Utility guru goese all out in OF audition
Cincinnati's center fielder just loves diving for balls.
"I figure if I run this freakin' far, I might as well lay out for the ball," Ryan Freel says.
Freel is Cincinnati's center fielder for now, while Ken Griffey Jr. goes through the last few days of rehabbing a tendon injury behind his right knee. Then, for Freel, it's back to being Cincinnati's all-over-the-field utility guy, but a guy who has such an impact on the Reds' offense that he's an almost everyday necessity.
Originally an infielder, Freel has been playing his favorite position with Griffey out.
"I fell in love with (center field)," Freel says. "I had such a passion for it as soon as I played it. I get to really run. I get to dive. I'm an all-out kind of guy, everything I do. You don't get to do that much in the infield. But we have a Hall of Famer there. I like when I come in and see I'm playing center. I walk around saying I'm Ken Griffey Jr. today."
The real Griffey was telling teammates last week about how his daughter's youth basketball team has to run 16 minutes at practice before anyone can pick up a ball.
"Hey, Freel, what would you do if they made us do that," Griffey asked.
"I'd have to do it," Freel joked. "You wouldn't, but I would."
Freel's point is that he's a utility guy, doing whatever he can to keep a job. He's not about to take his foot off his personal accelerator, even though he leads the majors in stolen bases. Besides, he can't keep his feet still. Sit and talk with him for a few minutes and something's always in motion, a foot tapping, a leg bouncing.
"They're always telling me to sit down and take it easy," he says. "They tell me I'm hyper. I'm always running around. It's kind of hard for me to sit here and hold a conversation. I guess I have more of a football mentality. I want to be doing something every second."
Like at Englewood High School in Jacksonville, Fla.
Besides baseball, says Freel, who's now 22, "I played basketball, point guard; football, middle linebacker and running back but I didn't play a whole lot. I was even on the dive team and ran some cross country. The track coach wanted me to come out but I just didn't have time. I don't like to say I'm a good athlete, but there's not many guys do what I do. In one shape or form, we get it done."
Freel's demeanor doesn't seem to translate into being a leadoff hitter.
"I'm a first-pitch swinger," he says. "I've been successful with it."
He's averaging nearly a walk a game this season (15 in 17 games) and has a .465 on-base percentage. Both are tops among major league leadoff hitters this season.
His approach is similar on the bases.
"My first choice is to not be patient," he says. "I like to go right when I get on. I want to get to second base. Of course, I want to go to third right away, too. Sometimes I have to stop myself. I even like to try to steal home. I tried last year but Richie (Aurilia) got mad at me because he was going pretty good at the plate. I thought I was safe but they called me out."
He stole second and third on consecutive pitches in a game last week against Florida — with the Reds trailing 6-0 in the second inning.
"This game is so mental," Freel says. "If you can get into a pitcher's head, even a little bit, get him off his game this much (he holds his thumb and forefinger up to show a tiny gap), to get him to just miss, we've got guys like Griffey and (Adam) Dunn coming up."
They haven't had Griffey coming up for a couple of weeks but his return creates quite the dilemma for the Reds.
Even as one of the game's premier super-utility guys (he played second base, third base and all three outfield positions last year), finding a lineup spot isn't easy. Freel clearly is the only impact leadoff option the Reds have but where does he play defensively? With Austin Kearns hitting .300 and Adam Dunn among the NL home run leaders, the outfield is full. The Reds are committed to impressive young Edwin Encarnacion at third and Brandon Phillips has responded (.351 average and .622 slugging percentage) to an opportunity at second since the Reds got him from Cleveland on April 7.
"It's difficult not knowing where you're going to play," he says. "Not only do I have to look at the lineup card to see if I'm playing, I have to see where I'm playing. It doesn't matter."