For Red Sox fans of a certain age — say, those born after the Impossible Dream season of 1967 — the debate over the franchise’s best defensive center fielder usually comes down to two names.
Jackie Bradley Jr. and Fred Lynn.
There are historians who will swear by Tris Speaker, old-timers who will tell you all about the defensive exploits of Dom DiMaggio and Jimmy Piersall, and more recent diehards will give a tip of the cap to Ellis Burks, Jacoby Ellsbury, Johnny Damon, and Coco Crisp.
But for the vast majority, if you don’t believe Bradley is the finest defensive center fielder the Sox have featured, it’s because you’re making the case for Lynn. Or vice versa.
After eight seasons of productive but inconsistent offense and breathtaking defense for the Red Sox, Bradley found his endpoint here Thursday when he signed a two-year, $24 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.
To put his time with the Red Sox in perspective — and to lament the departure of the final piece of the Andrew Benintendi/Bradley/Mookie Betts outfield that not so long ago seemed certain to be in place for years — I called up the person to whom his defense is most often compared.
“I love Jackie Bradley,” said Lynn from his home near San Diego. “I just love the way he plays the game defensively. Love it.
“To me, a center fielder’s job is to play defense first. And if he hits, great.
“You’re anchoring the outfield, whether your flank guys are good or not. Just so happened that they were pretty good when he was there, but sometimes they’re not. Sometimes those guys are real hitters, and they don’t care about defense. And so you have to coordinate everything. You’re in charge.
“He’s in charge. He’s an aggressive fielder, you know? He goes after everything, which I love, and he can cover ground. He could throw, and he thinks about it.”
Lynn has long been an advocate of Bradley’s, having first seen him in Double A in 2012. They developed a friendship over the years — Lynn would come to Fenway a couple times per summer before the COVID-19 pandemic — in part because they saw the game the same way.
Lynn, the 1975 American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year who spent six full seasons with the Red Sox before being traded to the Angels after the ’80 season, said he discovered just how similar their approach to defense was a couple of years ago during a Red Sox Winter Weekend event.
Bradley, Betts, and Benintendi were on a panel with Lynn and his fellow outfielders from the dynamic late ’70s teams, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans.
“I’m listening to what Jackie has to say during that panel, and he’s talking about recognizing and anticipating game situations before they happen,” said Lynn. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard this for quite a while.’
“These are the kinds of things I used to think about. ‘What are the conditions? Which way is the wind blowing? Does my pitcher have his usual stuff?’ All sorts of things. Those were the things that were going through his head. And these are things that went through mine.”
Lynn demurred when asked how he’d rate Bradley in comparison with himself and other great Red Sox glove men. He prefers to compare players with their contemporaries, since conditions vary across eras. In Lynn’s day, especially early in his career, playing the outfield at some ballparks was akin to playing the game show “Wipeout,” with obstacles everywhere.
“I’ve seen just about all the new stadiums,” said Lynn, who still plays in celebrity games at All-Star events, “and the first thing I do is I go out to the outfield and I check it out. And the one thing that’s common is that they play baseball there and nothing else. The fields are like pool tables. They’re perfect. If you miss a ball, you had a mental mistake. That’s how good the grass is.”
Lynn laughed recalling some of the obstacles he had to deal with at visiting ballparks. A flagpole in Detroit. A 12-foot wooden fence in Texas that had no give. Sprinkler heads on various fields, including Yankee Stadium. And crowned fields, which gave the effect of running on a hill, at places that also hosted NFL games.
“Oh, when football season was happening, the fields were all torn up,” he said. “In Cleveland, they would paint the dirt green so that the fans thought there was grass out there. It was brutal.”
Fenway Park wasn’t always friendly to outfielders, either. Ownership finally added padding to the outfield walls after Lynn’s scary crash pursuing a Ken Griffey triple in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.
And then there was the spiked fence. That’s right. Spiked.
“Remember Joe Mooney?” said Lynn, referencing the longtime Red Sox groundskeeper. “General Joe we used to call him.
“Well, in right-center, just adjacent to where the Red Sox bullpen is, there was a little spot there where the fans in the stands came into the bleachers. There was a wrought-iron fence, probably about, oh gosh, let’s say a 10-foot section.
“And on the top of that were, like, gothic spikes, like 6 inches high, like you would have at a gate for some mansion. And I looked at that, I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty dangerous.’
“So I told General Joe. I said, ‘Hey Joe, one day I’m going to go out there and I’m going to go over that thing and my arm is going to be ripped off.’ He goes, ‘Ah, you’ll never get back there, you’re not fast enough, you’ll never get back there.’
“Well, I got back there. I’m not sure exactly what year it was, but we’re playing the Tigers, a day game, and my college teammate Steve Kemp is up. He bombs one out there — the ball travels in the daytime — and off I go. I went up in that area and my glove went between those spikes, and had they not been there, I would have made the catch, but I hit the spikes and Steve had a grand slam or something and I was pissed.
“So I came back to Joe, and about a week later, he shaved them off. He just kind of looked at me and went, ‘OK, you can get back there.’ ”
Lynn understands why fans would be disappointed by the breakup of the Benintendi/Bradley/Betts trio. It’s similar to how fans felt in January 1981, when Lynn was traded to the Angels for Joe Rudi, Frank Tanana, and Jim Dorsey, and just like that, the beloved Rice/Lynn/Evans outfield was no more.
“Today’s game changes much quicker than ours did, because we didn’t have any rights,” he said. “So we were fighting for those things. In today’s game, it’s even more difficult to keep a team intact. It’s like a five-year time span.
“I know how it is. When you lose somebody of Jackie’s caliber moving to another team, the fans really take it hard. They’re going to miss seeing the type of defense that Jackie played. He’s a special player.
“Whoever plays center after him, they’re always going to be comparing that person to Jackie. ‘Oh, Jackie would have caught that, or he would have thrown him out,’ that kind of stuff. He made fans believe he could make any play.”
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