Finley offers more than steady glove

In Finley, Giants have more than steady glove

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There's encyclopedic knowledge inside this man, everything he knows -- and was never afraid to ask -- about playing the outfield.

Sounds simple enough. See the ball, catch the ball. Gee, it's just a kids' sticks-and-stone game, nothing that complicated.

Yet Giants center fielder Steve Finley has a master's degree in physics on the infinite art of snaring fast-flying objects, where hand-eye coordination and foot speed are merely basic elements.

Oh yeah, you have to run after the ball like a border collie chasing a Frisbee, but Finley can spend hours discussing every brain-firing synapse involved in outfield play, aspects of the game akin to Einstein's E=mc2 theory.

After all, action on the field depends on each player's, uh, relative position.

An acknowledged pro's pro outfielder, the 17-year veteran and five-time Gold Glove Award winner returns to the National League -- after a season's hiatus in Anaheim -- with San Francisco for 2006, and he brings with him information on West division hitters that he stores on his inner PDA.

An early shoulder injury hampered Finley's offense last year, but the two-time All-Star is healthy now, and he's three homers away from joining Willie Mays as the only players in baseball to compile at least 425 doubles, 100 triples, 300 homers and 300 stolen bases in a career.

It's Finley's defense, though, that causes jaws to drop. The man is a complete package, and he doesn't mind saying it.

"I feel there [are] guys who can hit more home runs than me, guys who can run faster than me or are better than me in center field, but I don't know if there [are] too many guys who can put it together more than I can," said Finley, who turns 41 on March 12.

"Especially the knowledge of how to play hitters," he said, "knowing where they like to hit the ball on 2-0 counts, 0-2 counts, with guys in scoring position, different situations of the game. It just goes on and on, and I don't have to think about it. It just happens."

Finley has seen, heard and felt thousands and thousands of airborne baseballs, and there are veterans who claim the new Giant can manipulate gravity -- absolutely will it -- to make balls land in his soft Wilson gamer glove.

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It only looks that way, for Finley learned in his rookie year with Baltimore in 1989 that being a center fielder has similarities to being a general out there -- barking orders, moving the cornermen, taking control -- and he strives on improvement.

"I pride myself on that," said Finley of his take-charge mindset. "You've got to let guys know where you are, and if you want them to move, they move. And if they mess up, it falls on me -- that's the credo I've always lived by.

"If we're going to work as a team out there, that's how it's going to be," he said, explaining that the dugout bosses still have the last say. "It keeps things smooth and flowing out there, so everybody knows where everybody is and nobody runs into each other."

Finley can sometimes hear the spectators gasp when outfielders seem collision-bound, but that rarely happens, for safety lanes are created and understood through teamwork and his leadership.

"From the stands, it looks like we're going to go full-steam into each other, but in fact, we're just crossing paths by a couple of feet," Finley said. "It allows more balls to be caught instead of having guys pull up. Communication is the key out there -- we're talking all the time."

If that means that Finley and starting center fielder Randy Winn will perhaps shade a little to left field to protect the gimpy-kneed Barry Bonds, all the better.

Winn says that center field is his favorite because "it's in the middle of all the action, and if you're on the corner, sometimes you feel like you're over there all by yourself.

Finley's Fly Rules:
No snatch catches:"I don't go for any type of flair, which is showboating. I'm a big believer in using two hands. You stand under a ball, not glide to it. You try to eliminate as many possibilities for error."
Spots before his eyes:"A lot of times in practice, you won't run after a fly ball, but look to a spot where it's going to land. It becomes instinctive, so you run to a spot automatically, with the angle already picked."
Batters' tendencies:"You're reading what pitch is being thrown, the hitter that's at the plate, where he hits it on the bat. You play the percentages and anticipate where the guy's going to hit it. You play their tendencies."
Not a know-it-all:"If you think you're the best you can be, you're selling yourself short. You always learn. It's not what you can learn as much as perfecting what you do. It's never perfect. You're always looking for ways to get better. You break it down into smaller things rather than improve on large things."

"In center field, you have free rein out there -- you have priority," added Winn, who likes Finley's style. "He has that no-fear attitude. The ball goes up, and he's gone, going after balls with reckless abandon. He's aggressive and tries to get anything he can."

Another of Finley's hottest assets is knowing the NL West hitters cold.

He also knows the Giants well, and he believes that this team has all of the ingredients for a great season. Finley is supposedly the club's fourth outfielder, but he's expected to be instrumental as the club pushes for a return to the playoffs.

"Some teams look good on paper, and this is one of them," he says. "We've got a lot of great young talent and veterans who can play. That's the big key for us."

Finley says that most of the clubs he's played for have been gunning for the playoffs in the stretch or reached the postseason, and during the recent Giants FanFest, he proudly showed off the World Series ring that he won with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

That's a treasure.

And if being 40 isn't an obstacle in his season and his cohorts don't get seriously hurt, maybe all of them can share a divisional crown at worst and a Series appearance to boot.

Rich Draper is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.