That big play on Friday night when Jose Reyes sprinted toward centerfield from shortstop to juggle and catch a soft liner with his back to the infield to help squelch an Angels rally? No big deal. Reyes does have experience playing center, after all.
If you were busy on May 13, you may have missed Reyes’ debut as a centerfielder in the sixth inning of the Mets’ 11-4 loss in Milwaukee. Reyes entered in a double switch and then moved to shortstop an inning later when Asdrubal Cabrera aggravated a thumb injury.
No balls were hit to Reyes in center. But, he said on Saturday, that’s not the way he wanted it.
“Oh, yes!” Reyes said when asked if he wanted some action out there.
Reyes has played short, second and third in his big-league career but had never patrolled the outfield before.
“When I got there, the first position that I was, I was behind the pitcher,” Reyes said. “I couldn’t see the batter. I said, ‘Man, this is weird.’ So I had to move a little to the side. I stood out there and I said, ‘Man, there’s a lot of space here.’ Different than the infield. I was kidding with [rightfielder] Jay Bruce. I said, ‘Hey, man, you have everything before I get there.’ Just kidding.”
In an era of multi-position stars — World Series MVP Ben Zobrist of the Cubs comes to mind — sometimes players spend time at another position not so much by design but out of desperation. Then they never return to that spot.
Some of the best players in New York baseball history have dabbled at an unfamiliar position. The best example is Joe DiMaggio, who played exactly one game in his career at a position other than the outfield.
In 1950, his next-to-last season, DiMaggio played one game at first base, and it got a lot of attention. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich called it “the nation’s most widely heralded experiment since Prohibition.”
In eight innings, DiMaggio had 13 putouts without an error. But he was clumsy around the bag and was furious with manager Casey Stengel for putting him at an unfamiliar position, one to which the Yankee Clipper never returned.
“He was embarrassed,” Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto told the Baltimore Sun in 1996. “It was terrible. As great a ballplayer as he was, it was hard for him to shuffle his feet.”
Carlos Beltran had a similar situation in 2014 when injuries forced manager Joe Girardi to move the three-time Gold Glover from rightfield to first base. Beltran played five innings without incident. When asked if he would ever want to do it again, Beltran said: “No, no, no, no.”
An outfielder moving to first base late in his career is not unusual. Mickey Mantle did it full-time in his last two seasons, and it was not pretty.
But did you know a 20-year-old Mantle played one game (four innings) at third base with two errors in 1952? Or that Mantle played one inning at shortstop in 1953, 14 innings there over five games in 1954, and one inning in 1955? Mantle also played one inning at second base in 1955 and then hung up his middle-infielder glove forever.
Mets fans remember Willie Mays playing first base (17 games) in his final season in 1973. The 12-time Gold Glove- winning centerfielder also played one inning at shortstop for the Giants 10 years earlier and three more in 1964. Mays also played 5 2⁄3 innings in one game at third base in 1964. He never appeared at either position at any other time in his 22-year career.
The list goes on. Twelve-time Gold Glove rightfielder Roberto Clemente played a total of four innings over two games at second base and two innings (one game) at third. Imagine being a first baseman and trying to catch one of Clemente’s rifle-armed throws from second base?
(Kids: Check out “1971 World Series Game 6 Clemente throw” on YouTube.)
Billy Martin started lefthanded-throwing first baseman Don Mattingly at third base in two games in 1986. Davey Johnson flip-flopped pitchers Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco between the mound and right and leftfield in an extra-inning game in Cincinnati the same year.
On April 30, Joe Girardi moved Bryan Mitchell from the mound to first base and back to the mound again against the Orioles. It was the first time a Yankees pitcher had played the field since Ron Guidry spent one-third of an inning in center in the conclusion of the infamous Pine Tar Game in 1983. Guidry also had played an inning in center in 1979.
Girardi never played any position other than catcher in his 15-season career.
One future Hall of Famer who never, ever played out of position? No. 2, Derek Jeter, No. 2. Every one of his 23,225 2⁄3 defensive innings came as shortstop of the Yankees.