Yep, center field sure has been in capable hands over the years.
All of which is a roundabout way of introducing the Phillies' centerfielder of the future.
Say hello to 28-year-old Milt Thompson, a player who last month didn't even look like the Phillies' centerfielder of the present.
Since June 3, in his last 47 games, Thompson has raised his average from .246 to .298. He is among the league leaders in stolen bases (31), triples (8, tied for No. 1) and runs scored (66). He is on a pace to steal 49 bases and score 104 runs this season.
He has hit in 14 of his last 15 games - during which he has batted .472 (25 for 53) - and has stolen 28 bases in his last 31 attempts.
With this kind of production, he and leadoff hitter Juan Samuel give the Phils one of the league's most dynamic one-two combinations at the top of the order.
Samuel and Thompson have combined to score 144 runs so far this season. That is just two fewer than the combined total of the Cardinals' Vince Coleman and Ozzie Smith, generally regarded as the league's top one-two duo.
For a guy who manager Lee Elia said was headed for a reserve role last month, Milton Bernard Thompson sure is putting together one sensational season.
The Phillies acquired Thompson from the Atlanta Braves on Dec. 10, 1985. The Phils sent catcher Ozzie Virgil and minor-league pitcher Peter Smith to Atlanta for reliever Steve Bedrosian and Thompson, then an outfielder with only 98 major-league games under his belt.
It is starting to look like one of the best trades in the club's recent history.
Bedrosian has a club-record 30 saves - he had 29 last season - and is on a pace to collect 48 saves, a total that would establish a major-league record.
Virgil has fallen into disfavor with the Atlanta fans - even though he was added to the all-star team as a reserve this season. Before yesterday, he was hitting .225, with 21 homers and 44 RBIs. He hit .223, with 15 homers and 48 RBIs, last season.
Smith, the Phils' No. 1 selection in the 1984 June amateur draft, has faded - although Braves manager Chuck Tanner recently said that the righthander "might have the best arm in the organization."
Then again, Tanner could probably find something nice to say about a nuclear attack. Last year, Smith went 1-8, with a 5.85 ERA, at double-A Greenville of the Southern League. His season ended in September, when he underwent surgery on his right shoulder.
Through this weekend, he was 6-8, with a 3.66 ERA, at Greenville this season.
Combine the emergence of Thompson and Bedrosian with the so-so production of Virgil and Smith and you can understand why the Braves are being criticized for the first major trade that was made with Tanner as the team's manager.
"The fans are down on Ozzie for his production, especially when they see that, every other day, Bedrosian is getting a save or setting some kind of record," said an Atlanta front-office source. "And now, with Thompson playing the way he is. . . . Now there's a question of, 'Did we give up on him too quickly?' "
"We knew Milt was going to be an everyday centerfielder. That wasn't a question," insisted Tanner when the Braves were in Philadelphia eight days ago. "But it was a situation where we just needed a catcher. Desperately."
Thompson, Atlanta's second selection in the January 1979 draft, was impressive in his two brief stints with the Braves. In 1984, he was Atlanta's everyday leftfielder in September. He hit .303 and had 14 steals in 99 at- bats. He began the 1985 season at triple-A Richmond and was promoted to the Braves in midseason. Used primarily as a pinch-hitter and role player, he hit .302 and managed nine steals in 182 at-bats.
He began last season with the Phils - former manager John Felske was a staunch Thompson supporter - but he hit only .207 in 53 games. On July 1 last year, Thompson was optioned to triple-A Portland, where he batted .351 in 40 games.
That earned the lefthanded-hitting Thompson an Aug. 14 recall, and he hit .297 in the final 40 games of the season with the Phils.
This season, Thompson got off to a sluggish start. Again.
On June 3, he was hitting .246.
And just before Jeff Stone was sent to triple-A Maine for an injury- rehabilitation stint on July 1, Elia announced that Thompson's days as the team's starting centerfielder were almost over.
Stone would be the starting centerfielder when he returned from his rehab, Elia said. Thompson would get an occasional start but would be used primarily as a role player.
That was the plan, anyway.
Elia said that the move - which wasn't carried out, of course - wasn't proposed to trigger an offensive eruption from Thompson.
Uh-huh. That's what he said.
But he also said: "Sometimes, there's nothing better than a little competition. It's healthy for everybody involved."
Since July 1, the day Stone went to Maine, Thompson has hit a staggering .424 (36 for 85), scored 20 runs and stolen 10 bases in 25 games.
Thompson says he is traditionally a hot hitter in July and August. He says the Stone scenario "didn't have anything to do" with his torrid hitting.
A few seconds after he made that statement, however, Thompson added: "But I do know I didn't want to go back to the bench. But, to tell you the truth, I didn't think my numbers were that bad at all when Lee said he was going to make a change. My average wasn't there, but I was scoring runs and stealing bases - and they're the things they want me to do."
The numbers support Thompson. At the time Stone was sent to Maine, Thompson, though hitting only .256, had scored 46 runs and stolen 21 bases, and was on a pace to score 110 runs and steal 50 bases.
Thompson says that a slight batting adjustment he made about five weeks ago may be one of the reasons for his recent success.
Now, he doesn't hold the bat straight up. He tilts it slightly. And the adjustment has given him more bat speed.
"I'm driving pitches now that I was fouling back to the screen before," he said.
"Who knows? Maybe my bat isn't quicker," he said, flashing his gee-whiz grin. "Maybe I just think I have a quicker bat, and it's made a difference. Baseball is 60 percent mental, anyway."
Paul Owens, assistant to the president for the Phillies, has his own theories on Thompson's hitting transformation.
"He was timid with the bat," Owens said. "He was too cautious, and he was feeling for the ball - instead of letting the bat go. He was trying to do too much up there, and then pretty soon, when you start thinking too much, you find you're a split second behind. And that split second makes all the difference.
"He's just starting to come into his own and play like we visualized when we got him. Last year, he was timid. He's basically a shy person, and he hadn't played regularly (for a long period). It was his first full year, and, like anybody else - look at (Von) Hayes - it takes a year to adjust to a new team and a new city.
"He can run, he fields well, and the thing I like the most lately is that he's staying aggressive at the plate. He's staying within himself and driving the ball.
"He's not that big (5-foot-11, 170 pounds)," Owens added, "but he's a strong little devil; he can hit the ball a long way. And, with his speed, if he tops the ball and it hits twice, he's got a chance to beat it out.
"That's a pretty good combination."
He still has some weaknesses. He is hitting only .163 against lefthanders. And he occasionally will turn the wrong way on a ball hit to center - though he has excelled in the outfield during the last month.
But the pluses outnumber the minuses. Heavily.
He has a chance to be patrolling center field for the next seven or eight years, a chance to one day be mentioned as one of the players who carried on the team's tradition of fine centerfielders. "He has lots and lots of potential," Elia said. "And sometimes, when you're in a spurt like he's now in, you recognize, 'I've been given the opportunity, and I'm taking advantage of it. And now I know in my heart that I can compete on an everyday basis.' And then all kinds of good things happen.
"Those are the things," Elia said, "that careers are made of."
Those are the things that make the almost-benched Milt Thompson the Phillies' centerfielder of the future.