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Center Stage : Jim Edmonds Gets Chance to Prove He Belongs in Key Role for Angels

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He says he wishes his buddy Chad Curtis was still on the team, but the moment Jim Edmonds heard the first Curtis trade rumor, the refrain from that John Fogerty song probably started playing in his head:

“Put me in Coach. I’m ready to play, today. I could be center field.”

“Ever since I knew any better, I wanted to play in the big leagues,” said Edmonds, who was a pitcher and outfielder at Diamond Bar High School, “and I never have wanted to play anywhere but center field in the big leagues. But I was sad when Chad left because he’s a good friend.

“From a business standpoint, though, I couldn’t be happier. Center field is where you have to be to be the main guy and my goal is to be the main guy. My goal is to be the best player on the team. I want somebody from the Yankees or the Blue Jays to say, ‘He’s a good player, I’ll take him on my team.’

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“That’s when you know you belong. Then maybe make an All-Star appearance someday. If I could go once, that’d be great. And if I could go 10 times like some of these guys, I’d never take it for granted or say I’d like to turn it down to get three days off.”

Edmonds, in his second full season, may be getting a bit ahead of himself, but nobody ever doubted his love for the game or his desire to succeed. Just watch him dive on his face to make a catch during a spring-training intrasquad game and you’ll be convinced too.

But there are questions about his chances of becoming an All-Star center fielder. Three in particular: Speed. Concentration. Power.

Where Gazelles Roam

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“Jimmy’s a natural athlete, he gets good jumps and he plays the outfield really well,” right fielder Tim Salmon said. “The only concern I have is that with his speed, he’s not going to be able to get to some of the balls you’d like your center fielder to be able to cover.

“He’s going to have to make up for that with scouting and preparation and positioning.”

Edmonds knows he can’t sit back, watch the flight of the ball as it sails over the infield, then turn on the afterburners and run it down on the warning track. He figured that out about a decade ago.

“As long as I can remember, I’ve always lacked the speed that a lot of center fielders have,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been working on since a very young age. It’s something I’ve learned to make up for by knowing where the ball is going, by getting a good, quick read on it.

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“If you can take two steps before a lot of guys with better speed have even moved, then the speed factor is pretty much negated. And I think that while it’s pretty obvious the blazing speed isn’t there, the defense is.”

Manager Marcel Lachemann has a litany of worries that could soon make his graying hair Sparky Anderson white. So Edmonds’ time in the 40-yard dash is way down the list.

“He gets a very good jump. He runs very good routes. There’s no wasted steps,” Lachemann said. “His arm is a tad above average and he’s very accurate with it.

“He’s already shown he’s not afraid to call guys off balls. There’s been a few in-betweeners that might have been in doubt, but he’s taken charge. He’s got the ability to play center, no doubt.”

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Hocus Focus

Edmonds went over and bear-hugged Curtis before the Angels’ home opener against Detroit Wednesday and whispered something in his ear. The show of emotion seemed to embarrass Curtis, whose scowl had been the scourge of the Angel clubhouse in recent years.

“I’ve been here less than two weeks and Sparky has already told me a few times to loosen up and have fun,” Curtis said. “I guess it will take him a while to understand that I put my game face on from the moment I get to the park until I leave.”

Edmonds is on the other end of spectrum. He’s always quick with a smile and likes to pull an occasional prank or chat about riding his Jet Skis on the Colorado River.

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Some think he has allowed his mind to wander in the outfield too.

“The knock on Jimmy has always been that he sometimes loses his focus and maybe gets a little lackadaisical,” said Curtis, who also played with Edmonds for a year in the minors. “He can’t afford to do that in center field.

“He may lack the speed of a true major league center fielder, but if he can avoid those lapses and stays focused, he’s got such great instincts, he can make up for it.”

It’s not as if Edmonds--who started 94 games last season, the third highest of any rookie in the league--was nodding off in left. He made only three errors in 157 chances and tied Curtis and Salmon for the club high with nine assists. He also played errorless ball and made some spectacular plays during a 22-game stint as the starting first baseman.

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But there will be no daydreaming in center, Edmonds is sure of that. It’s too stimulating out there.

“The ball is hit to you a lot more, it’s in the limelight and that’s what I like about it,” he said. “It makes me go out there every day, challenging myself to play the best I can. That’s what makes it so fun.”

Pop and Circumstance

Edmonds had some trouble finding the fun zone late last season. His bat went on strike long before he did. He was hitting .364 on May 26 and .331 on June 26, but only .273 when the season prematurely ended.

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A bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate at midseason, he ended up getting only one vote.

“It was very disappointing that I fell apart in the most key situation of my life,” Edmonds said. “That award is a huge honor, something I really wanted, and I guess I got a little caught up in it. I don’t think I ever let it become a problem on the field, but you never know.

“At least I learned to ignore that kind of stuff and if a situation like that ever comes up again, I know I won’t pay any attention to it.”

Edmonds is the type of hitter who ought to be able to avoid extended slumps. He has an uncomplicated, compact swing, hits left-handers even better than right-handers and doesn’t swing for the fences.

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The latter is not necessarily an attribute, according to Salmon.

“He’s a pure hitter, but I’d like to see a little more power,” Salmon said. “You have to make the commitment to hit with power, though, because you’re going to give up some consistency, some contact. But the way our team has been for the last couple of years, we could sure use another power guy.”

Edmonds, who hit four homers in his first 105 at-bats last year and then only one in his last 185, wasn’t just struggling to hit the ball out . . . he was having trouble hitting it anywhere.

“We went on a road trip back East and I lost something along the way,” he said. “My mechanics went sour and I lost my swing for a long time. But I worked really hard this winter, not only at correcting it but at being able to know what I’m doing wrong when I’m doing it.”

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In an effort to generate more power, Edmonds hit the weights, adjusted his swing and adopted a new attitude during the off-season. “I have to learn when and where to swing hard,” he says, “but I do have to swing hard sometimes.” Then he flexed his muscles this spring with three home runs in only 23 at-bats.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be a power hitter, per se,” Lachemann said. “Jimmy’s strength is using the whole field. He’s got a very comfortable swing and knows how to get the head of the bat to the ball.

“As far as home runs go, I’d consider anything in double figures a bonus. But he’s going to play every day, at least that’s the plan, so we’ll see.”


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