The belletrists of sport seem to draw their most fevered inspiration from backfields and infields. Consider "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again," or "These are the saddest of possible words: 'Tinker to Evers to Chance.' " Backfields and infields are seen as entities, units, men acting in concert, as in a corps de ballet. Outfields are units, too, but they are rarely viewed as such. Outfielders stand so far apart from one another they appear to be solitary figures outlined against skies of whatever color. Most of them don't even seem to be very alert, standing there with arms akimbo, their gaze fixed on the grass beneath their stationary feet. The infield is a constant swirl of activity; the outfield is pastoral.
Outfielders tend to be singled out as individuals, not as members of a group. The praise heaped on them may be lavish, as it has been for such superlative representatives of the genus as DiMaggio and Mays, Clemente and Aaron. Their catches and throws are collectors' items, but nowhere is it suggested that they acted in any way except on their own. Only when outfielders collide is the public made keenly aware that there are several of them playing at once. Oh, the broadcasters will advise us that "the outfield is shading the hitter to the left," or that "there is a gap in right centerfield," but such violations of symmetry seem far too subtle for the average fan to much care about or fully comprehend. If the infield is playing "in," it strikes you right off as an aberration. If it's rearranging itself in a Williams Shift, it's doing appreciably more than shading someone. An infield is working together, all for one, one for all—Athos to Porthos to Aramis, with D'Artagnan on third. The outfielders seem to be no more than distant cousins.
This is partly true because baseball people look to outfielders more for offense than defense. Only the centerfielder, that weary traveler to distant parts, is considered a prime defender. Left and right, the corners, might just as well be occupied by statuary. Your basic outfield would consist of a speedy, probably line-drive-hitting centerfielder, a slow but strong-armed rightfielder and the Colossus of Rhodes in left. It has been virtually impossible to assemble the outfield equivalent of the old Philadelphia Athletics' now-quaintly-priced $100,000 Infield of Snuffy McInnis at first, Eddie Collins at second, Frank (Home Run) Baker at third and Jack Barry at short. The melancholy evidence of this is that until now the last outfield celebrated primarily for its defensive prowess was one contemporaneous with the $100,000 Infield, the renowned 1910-15 Red Sox threesome of Duffy Lewis in left, Tris Speaker in center and Harry Hooper in right, an aggregation that survives only in the wistful reminiscences of old men who were themselves too young to remember it.
The "until now" in the preceding sentence is pivotal, because in just two seasons the Oakland A's have put together an outfield that is touted by some baseball savants as being equal or superior to any in history. And though each of the three A's, Rickey Henderson in left, Dwayne Murphy in center and Tony Armas in right, is capable of extraordinary individual exploits, it is as a unit—rendezvousing at the gaps, stationing themselves so that not even Willie Keeler could find a place where they ain't—that they excel. "We use 'outfield' as a collective noun," says Oakland President Roy Eisenhardt, a strict grammarian.
It's appropriate, somehow, that Angels Manager Gene Mauch, a baseball man, should look to football for a comparison with the A's trio, because in baseball the Oakland outfield is incomparable. "They [the A's] play shallow and position themselves so well," says Mauch, "that they look like one of Don Shula's defensive units rotating for pass coverage." "The A's have the best outfield I've ever seen. Ever," says Rangers skipper Don Zimmer. "I'm talking about the complete group of three. I've seen Snider and Furillo. I've seen Clemente and Virdon. But there was always a third outfielder in those groups who couldn't do some of the things the other two could."
With the A's, there's virtually nothing one outfielder can do on defense that the others cannot do also. All three are fast—Henderson, blindingly so; all have powerful throwing arms, with Armas' being perhaps the strongest in baseball; all three can go back well on a ball hit over their heads, Murphy better than anyone playing; and all three charge balls hit in front of them with equal alacrity. Significantly, each came to the A's as a centerfielder, a player trained for and conditioned to all aspects of outfield play. It's not only rare to have three such greyhounds on the same course, it is, as the A's Joe Rudi, himself once the game's premier leftfielder, says, "just plain strange."
The wisdom of placing three centerfielders in the same outfield is, of course, debatable. Centerfield is the ego position, and all three A's are fiercely proud. Centerfielders are accustomed to calling their inferiors to the right and left off fly balls. Indeed, at first there was vigorous competition among the three, not only for the position itself but, once they were permanently deployed, for almost every ball hit in the air as well. This is where character came into play. "These three are thoroughbreds," says Charlie Metro, an Oakland coach who also breeds horses. "They have pride and self-discipline, and they spur each other on."
It also helps that they are good friends and, in the case of Armas and Murphy, co-conspirators on what must be baseball's most pyromaniacally prankish team. The hotfoot, last year's rage, continues to be such a popular diversion in the A's clubhouse that a visitor is ill-advised to ignore his shoes for even a moment. Catcher Mike Heath went so far as to affix lighted paper to the end of a broomstick and extend it through a crack in the wall behind the A's dugout in the Seattle Kingdome so that he might incinerate Murphy's footwear while Murphy chatted with a reporter. A couple of weeks ago, following two consecutive ninth-inning losses and an agonizing 16-inning victory over Minnesota, Manager Billy Martin lit a string of firecrackers outside his office door to "wake these guys up," thereby setting the green clubhouse carpet ablaze. The newest gambit in these fiery frolics involves charging cigarettes with tiny explosives. Murphy, Armas and Murphy's roommate, Pitcher Steve McCatty, are the prime suspects whenever one of these incendiary episodes occurs. Woe betide the A who lights up without first inspecting his cigarette. Not long ago Third Baseman Mickey Klutts was careless in this regard, and as he took a dugout puff in the middle innings of a game with Seattle, the uninspected cigarette exploded in his face. After the game, Murphy and Armas were rejoicing over this latest coup in the bar at Seattle's Park Hilton Hotel, when Armas' own cigarette detonated. Betrayed, Armas looked helplessly at his companion, who stared innocently ahead.
Such japery is ordinarily confined to off-hours. At the ball park, the A's outfielders, even the youthful, skittery Henderson, are zealous in the pursuit of excellence. Unlike many outfielders, they take ground balls during batting practice. Murphy sits in on pitchers' meetings so that he may keep abreast of how the A's intend to pitch to opposing batters. As captain of the outfield, he then uses this information to align his confreres during the game. When Lee Walls was Oakland's outfield coach, the A's threesome had him hit line drives from home plate to them as they stood just beyond the infield grass, to practice going back on balls. The A's don't contemplate the meaning of existence or the telephone numbers of groupies while pulling sentry duty in the outfield; they carry on a running conversation among themselves on hitters, pitching and positioning. The garrulous Henderson, for that matter, is also likely to chat it up with fans in the stands until the impatient Murphy regains his attention. Warming up between innings of a game at home, the A's outfielders don't lob lazy floaters back and forth. Henderson pitches hard to a bullpen catcher from a distance of perhaps 90 feet, and Murphy and Armas do the same with each other. "They're stretching their arms," says Metro. "They're throwing seriously, like a pitcher in the bullpen. They're getting in many more throws between innings than the average outfielder. They're keeping warm for that one big throw."
The big throws usually come more often than that. Zimmer unhappily recalls a game when he was managing Boston during which Armas threw out runners attempting to go from first to third in consecutive innings. Then, two innings later, Murphy cut down a runner at home who was coming in from second on a single. "If you have a man on second," says Zimmer, "you almost need a double to score him." Preston Gomez, the Angels' third-base coach, complains, "I'm hard pressed to send a man in from second base after a hit. They play so shallow, and yet they can all go back to the wall." Henderson's exceptional quickness in getting to the foul line in left and the strength and accuracy of his throwing arm are such that on three occasions in a five-game stretch last month, a runner who had hit a line drive down the left-field line, normally a stand-up double, was held at first base. Runners tested the arms of these A's outfielders in 1980, the first year they were together. The results for base runners were catastrophic. Armas had 17 assists, Henderson 15 and Murphy 13. Caution on the paths is now the byword.