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Way, Way Out in Leftfield
Franz Lidz
April 01, 1996
Over the years, the gloves have rarely been gold in this corner of the diamond
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April 01, 1996

Way, Way Out In Leftfield

Over the years, the gloves have rarely been gold in this corner of the diamond

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Clyde Kluttz never played leftfield in the major leagues. Nor did Mickey Klutts. But Lonnie Smith did, and even at 5'9" and 170 pounds, he may have been the biggest klutz to play the position. During the Philadelphia Phillies' stretch drive in 1980, Smith repeatedly fell down in pursuit of the ball, and when he wasn't doing that, he fell down running the base paths. His talent for going splat was exceeded only by his talent for making throws that landed behind him. While trying to gun down a runner at the plate one day at Wrigley Field a couple of seasons later, Smith lost his balance and the ball slipped out of his hand and sailed backward into the leftfield stands.

"Lonnie couldn't have chucked the ball into the bleachers on purpose," says former outfielder Andy Van Slyke, who was a teammate of Smith's when both played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-1980s. "If he'd tried to, he would have missed." With a career batting average of .288 and a career fielding average not much higher, Smith was the quintessential all-hit, no-leather leftfielder.

Baseball history is filled with clumsy leftfielders. During last year's postseason, for example, leftfielders committed seven errors. Four miscues were perpetrated by the Cleveland Indians' Albert Belle, who at times has more difficulty catching flies than a blind tarantula. In an American League interdivision series, a throwing error by leftfielder Randy Velarde of the New York Yankees allowed a run to score in a Game 3 loss to the Seattle Mariners. Surprisingly, no postseason errors were charged to the Atlanta Braves' Ryan Klesko, a natural first baseman who booted seven balls during the 1995 regular season, more than any other National League leftfielder. Considering that the Braves recently extended first baseman Fred McGriff's contract through the year 1999, Klesko is likely to be the team's unnatural leftfielder for at least four more years. Asked why Atlanta decided to keep Klesko in left, a club official said, "Well, he hasn't killed anybody out there yet."

Quite often, leftfielders murder fly balls. In Seattle, 42 butchers have flanked centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. since he joined the Mariners in 1989. The Philadelphia Phillies have been wincing at the play of their leftfielders for even longer than that. In the last 13 years, 13 Phillies have manned the position on Opening Day. The 14th is 34-year-old former catcher Darren Daulton, whose qualifications for moving from behind the plate this year are eight operations on his left knee and one on his right. Yogi Berra is the most prominent name on a long list of catchers who masqueraded as leftfielders in the twilight of their careers. Twilight turned out to be Berra's problem. "It gets late early out there," Berra once noted.

Big league managers have traditionally flung their most wobbly gloveman into left. "It's the exact opposite of what happens when you're a kid," says Yankees skipper Joe Torre. "In sandlot ball your weakest guy gets put in right."

In the big leagues the weakest guys wind up in left for several reasons: 1) The sun fields in most ballparks are in right, 2) leftfielders have less ground to cover than centerfielders, 3) leftfielders have shorter throws to third base than rightfielders and 4) leftfielders average fewer chances than the other outfielders.

"I've heard that leftfield is called the idiot position," former big league leftfielder Kevin McReynolds once said. "But somebody has to take up the position, and it helps to have somebody who plays the position and can do certain things—get to a ball and get rid of it, maybe keep a guy from getting a double, maybe get to a ball quick enough to keep a guy from scoring from second."

Sometimes, that somebody is like Pete Browning, a 19th-century Louisville Colonels slugger whose fingers were so buttery that his teammates suggested he be replaced in the field with a cigar-store Indian, because a one-hopper might strike the Indian and carom back toward the infield. Browning lives on as a leftfield legend, like Brooklyn's Babe Herman, of whom John Lardner wrote, "Herman did not always catch fly balls on the top of his head, but he could do it in a pinch."

Baseball old-timers insist you could stick a wooden Indian in left as long as your centerfielder was fleet and had a strong arm. That was the logic Philadelphia followed in the 1970s when Greg Luzinski played left. The 225-pound Luzinski lined up facing the foul line on every pitch, then craned his neck to watch the hitter. He had been instructed by then general manager Paul Owens to guard the line and let Gold Glove centerfielder Garry Maddox handle the rest.

While Luzinski was blessed with all the range and mobility of the Liberty Bell, leftfielder Frank Howard of the Washington Senators behaved as if he were planted in the turf. On shallow pops Howard would yell to shortstop Eddie Brinkman, "You've got it! You've got it!"

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