CENTERFIELDERS ARE baseball's high-wire act and last week Shane Victorino played the position like Karl Wallenda swaying on a sagging wire while walking from foul pole to foul pole in Veterans Stadium.
It took the series against the Braves in spacious Turner Field to remind us again of the defensive brilliance of the Flyin' Hawaiian. After all, playing center in the Bank is the baseball equivalent of tennis in a phone booth. Had Indians slugger Vic Wertz hit the 1954 World Series bomb made famous by Willie Mays in the Phillies' cozy yard, it would have landed in Ashburn Alley. But Mays, his number to the infield, ran a half-marathon in a Polo Grounds centerfield rated at an unmarked 505 feet. He made that over-the-head basket catch a stride from the warning track. The catch itself was unremarkable once Mays got to the spot. Getting to the spot was what makes it history's most replayed catch.
And that's what Victorino does. He gets to the spot. And the bigger the ballpark the more of his virtuosity is on display. At home, unless he has to flee into the narrow crease in deepest left-center where it reads 415, Shane could play the position with his ankles tied together.
In Atlanta last week, Shane bounced off more walls than a jai alai pelota. The dynamo who is this man's Phillies MVP so far this season had a big stage and gave a performance to match. If anybody out there is still trashing Victorino and the Phillies for running a better campaign than John McCain in fan voting for the final National League All-Star Game spot, tell me he didn't belong in St. Louis.
Starting with Rich Ashburn, the Phillies have been blessed with three exceptional centerfielders in the modern era. Garry Maddox deserved the Secretary of Defense nickname I gave him. Now Victorino. Before you e-mail me, "What about Lenny Dykstra?" the man who finally has read all the way to Chapter 11 outhustled his mistakes and couldn't throw out Peg Leg Bates.
This is going to ruffle some feathers . . . Rich Ashburn averaged more outfield put-outs per season than any CF in big-league history. Mays, who played in the Polo Grounds and spacious Candlestick Park, never had a 500-total-chance season. Ashburn, playing in Shibe Park with its deep (447 feet) centerfield, had more than 500 total chances in 11 seasons.
The first time I saw Maddox, Willie Mays was gone and he was playing center for the Giants in the middle of the fastest outfield I have seen. Rookie Gary Matthews was in left. He was not yet "Sarge," but more than one scout told me Gary was the fastest straight-line runner in the game for 40 to 60 yards. Matthews, Maddox and rightfielder Bobby Bonds hit 62 homers and stole 84 bases. After watching them take one extra-base hit after the other away from the Phillies that season, manager Danny Ozark said, "You'd have to shoot the baseball out of a cannon to get a ball up the alley on those three guys."
When Maddox landed in the Giants' doghouse after a bad start in 1975, Phils GM Paul Owens got him in a controversial trade for fan favorite Willie Montanez. Garry Lee played such a shallow center he could converse with the infielders without shouting. Larry Bowa called him "The Windshield Wiper" for the way he swept the alleys clean.
But for all of Ashburn's sprinter speed - like Victorino, Whitey was a state 100-yard dash champion - and Maddox' brazenly shallow positioning, both had a flaw.
Unlike Victorino, who has a plus-plus rightfielder's arm, neither Ashburn nor Maddox could stop runners. A lot of third-base coaches got aerobic workouts waving runners around third on balls fielded by them. Both hit the cutoff man with precision, but you weren't going to get an out at the plate on a medium sac-fly attempt a la Shane. You weren't going to nail fast runners sliding into tags going first to third on the Flyin' One. And you weren't going to stop runners who simply made their turn and retreated rather than be beaten to the next bag by a death-ray throw. Ashburn had double-figure assists many years because opponents ran on him. The list included heavy-legged Dodgers leftfielder Cal Abrams, waved home from second by third-base coach Milt Stock in the bottom of the ninth with the run that would have forced a playoff with the Dodgers for the 1950 pennant. Abrams was out. Stock was fired. Phils won the pennant in the 10th. Whitey always said, "Cal was a dead duck. It was a very routine throw." Exactly. And Stock didn't think Ashburn could make it.
Maddox fielded hits cleanly and got rid of the ball quickly. He had to.
There is another intangible column on Victorino's resume.
He represents one of the biggest bargains in franchise history.
In an era when a one-dimensional player like Pat Burrell commanded an $8 million contract as a No. 1 draft pick, Shane cost GM Ed Wade and minor league boss Mike Arbuckle all of $50,000 when they claimed him from the Dodgers in the 2004 Rule 5 draft. When the Phillies tried to return him and get $25,000 back, the Dodgers politely declined. They had already taken Shane back once after the Padres claimed him in 2003 and said, "Never mind."
There is a Hawaiian word for luck:
Pomaika'i . . .
When they claimed Shane Victorino for $50,000, the Phillies fell into the Pacific Ocean of Pomaika'i.
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