Musings: Sideways in Centerfield

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

SIDEWAYS IN CENTERFIELD

Red Sox manager Alex Cora has been giving plenty of innings in the field to utility man
Tzu-Wei Lin this spring. A natural shortstop, Lin also has experience at second and third
bases, and has been getting some time in centerfield, where he shows real promise. But,
as Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe reports, it’s still a learning experience. “When the
ball comes right at you, it’s hard to see sometimes,” Abraham quotes Lin as saying. And
it is. How many times have we seen a centerfielder frozen for a moment by a drive that’s
hit right at him? It’s difficult to tell at first if the ball will drop in front of you or sail over
your head. That moment or two of hestitation can be the difference between a base hit
and a putout. That, in turn, can be the difference in the outcome of a ballgame.

Perhaps Lin should take a page from the book of another shortstop who, years ago,
switched from being a shortstop to becoming a centerfielder, and who solved the problem
of being frozen by line drives hit right at him.

When Dom DiMaggio first tried out with the San Francisco Seals, he was a shortstop. He
did pretty well, too, but manager Lefty O’Doul, worried that a bad hop ground ball could
shatter his glasses (position players wearing glasses were all but unheard of in those pre-
contact lens days), so he moved Dom to centerfield. So it was that the man who would
become known as the Little Professor, not only because of his glasses, but also because
of his sharp, analytical mind, took on the issue of line drives being hit straight at him.

He reasoned that, if a batter maximized his reaction to a pitched ball by standing
sideways to the pitcher rather than directly facing him, why wouldn’t the same be true of
a fielder and a batted ball? Thus he took his position in centerfield standing sideways to
homeplate instead of facing it. He stood facing the leftfield line, with his right shoulder
toward the plate, not unlike a right-handed batter.

He found that he was never frozen on a drive hit directly at him and that he could come in
on short drives and back on long ones much more quickly than with a conventional
stance. For a while he turned his stance around, facing the rightfield line when left-
handed batters, who were more likely to pull the ball than to hit it the other way, were at
the plate; but he was more comfortable facing leftfield and that’s the way he played his
career.

How did this unorthodox stance work? Well, if you go to the record book, you will find
that Dom DiMaggio averaged 2.99 chances per game, and 2.92 chances accepted over the
length of his career, more than any other outfielder in major league history. In addition,

he is one of only three outfielders in American League history to have 500 or more
putouts in a single season; and he is the only one to have done that before the schedule
was expanded from 154 to 162 games, and the only one to have accomplished that while
playing in a small outfield. Fenway Park’s outfield dimensions have not changed over the
years; its centerfield, with the 420 foot triangle in right center, is no longer considered to
be especially small compared to the newer parks of the present generation, but in Dom’s
day other parks had huge centerfields: the old Yankee Stadium was 461 feet to center,
Philadelphia’s Shibe Park was 468, and Chicago’s Comiskey was 440. Centerfielders had
plenty of room to chase down fly balls, but none of them caught as many as Dom
DiMaggio, who was relatively hemmed in at Fenway. With the smaller dimensions of
today’s outfields, no one approaches 500 putouts per season anymore.

Obviously Dom’s unorthodox stance paid huge dividends for him; it has always puzzled
me why other centerfielders, then or now, have not tried it. To my knowledge only one
other centerfielder used a similar stance, standing sideways to home plate. Dwayne
Murphy played with the Oakland Athletics in the 1980s, and he won six consecutive
Gold Glove awards (the Gold Glove did not exist when Dom played). In addition,
Murphy is one of the two others in addition to Dom to have 500 putouts in a season. The
other is Chet Lemon of the White Sox. Think about that, only two centerfielders have
played taking their stance sideways to homeplate, and they are two of only three
outfielders in American League history to have had 500 putouts in a single season. You’d
think that someone else would at least give it a try, wouldn’t you?

While we’re on the subject of Dom DiMaggio’s prowess in the field, we should talk
about his throwing arm. In 1940, his rookie year, he did not crack the starting lineup until
two months into the season. Thus he played in the field in only 94 games, fewer than two
thirds of the team’s total. Yet he led the American League in assists that year. No other
outfielder in baseball history has led the league in assists while playing in such a small
percentage of games.

The record shows that he is one of the greatest defensive outfielders in the history of the
game. And we have not even touched upon his contributions on offense (for example, the
same year that he had more than 500 putouts he also set an American League record for
runs batted in by a leadoff hitter). We’ll save that for another time.

For my money Dom DiMaggio is the most underrated great player of his age, partly
because he played next to the magnificent Ted Williams and because he played the same
position as his more famous brother Joe (Whitey Ford told me one night, “You tell Dom
that Joe couldn’t hold his jock in the outfield.”).

That he does not have a plaque in Cooperstown is an injustice.