Learning or perfecting a position is not an easy task, even when it is only one spot over from where you have played your entire life. When I came into the locker room of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs on June 8, 1996, I wasn't surprised to learn I was leading off (OK, that's normal.), but I scratched my head when I saw I was playing left field (OK, what's going on?).
As a professional, I had not logged any innings at that position; center field was my home. Still, it was the outfield. It should be a quick adjustment, I tried to convince myself. I sensed this was the big call-up and that they were just finding a place I could play, since at the time the Cubs' center-field position was occupied by Brian McRae. I decided it was no problem and that I could learn to play left field on the fly.
Not so fast.
Every year, when thousands of pro baseball players descend upon their spring training homes, we know about the battles for starting positions. Will Jason Varitek or Victor Martinez be behind the plate for the Red Sox? We comb through pages of fantasy baseball analysis to figure out if Joba Chamberlain will be the Yankees' fifth starter or the guy to hand the ball to Mariano Rivera. Some of us even wonder if the Rays will be crazy enough to wear those teal blue uniform tops at their home opener.
Sure, once in a while we note that some player coming into camp is asked -- or even told -- to learn a new position. We tend to brush off such news as if it is some annoying fly buzzing around our head, but make no mistake about it: That fly is a vulture to the player, creating concern in his mind that this might be the last move he ever makes as a big leaguer.
Alfonso Soriano made such a move kicking and screaming as a member of the Washington Nationals in 2006. He had been a second baseman for many years with the Yankees. Comfortable as a middle infielder, he did not want to move to a new position, let alone one that seemed a million miles away in left field. He fought it tooth and nail, to no avail. Four years and many rocky nights at his new position later, he still doesn't seem all that happy or comfortable out there.
Of course, as an outfielder, I always took offense that decision-makers would say, "Oh well, just put him in the outfield; we need his bat." It seemed patronizing to the value of defense. As if someone is patting you on the head and sending you to right field like in Little League, when only one kid out of 100 could actually hit the ball out there on the fly. But it isn't just a notion to keep in mind that misreading a ball in the outfield can lead to serious damage, even though in all likelihood it doesn't end up in the error column for that player. "Oh well, he took a bad route," the apologists say. "But did you see that 400-foot home run he hit with one hand?"
The players who battle to become good at a new position deserve a lot of kudos. In 2008, Ryan Braun attacked learning left field when the Brewers moved him there from third base. I am sure in those hours when we didn't see him in the ballpark or on "SportsCenter" getting a clutch hit or boxing with Prince Fielder, Braun had the brains to be taking buckets full of fly balls to practice.
Mark Teixeira is a switch-hitter who was able to switch positions. When I saw Teixeira come up as a young member of the Texas Rangers, he could not buy a hit for the first few games (he tends to be a slow starter, even as an established player). Even worse for him was that he was thrown into playing first base after playing third base in college and in the minor leagues. When playing out of position, it is harder to redeem yourself with a great fielding play to make up for those two jam shots you hit back to the pitcher with runners in scoring position. In fact, you are probably going to make the hole you dug for yourself deeper as you take a couple of ground balls off the knee or toss it over the shortstop's head on a potential 3-6-3 double play.
But Teixeira kept at it. At the outset, he was by no means as skilled as the "Big Cat," Andres Galarraga; he was more like the "micro kitten." But Teixeira eventually showed that he was a force to be reckoned with in the field as well as at the plate. He wasn't just a home run or RBI machine. He was also a Gold Glover. When he won his first Gold Glove (the first of three so far), my jaw hit the floor, because I had not paid attention to how much he kept improving year in and year out. I realize Gold Glove voting can be a fashion show, but Teixeira was legitimately getting it done extremely well.
So take time out to notice Mark Teixeira. Not because he just beat your team again with a big hit or because you are a Yankees fan and realize he produces with a smile and a quiet confidence. Instead, give him some love for not just leaving his glove at home, as sometimes can happen when your salary goes up for your bat. Appreciate that now his defense is so solid that he not only looks good, but he can make all his fellow infielders better, even Derek Jeter.
Teixeira is off to another slow start, but now he has a body of work behind him that lets us know what he can do if given the time. Now he's a proven defender to go along with his offensive production. This will be enough so that when he gets hot and someone else on his team cools off at the plate, the Yankees will not miss a beat.
It took some lessons in angles and reflexes, and I took some lumps. But I eventually figured out left field and, ultimately, even right field. Teixeira figured out his new position, too. As a bona fide power hitter whose bat could make people overlook a few misplayed balls, he had less incentive to concentrate on learning his new position than a guy like me, who hit only 59 homers over nine seasons. That commitment is what can transform a good teammate into a great teammate -- playing defense like it matters, even when it might not get you a bigger payday.
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 forthcoming book "The Game from Where I Stand" will be released on May 11.