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Center field won't be the same without Hunter on patrol

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Torii Hunter jogged out to right field at Angel Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, and in front of 40,000 empty seats, practiced fielding extra-base hits in the corner. It looked as wrong as Derek Jeter taking grounders at second, LaDainian Tomlinson lining up at fullback, Steve Nash playing off the ball.

"It's hard," Hunter said, and he was not referring to the caroms off the fence.

Center field -- like shortstop, tailback and point guard -- is less a position than an identity, and for the past decade, Hunter defined it. He won nine Gold Gloves, all of them with Say Hey style, filling the cable airwaves with his thievery. His nickname, Spider-Man, was among the most apropos in sports. He would scale fences to bring back home runs and then shout playfully to his victims: "You're going to have to hit it farther than that!" The way he charged boundlessly into gaps reminded him of a golden retriever off its leash.

An era ended last week, when 23-year-old Peter Bourjos was summoned to Baltimore from Triple-A Salt Lake. Bourjos bounced into the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards with the same grin worn by any rookie about to make his major-league debut. Then Bourjos went to see Angels' manager Mike Scioscia, and with one sentence, the grin was wiped away.

"You're going to play center," Scioscia said.

Bourjos looked as though he had swallowed something stale. He came up through the Angels system as a center fielder, but expected to be blocked for perpetuity, since that stretch of real estate so clearly belonged to Hunter. In recent months, Salt Lake experimented with Bourjos in left and right, a sign that he was nearing a promotion. Bourjos imagined himself playing alongside Hunter, though in every scenario, Hunter was the one in center.

But in the week before Bourjos was promoted, Angels management approached Hunter about moving to right. Ken Griffey Jr. did it. Mike Cameron did it. Hunter talked about it sporadically over the past couple years with Scioscia.

"I knew I'd have to do that," Hunter said. "I didn't think it was this soon."

Hunter is 35 and advanced defensive metrics say he does not cover near the ground he once did -- he ranks 16th out of 21 qualifying center fielders in Ultimate Zone Rating -- but the Angels insist that they were satisfied with Hunter's range. They were not, however, satisfied with the range of left fielder Juan Rivera and right fielder Bobby Abreu. Playing between them, Hunter was wearing himself out bridging both gaps.

If the Angels had an elite corner outfielder in the minor leagues, they probably would have called him up, but their system is not as stocked as it used to be. Bourjos was among their best prospects and surely their fastest. According to Hunter, no one ever told him to switch positions. Club officials simply asked him, and after two sleepless nights, he agreed that it would be best for the team.

"I don't think I've lost anything," Hunter said. "I still think I can play center field with the best of 'em. But I had my time. This isn't about individual stuff. It's about winning."

When Bourjos emerged from his meeting with Scioscia in Baltimore, the first player he saw was Hunter.

"I was hesitant," Bourjos said. "I didn't know what to expect. Right away he came up to me and said: 'Anything you need, I'm here to help you.'"

What could have been an awkward moment became an educational one. In batting practice, Hunter works with Bourjos on his jumps, routes and positioning. Bourjos is able to shade toward left field knowing that Hunter is overqualified for right. In one week, Bourjos has made no fewer than four catches to take away hits. His speed is such that when Abreu lined a double to right-center with Bourjos on first Monday night, much of the Angels' bench did not even follow the ball. They wanted to watch Bourjos fly.

"It's ridiculous," said Angels' bench coach Ron Roenicke, marveling at how Bourjos scored from first without drawing a throw.

The Angels are trumpeting the obvious benefits of two center fielders -- increased range, speed and aggressiveness -- but they are aware of the hazards. Five years ago, the Mets signed center fielder Carlos Beltran and pushed Cameron to right, even though Cameron had won two Gold Gloves in center. In spring training that year, I asked Beltran and Cameron how they would react if a ball were hit into the right-center field gap, smack between them.

"The center fielder has priority," Beltran said. "If the center fielder calls, you've got to get out of the way."

Beltran was correct, of course, but Cameron did not know how to defer. He was bred to pursue.

"I'm not going to change my game," he said. "I have to play the same style I always have."

In August, the Mets were in San Diego, and a fly ball was indeed hit to right-center. Beltran dove. Cameron dove. They met cheek to cheek, both center fielders breaking bones in their faces, a gruesome collision that left teammates wondering if they were paralyzed. That play occurred five years ago today.

Hunter cannot reverse an entire career's worth of behavior, but he insists he will yield to Bourjos, even if his instincts tell him otherwise.

"Center field is fun," Hunter said. "It's a power trip. You tell the infielders, 'I've got it,' and they've got to get out of the way. Now I'm the one who's got to get out of the way."

There is a tinge of lament in his voice, the sound of a proud ballplayer conceding his first defeat to age. Right field does not have the same ring as center -- no one ever recorded a song called "Right Field" -- but Angels coaches remind Hunter of all the memorable catches Ichiro Suzuki has managed to make in right. Hunter could still win his 10th Gold Glove, albeit at a different position.

During the Angels last homestand, Hunter parked his most recent Gold Glove on the floor in front of his locker, for everyone to admire. On Tuesday the Gold Glove was absent, and while Hunter joked that he had sold it to a pawn shop, he was clearly trying to move on. So far it has been a false start, as Hunter was suspended four games for brushing an umpire and throwing a bag of balls onto the field Friday in Detroit. If Hunter was upset by more than just a questionable strike call, he would never let on.

He will move into his new home today, right field at Angel Stadium, though his heart may never leave center. Several years ago, I asked Hunter to explain what he loved about center field, and he spent the next hour on the bench at SkyDome discussing his passion for the position: How he reads a hitter's front shoulder to know whether his first step should be left or right; how he runs to the place he believes a ball will land before turning his head to locate it; how he holds his arms by his sides for as long as possible to keep his body relaxed. At one point, I asked if he ever guessed which way to go, based on the pitch thrown or the hitter's propensities. "If you've got a center fielder guessing," Hunter said, "he should play left."

Left, right, it makes no difference now. The cable airwaves will never be the same. Torii Hunter is not in center.

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