Jim Edmonds wasn’t really supposed to play center field. When he came up for the California Angels in the early 90s, he was stashed in a corner or at first base. It’s hard to credit, given the eight gold gloves he’d ultimately win there, but in his first two MLB seasons, he started in center a grand total of four times.
There were a couple of reasons that the Angels weren’t that interested in throwing Edmonds into center. They already had Chad Curtis installed there, for one thing. In retrospect, this is a little bit silly, considering that we’re talking about Jim Edmonds, but hey. The Angels didn’t know that. The other is that Edmonds simply didn’t move like anyone expected from a top defensive outfielder.
This is fair enough. Most of the game’s defensive greats have a certain grace, a liquid quality about them. They’re not just fast but rapid, gliding effortlessly and speedily ballward with the sort of athletic prowess that makes the whole thing look not just unreal but actually impossible. I still don’t understand how Andruw Jones did half the things Andruw Jones actually did.
Edmonds, by contrast, has the grace and poise of a drunk rhino in a teapot museum. Rather than hide behind effortless play, he had the decency to show us just how hard he was working, which was: extremely hard, all the time. While his peers taunted us with raw dexterity, breaking the limits of human athleticism by being, well, superhuman, Edmonds broke those limits by smashing into them with his face. As hard as he could:
The above is not to say that Jim Edmonds wasn’t an elite athlete. Of course he was. But he was an elite athlete by zigging where the rest zagged. He made up for a limited top-end speed with lightning-fast reads and jumps, then turned those jumps literal at every opportunity, extending his range still further. He was a great outfielder without playing like all the other great outfielders, and his refusal to fit the mold is why it took the Angels so long to realize what they had.
As you can see from the video, Edmonds’ fondness for diving catches sometimes lurched into parody, and it gave his critics* the ammunition to suggest that his highlight reels were padded. The catches, or so suggested the particularly grumpy, were made to look harder than they actually were.
*It’s a perverse fact of sports that anyone who brings some set of viewers joy will be hated in at least equal measure by some other set of viewers, who will then trip all over themselves to come up with ad hoc reasons for that hatred. This is called ‘fandom,’ and I’m just as susceptible to the silliness as everyone else.
There are two possible responses to this line of criticism. The more immediately pleasing is “harder than they actually were to whom?” for obvious reasons, but I think the more interesting approach is to point out that this is merely a question of aesthetics.
Compared to some of the other outfield wizards in the sport, Edmonds had limited range with his feet, and was able to extend that range by making circus catches in a way few of his colleagues were doing on a consistent basis. If you’ll forgive a more-tortured-than-usual analogy, Jim Edmonds was to outfield defense a bit like what brutalism is to architecture, capable of wild, unorthodox beauty from elements some observers decried as graceless.
Was Edmonds as efficient an outfielder as say, Jones, or Griffey, or [fill in your own favorite here; I have Mike Cameron]? Who cares? Nobody is signing any of these players to play baseball anymore. Edmonds is out of Hall of Fame contention, discarded after a year on the ballot. Any debate around his measurable/assessed greatness is academic in the most pejorative sense of the term possible.
In center field, Edmonds was better than great. He was fun. Plays made to look harder than they were are, as it turns out, more photogenic than plays that weren’t. He made catches that still live in the collective memory years later. Obviously the other outfield genii did as well, but none owned the theatrical nature of the position quite so thoroughly as Edmonds. Here he dived; he could do no other.
My most enduring memories of Edmonds, however, have nothing to do with his defensive work. Edmonds’ rampaging style expressed itself, if that’s possible, even more profoundly at the plate.
Thanks largely to Griffey, there’s a certain aesthetic the audience expects out of left-handed bats. Their swings are masterpieces of slithering, weaponized elegance, whipping through the zone and seamlessly into the follow-through. Jim Edmonds, meanwhile, sometimes just bashed the absolute hell out of the baseball. He was an incredible home run hitter, racking up 393 career dingers, but he was also, perhaps more importantly, a hitter of incredible home runs.
The first time I watched him hit an opposite-field home run, my brain presented me with the image of a polar bear clubbing a seal to death with a single blow to the head. That might sound a little morbid or gruesome, and I’m sorry if that image is upsetting. But it’s also significant of raw, frightening power. A pitcher launches their precious cargo into the unfeeling void, and, with a contempt that might as well be infinite, Edmonds pulverizes it.
Strangely, this vision has only even manifested itself on the home runs Edmonds hit to left. On his pull side, Edmonds was probably just as graceful as anyone. This is why I remember exactly zero of the hundreds of bombs he launched to right.