 5 retired. Hall of Fame. All-Century Team. Monument Park Plaque in 1969, replaced with a Monument after his death in 1999.

Joe DiMaggio's greatest legacy is that, late in his career, someone asked him why he went all-out every game in spite of his injuries. "Because there might be somebody out there who's never seen me play before. He deserves my best."

Bob Costas was born in 1952, and Mantle was his guy. "Every man in my father's generation told me the same thing," he said. "'You never saw DiMaggio, kid. You never saw the real thing.'" I never got to see Joe DiMaggio play baseball. But I did get to see Joe DiMaggio, on 4 occasions: Old-Timers' Day in 1987, '91 and '94, and throwing out the first ball on Opening Day in '95.

Most of my generation only knew him as the man who appeared in black-and-white films, did commercials for Mr. Coffee and The Bowery Savings Bank (since bought out a few times, and now under the Capital One name), and was briefly married to Marilyn Monroe. And since his death, his reputation has taken a hit, now that he's not still around to cow the scandalmongers into submission. But he remains one of the icons of sport.

Besides, a lot of the guys we tend to praise at his expense weren't exactly saints, either. For example:

1. Mickey Mantle, 1951-68. Joe had the much higher lifetime batting average, .325 to .298, and Joe had the higher slugging percentage, .579 to .557. But Mickey had the higher on-base percentage, .421 to .398. Their OPS's were nearly identical, .977. And since Joe played in a hitting-friendly era and Mickey in a pitching-friendly era, Mickey had the higher OPS+, 172 to 155. In other words, Joe DiMaggio was a 55 percent better hitter than the average hitter in his time, but Mickey Mantle was a 72 percent better hitter than the average hitter in his time.

And while neither man tried to steal many bases, Mickey had one of the best stolen-base percentages ever -- better even than Willie Mays. Mickey wasn't as good a fielder as Joe or Willie, but as his catch to save Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series showed, he was damn good out there.

Still think Joe was the better all-around player? I don't. As long as Mickey was alive, the title of "greatest living player" was, much more fairly, the eternal debate between him and Willie than an easy award to Joe.

Mickey also won 3 MVP awards, 1956, '57 and '62. He also won the Triple Crown, in '56, with a .353 batting average, 52 homers and 130 RBIs. Gehrig is the only other Yankee to win it -- Ruth didn't do it, neither did DiMaggio, nor Reggie Jackson, nor Dave Winfield, nor Don Mattingly, nor Derek Jeter, nor Alex Rodriguez. Three men have done it since, but Mickey is the last man to have led both leagues in the 3 categories.

Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, but, in spite of all his injuries, Mickey played in 2,401 games. "I played in more games as a Yankee than anyone," he liked to say, "and nobody knows that." Jeter has now surpassed that total, and both he (20) and Mariano Rivera (19) have surpassed Mickey's record of 18 seasons playing for the Yankees.

Mickey won 12 Pennants (1951, '52, '53, '55, '56, '57, '58, '60, '61, '62, '63 and '64) and 7 World Series (1951, '52, '53, '56, '58, '61 and '62). He and Roger Maris combined for 115 home runs in 1961 (Maris 61, Mantle 54), still a record for any 2 teammates, in spite of the Steroid Era. Others have hit 18 or more homers in postseason play; Mickey hit 18 homers in the World Series, the only round of postseason play available to him, breaking the previous record of 15 by Ruth.

Yes, he drank too much, until he drank himself to death. Yes, he treated women poorly -- although, as of this writing, I know of no record of him ever having hit one, which is not something that can be said of DiMaggio. Yes, he played some goofy pranks. Yes, he was occasionally surly to fans and to the media. No, he wasn't perfect.

But as Costas said in his eulogy to Mickey in 1995, "In his last years, Mickey Mantle, so often hard on himself, began to understand the difference between a role model and a hero. The first, he often was not. The second, he always will be. And, in the end, people got it."

Yes, they did. His original Monument Park Plaque called him "The most popular player of his era." DiMaggio was a hero for the age of newsreels and radio. With the World Series being televised, and he appeared in far more of them than Mays, Mickey was the first television superstar of baseball. The Hall of Fame, the All-Century Team, the retirement of his Number 7 and the dedication of first his Plaque and then his Monument, they don't change the facts of the way he goofed off and disappointed people. But the great sportswriter Roger Kahn said it best: "You couldn't possibly approve of Mickey Mantle. What you could do was love him."

Even if you only saw him as an Old-Timer, as I did. When I heard him say, after he stopped drinking, that he was going to follow Whitey Ford's advice and get his knees replaced, "as soon as the doctors tell me my liver's in good enough shape" to do the surgery, I thought, Hey, maybe one of these years, on Old-Timers' Day, I can finally get to see Mickey Mantle play baseball -- live, not on film! That was not to be. But at least I got to see him.

The day Mickey died, August 13, 1995 (the Yankees beat Cleveland, 4-1, David Cone pitched and Paul O'Neill homered), the 1st batter of the game was Kenny Lofton -- center fielder, Number 7. And he flew out to Bernie in center. That couldn't have been scripted.

On Joe DiMaggio Day, October 1, 1949, the Yankee Clipper said, "I'd like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee." On Mickey Mantle Day, June 8, 1969, the Mick said, "Playing 18 years in Yankee Stadium for you folks is the best thing that could ever happen to a ballplayer."

Whatever their flaws, we Yankee Fans, including those of us who don't remember them as active players, even those of us who don't even remember them as alive, have been lucky to have had them both.

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