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Playing center field is harder than you think -- just ask Michael Conforto

As I typically do before a game I'm calling, I hang around the batting cage and pose a few questions to players, coaches and managers. Last week, calling Mets-Yankees, I ran into Mets manager Terry Collins in Yankee Stadium and asked him about something we often hear: "Center field is the easiest outfield position."

Collins has seen some of the best center fielders in the game's history. He's managed them, coached them, and he endorses some of the reasons the position appears easier. "You get a better view out there, helps with your jumps and reads on balls off the bat," he said. "It is easier to see what is coming."

This season, the Mets are suffering a number of injuries, which has led to a major shuffle in the outfield, including a constantly changing cast in center field. Juan Lagares is out, Yoenis Cespedes is hobbled, Jay Bruce is a right fielder, Curtis Granderson's best days at the position are behind him. So who's up? Michael Conforto.

Before the game, I met up with Conforto after a week in which he got his first start in center field since high school. He gave me the unfiltered truth about the challenges. Takeaway: It's a lot harder to play center than we think. Here are five reasons why, from the center fielder himself.

Leadership communication

"I could feel [Cespedes] in my peripheral vision," Conforto said. "I need to be more assertive there, maybe a bit louder. I am the captain out there."

When he had a near collision with Yoenis Cespedes, Conforto unearthed the greater significance of communication for a center fielder. It's the key to safety and for making good decisions for the unit in the outfield. As the captain, your word is final. If you call it, everyone else is supposed to get out of the way, and when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Shortstops, second baseman, third basemen, left fielders and right fielders, and with all the shifting defenses, let's throw catchers and first basemen in the mix for good measure.

But when your word is final, you have to be trusted. You have to back up your word. You can't be tentative. You can't let crowd noise be a reason for communication breakdowns. If you don't use your voice assertively and responsibly, players get hurt.

There are times when you must be a diplomat (a pitching change) and times when you must be a dictator (when a collision is coming). You may have to use your voice when you're not even sure you're going to make the play, just for safety. But once you do, you have to go hard and hope your message gets across.

Managing seniority

"Although I am a young guy and Cespedes is a veteran," Conforto said, "I am supposed to take priority out there."

A center fielder has to navigate the fact that at times you're bossing around a veteran, a player who could be your mentor. But it is necessary to do the job well.

Too much respect can get someone hurt, or at the very least, turn an easy out into a triple. There may be even times when a veteran will haze you a little bit, see how you handle certain situations. I know there were moments in my early center field days in Philadelphia when veterans Ruben Amaro Jr. and Rob Ducey didn't move as quickly to my repositioning them in the outfield as I would have hoped. I had to prove myself.

Today you have decision-makers in the dugout regarding positioning, which can interfere with a center fielder's direct line of communication with his corner guys. It's the center fielder's job to glue it all together in real time.

Real estate bubble

"Good thing I got there, too," Conforto said about the diving play he made in his first start in center, "because that thing would have been all the way to the wall."

Safety is one thing; territory is another. There is no one behind the center fielder on the riskiest plays he deals with. And if the center fielder is dealing with the wall, it's on a ball that was crushed. He can only hope that the corner outfielders are backing him up, which doesn't happen as much as it should. If they don't have your back and you don't make the play, just put the hitter on third base.

Center fielders have plush green behind them. Corner outfielders have walls and, of course, center fielders.

It slices, hooks and knuckles, too, but it carries

"Didn't have much time to think," Conforto said. "I saw the ball come off the bat, took off on a good path. Actually started to tail away from me with the right handed swing, he got inside of it, I really had to lay out and reach back for it."

In center field, the hooks and slices are generally more subtle, but the balls have more carry and depth. The more ground you cover, the more dramatic a mistake can become. It's like sending a wind-up toy after it's fully wound. The direction you place it decides everything.

The advantage of seeing the action should enhance your ability to anticipate where you are heading before you head there. Especially when you consider your pitching staff and their skill sets. "We got a guy throwing hard like we have a lot of pitchers [on our staff] that we do, that is [locating] on the outside corner of the plate. Chances are [hitters] are going to go with that pitch, and it's going to go the opposite direction."

Conforto did not waste any time employing those elements of anticipation. He made the stellar play in his debut in center field by getting a fantastic jump on a ball that was slicing away from him to his glove side. Instinctively, he amped up his acceleration to make sure he caught "through" the ball to make sure he did not short-arm it. It was a full extension dive with a lot of risk involved.

Speed is a responsibility

"I am not the fastest center fielder," Conforto said. "With there being a lot of ground to cover, I have to make sure my jumps are as quick as possible and my routes are the best they can be."

Speed is important, but precision is more important. The truest thing I came to understand is the faster you are, the farther away from the target you will be when you pick the wrong route. It's a great asset when you're precise, it's a horrible liability when you're not. Misused speed turns into panicked recovery speed, which makes you catch balls in poor position to do anything next. Unless necessary, you don't want to be going full speed when you get to the ball. Managing your acceleration is the priority, which allows you to be poised. Poise allows you to have a soft glove when you get there, reducing errors. And poise allows you to set yourself in a good position to throw if necessary.

Michael Conforto provided a fresh look at center field before the clichés of time take over a veteran's thought. Center field has the best view of the outfield with the fewest obstructions. It gives you better jumps and a better ability to anticipate what is going to happen. Huge advantages, however, come with greater responsibility. Center field may be easier on paper, but it's much harder in practice.

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