What's toughest position in bigs?
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Baseball and good sense are not opposites, or mutually exclusive. It just looks that way sometimes. Especially if you are Bud Selig's mirror. Poor Bud. He's no longer Bud Selig. He's a punchline.

That's why "Bud Selig" makes the list of multiple choice answers for "The Four Toughest Positions to Play in Major League Baseball."

1. What are the four most difficult positions to play at the big-league level (you know, the level people once cared about)?

    (a) Bud Selig

    Bernie Williams, Shane Spencer
    As Bernie Williams, left, will tell you, it ain't that easy to play center for the Yanks when you've got to cover for Shane Spencer.
    (b) Bud Selig's mirror

    (c) Yankees general manager under Steinbrenner

    (d) Center field

    (e) Center field when Shane Spencer is in left

    (f) Center field when Jeromy Burnitz is in right

    (g) Catcher

    (h) Catcher of nebulous sexual orientation when a knuckleballer is pitching

    (i) Shortstop

    (j) AL shortstop not suffering in comparison to Ungodly Pentagram of A-Rod, Jeet, Nomah, Miggie y Omar.

    (k) Starting pitcher

    (l) Closer

    (m) Third base

    (n) First base

    Alex Rodriguez
    It's tough being an AL shortstop when you've got to play in Alex Rodriguez's shadow.
    (o) Second base

    (p) Right field

    (q) Left field

    (r) Utility man

    (s) Designated/pinch-hitter

    (t) Clubhouse man

    (u) Manager

    (v) Owner

    (w) Fan

    (x) Fan holding beer and infant child caught between trying to catch or avoid line drive foul ball

    (y) Set-up man

    (z) Did we mention Bud Selig?

We know what it isn't. It isn't first base. Seen Tino run? Painful to watch. And Mo Vaughn's body speaks for itself, to somebody.

Mo Vaughn
Take one look at Mo Vaughn's physique and then decide how tough it is to play first.
Third base is all about reflex. Except for bunts, you could play in a wheelchair, falling out for liners hit to your left of right. Not hard, unless you're charging, looking for the bunt, with Sammy Sosa up.

Closer and starting pitcher is interesting. Closer has to go every other day, but only an inning. They seem more robust than starters -- I give you Goose, Dibble, Hoffman, Gagne -- or at least today's starters, although starters have more of a challenge getting a guy out twice before yielding to Middle-relief, then Set-up man, then Closer. Pitchers are so specialized they should be in the Teamsters.

Plus, if Tom Glavine makes it look easy, how hard can it be?

There's another word for pinch-hitter. Corpse.

Utility man is baseball's equivalent of Teacher's Pet.

Clubhouse man is fifth hardest. You should see the mess big-league ballplayers leave behind for some other guy to clean up.

Manager. Oh yeah. Real hard. What are they wearing unis for?

Edgar Martinez
When you watch Edgar Martinez run the bases, you know DH is a walk in the park.
DH. Zzzzzz. Sure, Edgar can hit, but in sitting there before he hits, then trying so comically to leg them out, he makes golf look hard.

Owner. I bleed for them. So much money. So little time. And don't let them fool you. "We might not make payroll," doesn't mean the same thing as "I'm not going to get paid." I bleed for the team and the players' association union reps. Compared to me, they're rich.

The hardest position in the history of baseball was played by Curt Flood. He gave up his career so free agency might live one day. If the ballplayers ever let Flood be forgetten, they deserve whatever they don't get. The Curt Flood Award. You'll never see it.

Fan? That would be you. Can barely haul yourself up off the couch after a game, right? Going to the park for a game can be difficult, especially as many times as you have to lift your wallet to pay for parking, concessions, food, beer, programs and pennants. And then the kid has the nerve to go to sleep. It's hard. But not that hard.

***** ***** *****

Mia Hamm
Mia Hamm has the athletic ability to play second base in the bigs.
Second base is fourth hardest. It's a hand-eye and footwork spot, not a muscle position, which is why I personally have always felt that a woman, the right woman, could succeed playing second base in the major leagues, at least on the field. Why do I say that? Well, for one reason, a woman already did it; Toni Stone played a good second, for the old Kansas City Monarchs. What's Jeff Reboulet doing that Mia Hamm or Serena Williams couldn't do with the right upbringing and chance?

If Richard Williams were a Dodgers fan, Serena would be hitting .280 now and the Dodgers would be winning the division. Second is a hard position to play in that the game is always coming right through you -- even though it seems like it isn't. Most of the meaningful outfield relay throws come through you, to two bases, third and home, and make the tag on throws to second, and half the steal attempts. Second base is the hinge position of the game. If you don't believe it, have somebody weak there, and watch how often the ball finds him in the clutch.

Fourth place: Second base.

***** ***** *****

Shortstop is harder to play than these guys make it look. As good as the Big Four AL shortstops are, combining the skills of the game, hitting, hitting for power, hitting, hitting for power, and oh yeah, hitting and hitting for power, there's something about Omar and Jimmy Rollins of Philadelphia that makes you regrip like Sergio.

They have that magic, that gift afield; Rollins had it even back in Oakland and Alameda, when he was a kid. Can bomb, too. Larry Bowa, a former shortstop, complains to a point of busting a blood vessel about everything. You'd think he was Babe Freakin' Ruth, the way he does on. Yet, never seen him even look hard at Jimmy Rollins. Rollins you just write in there every day. In ink. Guys like him, Oz, Aparicio, Rizzuto, Belanger, Concepcion, Jeter, Omar, they basically control a game defensively. Make it look easy.

Derek Jeter
As Derek Jeter proved in the 2001 ALDS, a shortstop needs to travel all over the infield.
You've gotta have a gun, be able to range left behind and beyond second base, over to and past the third-base line in foul ground. Start and turn DPs, but you don't have to be as balletic turning it as a second baseman; your back isn't turned to the runner (Ask Jeet).

You get the tough plays; most hitters are righty; you have to make the most difficult picks and longest throws from the most creative body positions. But, Cal Jr. played short in his rocking chair, in more than 2,000 games there, although that might speak more to ability and acumen of Cal than to degree of difficulty of the position.

Third place: Shortstop

***** ***** *****

Most people -- especially those named Uecker or Garagiola -- will try to say catcher is the hardest position to play, the most difficult, and it might be, if they hadn't played it, and made it suspect, or if you had to run anywhere at all to do it, which you don't, although the backing up first thing is cute.

Catcher is the hardest position if you play it like Bench played it, or Pudge, or Roseboro. Making pegs and gunning out runners at every base, picking off runners, hosing down the whole field, to the point where nobody wants to run anywhere. Catching ungodly breaking stuff, blocking skipping fastballs with full body, to keep runners from advancing. Foul tips, bats backswung, umpire spit. Catchers sacrifice fingers and knees, and no doubt they are working for a living. It's the sort of grind work most American companies ship overseas. That may be why the best catcher in the game right now (Posada, no doubt) is Latin.

In fact, most all of the best catchers now are Hispanic. Figures.

Second place: Catcher

***** ***** *****

The definitive position in baseball is the center fielder of the New York Yankees. Jeter is The Man now, and he's the shortstop of the Yankees, and that's almost as good, but somehow, it always comes down to Bernie playing well. For a long time, Bernie was the best player the Yanks had. Like Mantle. Like DiMaggio. Ted Williams was a better hitter, maybe the best hitter, maybe not, you can bend batting numbers to make anybody from Rogers Hornsby to Henry Aaron look like the best hitter. But DiMaggio, who was just as big of a jerk to the writers as Williams, kept winning the MVPs and World Serieses. His defensive skills had to be accounted for.

Willie Mays
Willie Mays played center field. 'Nuff said.
Plus, Willie Mays played center.

The prior statement wins the argument right there. Hands down.

Mays is the best living player. There's Ruth and Mays, and then there's the best human beings, like Williams, Aaron, and Musial.

Mays, CF, has more outfield put-outs than anybody in history.

Mays could have singlehandedly ended The Curse of the Bambino in Boston. But the Red Sox didn't want him. He just wouldn't do.

Durocher liked him, though. And Durocher didn't like anybody.

Mays had to back up second base. Once he made a double play out of a clean single up the middle. Runners on first and third, one out, tie game. He was in shallow; line drive up the middle, he charges, picks the liner on one hop, bounds in, springs off second, fires to first. Shoot two.

I saw Eric Davis almost do it too, once, against the Giants. Last Saturday was Eric Davis Bobble-Head Day in Cincinnati, and ED is retired now. He made his bones by jumping over center-field walls, and winning a World Series, for the Reds.

The Atlanta Braves have won 11 consecutive divisional titles. Two reasons are the Jones boys. Andruw is more valuable, even though Chipper can play at two or three positions, and is a switch-hitter, and a far more disciplined hitter. But Andruw plays a hella center field. Bobby Cox has said he's as good as Mays. He's good, he's very good, but Bobby, dude, there's God, and then there's Mays. Then there's DiMaggio, ED, Paul Blair, Andruw. Still pretty good.

Torii Hunter is right there too. Made the play of the All-Star Game. Not from behind the plate either. Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmunds, Bernie, Mike Cameron are the best out there right now.

Coincidentally (?) all their teams are in or near first place.

Torii Hunter
Center fielders like Torri Hunter specialize in taking away home runs.
The Reds might move Griffey Jr. to left. That's how hard center is.

Center field is "big shortstop." It isn't the toughest position to play in Little League, high school, or college, even the minors. But it's the toughest to play in the majors because the parks are bigger and the hitters hit such ungodly shots. Brian L. Hunter is a good guy, but only a two-buck and change hitter. But, since he plays center field well, he'll have a home as long as he can run.

In big-league center field, you back up second base for bad pegs from the catcher, yet at the same time be deeper than the deepest if a mule like Vic Wertz, Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent or Jeff Bagwell poles one over your head. You cover more real estate than Century 21. You have to be able to run. I mean REALLY run. Deer get tired watching you run. Hunting dogs watch tape of you running down awesome vicious warping ropes in the gaps. You gauge liners hit right at you, liners hit over the fence. You have to throw accurately and well to three bases; Mays found himself throwing to all four bases; to first to pick off runners who underestimated his ability and were nearly or even halfway to second when he dove to rob a single or leaped off a wall or into a gap to steal a triple.

Nobody turns more homers into outs than center fielders, usually after a 55-meter dead sprint beforehand, while tracking a missile that came off the bat at more than 120 mph. It's like being a cheetah, a Star Wars defense system, and a Medieval catapult.

If your cap flies off, all the better.

Center field is the most difficult. It's either that, or Bud Selig.

First place: Center field.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



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