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,
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
"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!"
Yet even the good leftfielders don't get much respect. Though
Barry Bonds is a perennial Gold Glove winner in the National
League, the last leftfielder to win the award in the American
League was Dave Winfield in 1983. "Most leftfielders play
passively," says Van Slyke. "They don't attack the ball; they
just try to keep it in front of them."
Of all the players to patrol leftfield for Philadelphia, the
worst may have been Jeff Stone, who played with the Phillies
from 1983 to '87. "Stone redefined the circus catch," says
former Phillies pitcher Larry Andersen. "Even when he was making
routine plays, you could always count on somebody to yell, 'Put
a tent over that circus!'"
Would the yelling come from the stands or the field? "Both,"
What followed the Stone Age in Philadelphia was sometimes no
less brutal. In December 1986, Mike Easler was acquired from the
Yankees to be the starting leftfielder even though he had not
played the position regularly for four years. Alas, he showed up
at spring training with an excuse: "They call me the Hit Man.
They don't call me the Catch Man." Easler, who was put on the
disabled list with a bruised right knee on May 6, was traded
back to the Yankees a month later. That prompted Easler to say,
"I don't know why Philadelphia traded for me in the first place.
I'm basically a DH."
After making a catch in 1990 in a game against the Pittsburgh
Pirates, Phillies leftfielder John Kruk forgot how many outs
there were. While he studied National League president Bill
White's signature on the ball and slowly headed toward the
dugout, Bobby Bonilla scored from second. That play prompted
Phillies coach Larry Bowa to say, "Tomorrow night, I'm gonna
send him out there with three sticks of gum each inning. He can
pop one into his mouth after each out, and when he's out of gum,
he'll know it's time to run in."
Four years later another Phillies leftfielder, Pete
Incaviglia, seemed intent on knocking down Veterans Stadium by
running into the outfield wall while trying to catch fly balls.
With the Houston Astros in 1992, Incaviglia had actually left a
dent in the wall in Cincinnati. That had prompted Astros
teammate Casey Candaele to explain the warning track to him.
"Hey, you know that dirt thing out there after the grass ends?"
Candaele said. "That means the wall's getting close."
The Daulton Era in leftfield officially began Feb. 28 during a
routine intrasquad game in Clearwater, Fla. One hundred sixteen
spectators eagerly awaited Daulton's initiation. Finally, in the
fourth inning, Howard Battle hit a fly ball that sailed into the
Florida sky. The ball landed in Daulton's glove with a muffled
thud, whereupon he assured its preservation for future
generations by stuffing it into his back pocket.
Daulton promises he'll save the first one he catches in a
regular-season game, too. "But to be honest with you," he says,
"I really wouldn't mind if it didn't happen until the All-Star
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STEVE MUSGRAVE Smith's talents included throwing the ball behind him. [Drawing of Lonnie Smith throwing baseball into stands behind him]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STEVE MUSGRAVE Incaviglia actually left a dent in the wall in Cincinnati. [Drawing of Pete Incaviglia running into outfield wall]