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Crisp has mastered the art of playing the position

Experience with the unique intricacies of Fenway Park has been a key factor in Coco Crisp's emergence as a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder this year. Experience with the unique intricacies of Fenway Park has been a key factor in Coco Crisp's emergence as a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder this year. (STAN GROSSFELD/GLOBE STAFF)

There was one reason, or one primary reason, that Coco Crisp figured out how to do the impossible in center field this season: pushups.

Well, that and experience. Because for Crisp, who blossomed into a rock-steady, Gold Glove-caliber, diving-grab, over-the-shoulder-catch-making center fielder in his second season with the Red Sox, the motivation for improving his circus-style catches (not to mention his reads and jumps) started with his offseason workouts. Working out with former baseball player Robert Moore, who has tutored him since he was around 13, Crisp inevitably ends up in a game he can't win.

Either he'll make the impossible grab and stave off the mocking of the minor leaguers, major leaguers, and kids working out with him near his offseason home in California, or he'll miss. That's where the penalties come in.

"You kind of learn how to catch those because you don't want to do a pushup," Crisp said. "You've got to make that grab. That's part of having fun with the kids. They allow you to kind of get out of your element, instead of just hitting fly balls and catching them.

"You catch balls underneath your legs, or around your back, or behind your back. And all that helps in being able to track balls and take your eyes off the ball and make the catch still. I'm not going to, hopefully, ever have to make a catch behind my back, but if it was to happen that I got twisted up, at least I know that I might have a chance to catch it."

Though he hasn't had a lot of behind-the-back grabs this season, he has made a number of outstanding defensive plays, committing just one error and establishing himself as one of the best center fielders in the game. He routinely earns respect, admiration, and gratitude from his pitchers. And for a stretch in June and July, it appeared he was making the over-the-shoulder basket catch routine as well.

"In Coco's case, there's an adjustment period going into a new stadium," Toronto center fielder Vernon Wells said. "Looking at home plate, it's totally different. Each stadium is totally different when you're out in center field. Some places it's tough to read the ball off the bat. Once you get used to it, you get comfortable. Obviously, you see with the plays he's making this year he's gotten comfortable out there.

"Stepping into that kind of atmosphere, being thrown into one of the best divisions in baseball, obviously one of the storied franchises in the game, he's been fun to watch."

Knowledge beats nature

But that - maturation from a player whose routes to fly balls weren't always correct to a player whose first step is almost always in the proper direction - demonstrates more about the nature of playing center than it does about Crisp. Ask any of the best - Wells, Torii Hunter of Minnesota, Grady Sizemore of Cleveland - and each cites experience over speed, over instincts.

Time is the key. Time, if you're smart.

"You were just going out there playing, off instincts, practice, talent," Crisp said of his first years in the majors. "Just pretty much having fun. You run and get a ball because you just have the ability to do that. It makes the game a lot easier, slows the game down a lot when you have a little more knowledge of what you're doing out there. It gives you a lot more confidence."

Speed? That's overrated, Hunter says. Because once all the information is there, and once it's processed, cheating can take care of that lost step (or step that was never there). It's all about positioning. Positioning and synthesizing a list of knowledge that grows the more a player is in the major leagues, the more he gets to know the tendencies of his pitcher, his catcher, the opposing batters, and the park in which he plays. The more he knows, period.

Or, as Hunter says, rapid-fire, "Just knowing the league, knowing the hitters, knowing your pitchers. Knowing how big the guys are, how small the guy is, how strong he is, how weak he is, does he go to right field, does he pull. Different things like that. Normal tendencies of the hitter, normal tendencies of your pitcher. How hard he throws, how soft he throws, when he throws offspeed."

Imagine running through all that before the hitter takes the first pitch.

So, while Curt Schilling and Jason Varitek have their binders full of information and tendencies and plans, most center fielders keep it in their heads. They've gone over the scouting reports before the game, with third base coach and outfield instructor DeMarlo Hale in the case of Crisp, but much of the information has been culled from years of experience.

For example, if Josh Beckett were on the mound facing a hitter, as he was against the Angels Wednesday in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, Crisp must go through a list of checkoffs to determine where he plays the batter. And between hitters, there could be a shift of up to 20 or 30 feet, depending on power and stroke and wind velocity.

"You take his 94- or 95-mile-per-hour fastball, his curve, what he likes to do to the guy on strike two, is he going to set him up with the high fastball," Crisp said. "Are they going to throw the guy away or pitch him in? You take all that into consideration on how you're going to play the guy. Initially, you have a mapped-out plan before the game. Are you going to play him left-field side, right-field side, right-field gap, right-center gap, and all that. You kind of go from there and adjust accordingly during the game if they're adjusting."

Because the difference between cheating correctly and cheating incorrectly can mean the difference between an "8" in the scorebook and a double to the gap.

To get even more specific, Crisp walked through the scouting reports on a few hitters.

Vladimir Guerrero: "You would play him to pull. He obviously has power to all fields, so you play him a little deeper. That's pretty simple with him."

Alex Rodriguez: " 'Oppo' [opposite way]."

Chone Figgins: "You play Chone Figgins oppo, a little in; otherwise, he'll beat you."

Brian Roberts: "Some guys are difficult, like Brian Roberts. Some pitches he pulls, others he pulls the opposite way. Early in the count, he's looking for pitches he can drive. And then when it gets later in the count, he tries to shoot the ball away to the left side."

So positioning matters. But it's not infallible.

"The big thing with our positioning is we can't defend mistakes," Wells said. "If a mistake is thrown and they hit it out, obviously you can't do anything about that. Or if a mistake is thrown, they hit a double in the gap, can't really control that. But we have to be able to control, percentage-wise, what's going to most likely happen."

Fenway unique

That knowledge, of course, didn't come immediately. Nor did the familiarity with the difficulties of Fenway Park.

"When you go to Fenway, Fenway's a totally different park," Wells said. "You're never really that comfortable there until you've been there for a long time and know that wall is right there. Know that there's room to roam in that triangle. If you run too hard [into] the bullpen, you may die. There's so many obstacles, so many different things that you have to take into consideration playing defense in that park."

It's a place that intimidates Hunter like no other. He did, after all, shred his ankle on the wall in the triangle in center. ("I'm so scared of this place, it's unbelievable," he said.) But Crisp has mastered it, along with virtually every other center field in the league. His confidence has grown, his understanding has grown, his reputation has grown. And he revels in it, his preference well stated that he'd rather save the game with a grab than win the game offensively.

"I would almost rather see somebody else hit a game-winning home run or hit than me actually doing it," Crisp said. "It's a little more exciting [in the field]. When I'm running, I have time, like I'm going to get it. I'm going to catch it. Then when you actually make the catch, it's a good feeling because you're talking yourself into making a good play and you come up and you feel like you did a good job of talking yourself up.

"It feels good to take away a hit from an opposing friend or player, whoever it is. Kind of look up or later go back in and see their reaction. Get your family to call you later. It's a nonstop good feeling the rest of the night."

So, while he has brought a little of Willie Mays to Fenway Park's center field, it's the steady play that might turn Crisp's glove golden. Not that he isn't happy to show off those back-to-the-plate basket catches that have made him a regular on "SportsCenter."

"It's a tough catch because the ball feels like it's going to hit you," Crisp said. "If you don't have that feeling, you're not going to catch it because it's going to be too far away from you. So you almost have to have that feeling that it's going to hit you in the chest. If it's going to hit you in the chest, it'll likely be in the right spot to make the catch. If you get scared of it, it'll be too far."

Those around him have noticed. As Sizemore said, Crisp was good defensively in Cleveland, where he played both center and left field, but taking charge of center in the fishbowl of Fenway is an entirely different matter. Other center fielders see his improvement. They see his growing knowledge. They see the easy plays made, the hard plays made, and even sometimes the impossible plays made.

"Aggressive," Hunter said. "You can see. He doesn't want anything to drop. You see him making diving plays, catching balls, running into the walls, different things like that. You know, I always had respect for Coco, even when he was with Cleveland. I love the way he plays the game. He plays all out. I don't think he's trying to make the highlights. He's just trying to do the best that he can. You don't really have to worry; he can be a great center fielder.

"He's getting older, wiser, more experience under his belt. He knows what he has to do."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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