Richie Ashburn is blessed with speed, and he has used it to become one of baseball's finest outfielders and base runners. In his 10 full seasons with Philadelphia, Ashburn has caught over 4,600 fly balls, more than any other active outfielder, more even than the great Joe DiMaggio. Only 31, he is almost certain to wind up his career with more putouts than any outfielder in history. As a base runner, Ashburn has no superior. In 1948, his rookie year, he led the league in stolen bases with 32. His lifetime total of 160 ranks second only to Pee Wee Reese.
Before I catch a fly ball or throw out a runner at the plate, I must decide where I am going to play the batter. Three major factors affect my decision: the batter, the pitcher and the game situation.
No two batters are exactly the same. As a rule, lefthanded batters hit to right field and right-handed batters hit to left. But there are some men like Dick Groat, Don Mueller and, for that matter, myself, who more often than not hit to the opposite field; and others, like Pee Wee Reese and Al Dark, who hit the ball where it's pitched. An outfielder must study every batter in the league and learn his hitting habits, that is, where each is most likely to hit various pitches. It takes time.
I always make a mental note of which batters on the other team are hitting well and which are in slumps. A check of recent box scores is a good way to find out. Take a man like Carl Furillo. Furillo is a streak hitter. When he is hitting well, I play him five steps deeper than normal and a few steps more toward left field, since he is likely to pull the ball. When Carl is in a slump, I play him five steps closer and over a bit toward straightaway center field. That difference of 10 feet can be awfully important.
Before a game I always try to get together with our starting pitcher, especially if there are a couple of guys on the other team we have had trouble getting out. Or if there is a newcomer on the team. I find out how our pitcher is going to handle the batter; what pitch is he going to try to get him out with. I also ask him if there are any batters he would like me to play differently. Usually the older pitchers will volunteer this information without being asked, but sometimes young pitchers are hesitant to ask a veteran outfielder to move over a step or two. If a pitcher does want me to play a hitter differently, I usually will, not because he may be right, but because he will feel better and therefore pitch better. And that, of course, is the important thing.
Then there are questions involving the pitcher himself. Is he left-handed or right-handed? Does he have a good fastball or does he throw curves? Is he well rested? If he has a good fast ball and has had four days' rest, the batters will be swinging late and hitting to their opposite fields. As the game goes on the batters will be swinging sooner, because they will be getting used to the pitcher and because the pitcher will be tiring.
The game situation—that is, the score, the inning, the number of men on base and the number of outs—can affect my decision about where to play more than any other factor. Let's take two extreme situations: with a runner on first base, two out and the score tied in the ninth inning, I must play deeper, about 50 feet deeper, than I normally would. In this situation we can afford to yield a single since the runner on first will not score on the hit. By playing deep I have a better chance of cutting off a line drive before it goes between myself and one of the other outfielders, and thus of holding it to a single. Now the other situation: again the score is tied in the ninth inning, but this time the runner is on third with none out. Now I must play in close, regardless of who the batter is. If a long fly ball is hit, the game will be over even if I were able to catch it, for the runner would tag up and score. By playing close, I might be able to intercept a line drive before it hits the ground. In any case, 'I have nothing to lose. As I said, these are two extreme cases. The game situation exists from the first pitch to the last. It is constantly changing, if only slightly, and as it does, so does my decision on where to play the batter.
Having considered the batter, the pitcher and the game situation, I pick the exact spot in center field where I will station myself. Frankly, it is a guess. If I knew exactly where the batter was going to hit the ball, we'd only need one fielder. But although it is a guess, it is a calculated guess, and over the course of a full season I figure that I guess correctly often enough to make all the figuring I do well worthwhile.
When the batter hits the ball, the second half of my job begins. Here are five of the most common plays I am called upon to make.