First Base of Last Resort

first-base

IN THE STILL-SWELTERING HEAT of an early July evening, before the sun went down and the hard, brown June beetles started pelting the infield dust around my feet, I crouched into my position at first base as the pitcher made his move toward home plate. I had just finished my junior year of high school and was playing for the Owen Dunn American Legion team, Indiana Post #5 in Mt. Vernon. To be picked to play was an honor of sorts; the post had just reformed the team after a long absence, and the manager was a former college coach who drew players from three high schools in the area.

The right-handed batter hit a ground ball in my direction. It wasn’t hit particularly hard, but as it left the bat it had a tight clockwise spin that caused it to slice across the grass toward the baseline. I charged the ball, lowered my glove, and came up empty. The ball trickled through my legs, and the runner reached base safely.

“Nice one Buckner,” I heard from the dugout. I glowered at my teammate Eric, who was sitting near the end of the bench with a smug look on his face. He was referring, of course, to Bill Buckner of the Red Sox, who let a weak grounder by the Mets’ Mookie Wilson dribble through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, allowing the winning run to score and ultimately costing the Sox their first Series win in 68 years. It’s still the most infamous play ever made by a first baseman, ruining Buckner’s legacy and the defensive expectations of first basemen everywhere. The nickname stuck.

Eric had a knack for getting under my skin. He kept up a constant patter, ribbing me about anything that came to his mind. “Hey Buckner,” he’d say, “Is that your sister in the stands? Mind if I ask her out?” or “Why’d you miss that curveball Buckner, never seen one a them out in the boonies?” I tried my best to ignore him and let my play speak for itself, but a nickname like Buckner doesn’t augur happy endings in the baseball world.

First base is a position for aging veterans with bad backs and gimpy knees, the place to hide the worst fielders, the slowest runners, and the weakest arms. It’s the place for guys with enough offensive skills to command a place in the batting order but no place on the field. Unlike the other positions, which require specific physical skills—the shortstop must have quick feet and a strong arm; the pitcher, extraordinary arm strength and endurance; the catcher, toughness, brains and a cannon for an arm—first base is a default position, defined mostly by what its players don’t have: namely, the skills required for any other position. A first baseman doesn’t even get to touch the ball during the congratulatory toss around the horn after strikeouts; instead he turns his back and smoothes the dirt around the base while the ball goes from third to second, then back to the shortstop, who tosses it to the pitcher.

I started playing first base on my first organized tee-ball team in Poseyville, Indiana, in 1982 when I was five years old, and aside from some pitching in Little League and a few emergency fill-in games elsewhere, I’ve never played anywhere else. I like to think I made the decision because my childhood idol, Don Mattingly from nearby Evansville, played that position, but I know that can’t be the case, because at the time, Mattingly was having his first cup of coffee with the Yankees, long before he posted the kind of All-Star numbers that made kids like me worship him. The truth is, my dad, the team’s coach, decided I should play first base because I’m left-handed, and because in tee-ball, where there are no pitchers and catchers, I would get to touch the ball more than anyone else. And though he would never admit it, I also suspect my dad knew I would be the slowest kid on the field, even at that early age. (I probably also helped his decision during one of our first practices, when I fielded a ground ball in the freshly mown grass while playing second base. The other kids and dads were yelling at me to make the throw to first, but I just stood there, brushing the grass off the ball before I threw it.)So, as a lefty who couldn’t play another infield position and whose plodding feet made me unsuitable for the outfield, I was left with only one option. Like generations of first basemen before me, my position was determined by process of elimination.

MANY PLAYERS CHANGE POSITIONS throughout their careers, often early in their professional careers when the trained eyes of scouts and minor league coaches spot traits that make them better suited for a new role on the field. Most moves signal the player’s versatility and raw athletic skill. Babe Ruth could have been a Hall of Fame pitcher had he not switched to the outfield so his powerful bat could be in the lineup every day. Hank Aaron started his career at second before shifting to the outfield, and more recently, Craig Biggio moved to second base after coming up to the majors as a catcher. Both Aaron and Biggio became good defenders at their new positions, a testament to their utility.

Famed baseball writer Bill James once devised a “defensive spectrum” that rated defensive positions by their level of difficulty. On the far right of this scheme was catcher, which James determined to be the most challenging position. First base was on the opposite end:

1B – LF – RF – 3B – CF – 2B – SS – C

According to James, players very rarely move from left to right on the spectrum, but can usually move right to left on the scale with relative success, as players like Aaron, Biggio, Robin Yount, Dale Murphy, Cal Ripken, and Alex Rodriguez have. Still, as you might guess from its position in the spectrum, a move to first base carries a taint of decay, a connotation of demotion or compromise.

Some star players move to first near the end of their careers to minimize wear and tear on their aging bodies. Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, and Pete Rose all spent significant time at first in their twilight years. In Bench’s case, the move saved him the punishment of playing catcher every day. Mike Piazza made a similar move in 2004, splitting time between first and catcher during an injury-plagued season. Other players land at first after getting pushed out of other positions by superior defensive players. The Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, , played third until the Cardinals acquired Scott Rolen, after which Pujols made his move left along the James Spectrum to outfield for two seasons. He settled at first full-time in 2004, and became an excellent defensive first baseman. And in the 2005 off-season, the Dodgers signed Nomar Garciaparra to a one-year contract and announced that he would play first base. Garciaparra was once considered one of the best shortstops in the game while playing for the Red Sox, but struggled defensively after being traded to the Cubs, eventually moving to third base at the end of 2005. Little worry for him as he joined the Dodgers, though. He expected to learn to play first base in just three months.

I was oblivious to the long tradition of putting the slowest, clumsiest players at first base when I began my baseball career. In my mind, it was the best position on the field. I was playing first base! The first one! Everyone had to come through me, and almost every ball hit on the infield eventually had to be thrown to me, too. Why shouldn’t I be proud to play there? After all, my favorite player, Mattingly, won nine Gold Gloves playing first, second only to Keith Hernandez who won 11, six of them playing for the Cardinals, my favorite team.

I STARTED PAYING ATTENTION TO DEFENSIVE TECHNIQUE in Little League, where I learned the basics of fielding grounders and began mastering the art of The Stretch, an essential skill for a first baseman. This move—stretching your glove hand and foot in the direction of the throw in order to catch it sooner and beat the runner—is simple but comes in a surprising number of variations. You have to judge the speed and direction of the throw to know when and where to stretch. Is the ball coming in wide? Will you be able to keep your foot on the bag and make the catch, or should you concede the base to the runner to prevent the ball from going out of play? The Stretch can often require the footwork of a ballerina. A high throw might cause you to reach into the air and do a pirouette as you tiptoe the bag, or you might decide you have time to jump and make a stab with your toe as you land. You might even end up doing the splits to reach as far forward as possible to beat a speedy runner.

In Little League, where the infielders don’t exactly have major league arms, The Stretch, along with its counterpart, The Scoop, often means the difference between an out and an error. The Scoop— catching an errant throw by “scooping” it out of the dirt—is the first basemen’s best-known defensive weapon. The official rules of scoring are kind to first basemen; most throws that he can’t catch result in an error on the thrower. Still, if he had to practice just one defensive play, a first baseman would perfect The Scoop, not so much because it prevents base runners but because a missed Scoop makes him look so bad. It is such an integral part of the first baseman’s repertoire, like a layup for a basketball center, that he is expected to pull out every throw, no matter how bad.

To make The Scoop properly, you should keep your glove low to the ground, watching the ball all the way in and catching it just after it bounces. The degree of difficulty depends on where the ball is thrown, the worst place being straight at your shins. In fact, first basemen wear a special glove made specifically to help them scoop bad throws. Whereas most gloves have five fingers stitched together to approximate a hand, the first base glove resembles a wide, flattened lobster claw. Instead of four fingers, it has a round paddle opposing the thumb that can act like a shovel, scooping up a handful of infield dirt along with a poorly thrown baseball. After the round, padded catcher’s mitt, it’s the most distinctive glove on the field. I got my first one when I was thirteen and starting to play in Senior League, a new league for junior high kids. I was excited about the glove and how it affirmed my special position on the field, not at all concerned with the irony that the autograph stamped in the pocket of my left-handed glove was that of Mark McGwire, a right-handed player who had converted to first from pitcher and third base.

Despite my fancy glove, however, I was never particularly good at The Scoop. Too many short hops off the inside of my knee had made me skittish. Ignoring the cardinal rule of the game—Don’t Be Afraid of the Ball—I would turn my head and swing my glove upward hoping to catch the ball with a flourish. Unsurprisingly, I often missed, and betrayed my slow feet by running into foul territory to chase the errant throw.

Runners couldn’t lead off the base in Little League, but in Senior League, as would-be Rickey Hendersons took their first few cautious steps off the base, I got to stand behind them and point my glove at the pitcher. There isn’t much technique to making pickoff plays, just a catch and a tag, but it is a rare opportunity for one player to legally hit another as hard as he can. I enjoyed pounding the diving runners on the back, answering their complaints by daring them to do the same as I took a three-inch lead the next time I reached base. Holding runners on base was far less fun than I thought it would be, though, because it mostly meant that I was out of position for pitches.On those blistering Indiana summer afternoons, as my perennially bad teams suffered through long at-bats by the other team, I tired of running back and forth to the base, and ended up missing some of the most routine grounders.

Demoting liabilities to first base is primarily a National League phenomenon, since American League teams can dump their defensive white elephants into the designated hitter slot. The White Sox took the glove out of Frank Thomas’ hands, as the Mariners did with Edgar Martinez and the Brewers, Blue Jays, and Twins all did with Paul Molitor. But American League first base purists have to endure the special torment of watching a manager struggle with his lineup in the World Series when the games are played in the National League park, sans DH. In 2004, Terry Francona of the Red Sox opted to bench his team’s first baseman and leader, Kevin Millar, so that DH David Ortiz could play there and stay in the lineup for Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis. Ortiz was considered such a bad fielder that some Red Sox fans feared he alone could jeopardize the team’s chances of winning the series. In fact, despite his clutch offensive heroics in the AL Championship Series against the Yankees, Francona pulled Ortiz late in both games for defensive replacement Doug Mientkiewicz. The gamble paid off, as the Red Sox won four straight, squashing my hopes that Ortiz would shed light on the importance of first base defense by making a fatal error, handing a game to my beloved Cardinals and costing Boston the Series, just as a certain outfielder-turned-first baseman did in 1986.

LIKE ANY YOUNG BASEBALL PLAYER, if I could add up all the hours I spent practicing the game, the time I spent perfecting my swing would dwarf what I spent fielding grounders or working on defense. To most kids, including me for a time, hitting was the only fun part of the game, whereas playing defense felt like a necessary evil in between at-bats. The longer I played first, though, the more pride I took in my place on the diamond. I loved practicing the arcane footwork around the bag, brandishing my special glove. In high school I started wearing black wristbands—Franklins, just like Mattingly wore—on my forearms just below the elbow, smearing eye black on my cheekbones, and pulling my sweat stained cap low over my eyes, trying to affect a menacing look to oncoming base runners.

I was lucky enough to make the varsity team as a sophomore in high school, mainly because of my bat and not my glove. I had what the coaches called a “pretty” swing, which I have since learned is a compliment laid on any halfway competent left- handed hitter. I really was a good hitter, though, perfecting that swing with countless hours of hitting baseballs into a net in my backyard. I was always able to make contact and put the ball into play, not blessed with a lot of power but enough to drive in runs. There was an older first baseman already on the team, so I did my part that year by pinch- hitting and playing late inning mop-up duty in already-decided games. In practice I perfected The Sweep Tag, an advanced variation of The Stretch in which you come off the bag to catch a ball thrown down the line toward home then sweep your glove at the runner to tag him out as he passes. This play is difficult for two reasons: one, it requires enough agility to catch the ball and twist for the tag without losing your balance, and two, if you’re one step off you’ll get run over. This happened to me twice, the first just a glancing blow but the second resulting in a violent collision with a player twice my size.

My junior year I was the DH all season. I didn’t get much chance to use my Mark McGwire glove that year, either, except for the game in which the coach pulled all the starters and made them run laps for making too many fielding errors. Although I played first every day in practice, after two years’ of minimal game experience I could feel my defensive skills waning. As a senior I finally played full time in the field, managing to hold my own around the bag, and in the sectional tournament that year, I made the single greatest defensive play of my career. I was holding a runner on with one out when the batter scorched a line drive toward me. I leaped and snared the ball, landing in nearly a
sitting position. The runner had guessed wrongly that the ball was going through and was left stranded between bases. I frog-hopped from the squat and flopped onto first base, doubling up the runner and ending the inning. I remember running back into the dugout, head down, listening to the cheers from our crowd, laughing and blushing as my teammates pounded my back. Later that day I actually drove home the winning run in the championship game, but the memory of that double-play remains just as vivid, a singular moment in which all eyes were on me That play was something only I could have done at first base, and I revelled in it.

I entered my second and final season for Owen Dunn that summer on this high note, hoping to continue at least some part of my high school team’s success. The prior summer had been a lesson in humility, our team posting a 5-29 record, losing a majority of those games by the “whitewash rule,” in which the game is called when one team is winning by 10 runs after seven innings. The summer after my senior year, I drove hundreds of miles in my red Camaro to play in desolate, decaying old farm towns like Fairfield, Illinois, and Petersburg, Indiana, fueled by McDonald’s Extra Value Meals and gas station candy. We took a beating again, going 6-31 with just as many blowout losses as in the first season.

I managed to put differences aside with Eric and the other guys from his school that summer, trying to enjoy what I knew would be the end of my competitive baseball career. Like any kid who has ever swung a bat or broken in a new glove, I had always dreamed that I could be the next Don Mattingly, rising to stardom in the major leagues with my sweet swing and Gold Glove. But I was realistic; I knew there was something about the real prospects that I didn’t have. I knew it when I played against players the college and pro scouts in the crowd, with their stopwatches and radar guns, watched instead of me. I knew it when I heard the way a top-notch pitching prospect’s fastballs hissed by me when I swung and missed. I knew it when I watched other players hit those towering home runs that I never could. I broached the subject of my baseball future with my coach once that season. I was heading to Indiana University in the fall, and I figured he could help me decide if I had a chance at walking on the team. “The first thing they’ll do is time you running to first base, so probably no,” he said, smiling warmly, sensing that I already knew the answer. I nodded, appreciating his candor, and thanked him for confirming my suspicions. He said I could probably catch on with a community college or junior college team, but I didn’t want to sacrifice my academic future just to hang on to a pipe dream for a few years longer.

I have one lasting memory from that season, from a game far away from home on a late night in July. We were playing in Switz City, Indiana, just a few miles from where I’d be going to college that fall in Bloomington. Batting in the fifth inning, I swung and connected with that sweet feeling where you barely feel the ball hit the bat. I watched the ball arc into the night sky toward the gap in right center. I heard it bounce off the warning track and hit a metal sign on the fence as I rounded first base. I turned to look at the third base coach as I approached second and he was waving me through. I jogged into third base for a stand-up triple, my only triple since my very first base hit in Little League. We won that game by our own whitewash; I squeezed the final out in my Mark McGwire glove. A few weeks later it was officially retired.

MY BASEBALL CAREER HAD A BRIEF RESURGENCE after college. I moved to Chicago for a job after graduation, and after a year I felt the itch to play baseball again. I had heard about men’s recreational leagues in the city, hardball, not softball or the 16-inch rubber ball that the co-ed social leagues used. I found the Midwest Suburban League on the internet, sent an email, and soon I was a Chicago Pirate. We played on weekends all over the city and suburbs, mostly players like me, former above-average high schoolers looking to recapture that spark, to relive the way we felt when we first smelled a brand new glove. I even bought a new McGwire glove for myself, but things didn’t turn out quite like I’d hoped. The league was disorganized; umpires showed up late, the fields were poorly kept, and we had problems scheduling games. The Pirates also weren’t such a merry bunch. For every player who was happy just to be lacing up the spikes again, there was an ultra competitive die-hard who didn’t get the message that we were playing in the Midwest Suburban League, not the National or the American. Worse yet, after five years away from the game my skills had atrophied. I missed pitches that I used to drive into the gaps. I swung over curveballs and couldn’t catch up with fastballs. I made more errors in the field than normal, and early in the second season I injured my left shoulder, and after that I couldn’t throw without causing a grinding pain in the socket.

A season and a half of dodging helmets thrown by those overbearing teammates and witnessing my own sad decline on the field sapped my energy to play. We played by a system in which everybody on the team batted and then worked out a platoon rotation among ourselves for playing the field. I usually alternated innings at first base with another player, but as the games wore on during those hot, sticky Saturdays, games in which we were getting drummed just like my American Legion team, I started taking a pass on my turn in the field more and more often. I was tired of getting yelled at by our shortstop for missing The Scoop on throws that he bounced 10 feet in front of me. I was tired of chasing those same bad throws into foul territory, then jogging the ball back into the infield because I couldn’t throw it to second. I had completed my own full shift left on the James spectrum, from potential to futility, without ever changing positions. Some part of me still held onto the idea that if I couldn’t play baseball the right way, I didn’t want to play at all. One of the nicer players on my team asked me to help form a new squad the next year, but I turned him down, walking away from the game for good that second season with five games left. I agonized over the decision, fearing I’d regret giving up something that meant so much to me. But to my surprise, the first free weekend after that, I didn’t miss it at all.

This piece was originally published in Anatomy of Baseball, edited by Andrew Blauner and Lee Gutkind.