FORT MYERS, Fla. — The rookie steps into the batter’s box, his palms sweaty, his heart racing like a Justin Verlander fastball.
The odds of hitting a home run in a first major league at-bat are minuscule. There have been only 114 first-at-bat home runs since 1895, the year Babe Ruth was born.
But two current Red Sox players know the magic feeling. Daniel Nava hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues in 2010. Mike Napoli, then of the Angels, took American League Rookie of the Year Verlander deep in Detroit in 2006.
In the Red Sox clubhouse, remembering your first major league at-bat brings smiles. Men become boys again, if only for a moment.
“In the scope of things it’s insignificant,” says catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “But everyone remembers their first.”
Outfielder Jonny Gomes was a 22-year-old Devil Ray when he stepped into the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium Sept. 12, 2003.
“I remember everything,” says Gomes, who was initially scared because Yankee Stadium was “so big.”
But his fear quickly struck out.
“Once I stepped in the batter’s box it was like, ‘OK I’m right at home,’ ” he says.
“First pitch from David Wells, a big old curveball. I’m thinking like, ‘He’s got to know I have zero time in the big leagues, I’m wearing No. 60.”
Gomes guessed fastball.
“No way he throws a kid two curves in a row,” he says. “I’m sitting dead red, and I hit a stand-up double down the left-field line.”
Coaches know to call time and ask for the ball as a souvenir. Gomes still has it at home.
“I didn’t know what to do,” says Gomes. “Oh yeah, [Derek] Jeter gave me a tap on the butt and said, ‘Congrats.’ That was awesome.”
Shortstop Stephen Drew remembers having an accelerated heart rate during his first at-bat.
“It’s heart-pounding, for sure,” says Drew, who walked on a 3-2 pitch as a Diamondbacks rookie against the Brewers July 15, 2006, at Chase Field. “It’s unique and it’s special. You’re looking around and there are too many emotions. This is the elite of the elite, you want to have a good at-bat. Your dream is coming true.”
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway flied to deep center field against the Royals’ Luke Hochevar Aug. 18, 2011, at Kauffman Stadium. But that’s not what he remembers.
“In the minor leagues you have two [helmet flaps], and in the majors you only have one, so it felt like everybody was closer to me because I had nothing blocking my sensory perception on the right side of my face,” Lavarnway says. “It felt like everything was closer on my right side because I wasn’t used to the helmet.”
Outfielder Shane Victorino, then with San Diego, batted in the eighth inning against Dodgers reliever Paul Quantrill April 3, 2003, at Qualcomm Stadium.
“I definitely had a lot of adrenaline,” Victorino says. “I was just trying to put the bat on the ball, wasn’t trying to jack one. I knew he was a sinkerball pitcher and he threw me a ground ball. I hit it pretty good. [Adrian] Beltre made a nice diving play to his left, scooped it, picked it up, and threw me out from third.”
Victorino was playing center field for the Phillies when Nava came up with the bases loaded in the second inning June 12, 2010, at Fenway Park.
Joe Blanton was on the mound. “First-pitch fastball,” says Victorino. “Trying to sneak the cheese past a rat. Bam! Right-center into the bullpen. I said, ‘Oh my God!’ ”
Nava was only the second player in major league history to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw.
He remembers being in Indianapolis with the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox the day before.
“We had a rain delay, I was just hanging out and Torey [Lovullo], our manager, said, ‘Hey, I got some good news, you’re going up to Boston but I don’t know if you’ll be activated.’ ”
When Nava arrived at Fenway, there was more good news.
“Tito [manager Terry Francona] called me in his office and said welcome and shook my hand and made me feel at home. And then he said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be starting in left, hitting ninth. We’ve got a great lineup so don’t feel like you’ve got to carry the load. Just go out there, have fun, and get a couple of knocks.’ ’’
Nava wasn’t worried about hitting, he was worried about The Wall. He immediately ran outside to practice fielding balls off the Green Monster.
“We didn’t take BP on the field because it was raining,” he says.
Veteran broadcaster Joe Castiglione had some advice for him. “He said, ‘You only get one first pitch, so you might as well be up there swinging.’ The gist was to make the most of the situation.”
The 5-foot-10-inch outfielder came to the plate in the second inning with the bases loaded and the Sox trailing, 2-1. He did what he always does.
“The first at-bat I always say hi to the umpires,” Nava says. “I wasn’t thinking too much. Just if I got a pitch to hit, to do my job. Then all of a sudden Joe got set, came to, and threw a fastball and I reacted. I think it was right down the middle. He later said, ‘I tried to throw a sinker down and away and it didn’t sink and it didn’t go away.’
“At first I really thought I went unconscious and my instincts took over. I don’t really remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is a pitch to crush.’ It came off the bat and I thought, ‘Hey I got a sac fly. I put the ball in the outfield, I’ll take that.’ And then I saw [right fielder] Jayson Werth keep on running, and by the time he just stopped running the ball went over the wall. I was like, ‘No way. I actually hit a home run. Oh yeah, I just hit a grand slam.’ ”
In the Red Sox bullpen, reliever Manny Delcarmen leaped and caught the ball, keeping it from going into the first row of the bleachers.
“He said, ‘Hey man, you owe me a hug,’ ” Nava says. “ ‘Dude, I went up for that ball. I haven’t jumped that high since high school.’ He was cool about it.”
Nava calls his dramatic debut, “a God moment.”
The bat he used that day, a 33½-inch Trinity, broke the next day. His dad kept the pieces.
Nava says his story almost seems like fiction now. Rising from being the former equipment manager of the Santa Clara University baseball team to making major league history.
Nava spent all of 2011 in the minors and is battling for a roster position this year.
“In the big picture, it puts things into perspective, the bigger story of how I got there,” he says.
Nava looks around the Red Sox clubhouse and smiles at his teammates.
“They are studs, and I think I’m pretty blessed to be in the same locker room,” he says. “I was one of the guys picking up uniforms and washing them years before. So, I think it’s pretty cool.”
David Ortiz, dressing nearby, says Nava has adjusted his expectations.
“You hit a grand slam in the big leagues on the first pitch, you might think, ‘Damn, this is easy,’ ” says Big Papi.
Ortiz’s first major league at-bat occurred in the 20th century.
On Sept. 2, 1997, he joined the Twins, pinch hitting in an interleague game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“I was excited,” he says. “I wasn’t afraid. I think I hit a fly ball somewhere.” He flied to deep left-center.
“When I got there, I saw my boy Sammy [Sosa] was playing right field and he came and said hi.
“Sammy used to play winter ball with the team I used to play on.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m watching Mark Grace playing here.’ And the next thing I know Mark Grace signed a glove and sent it to me. It was a nice experience. The next day I got a pinch-hit double.”
Dustin Pedroia was playing in Ottawa with the PawSox when he was told to report to the Red Sox in Anaheim, Calif., some 2,800 miles away. He slept for two hours and hit the road Aug. 22, 2006.
“I got up real early and took the long flight,” he says.
His parents picked him up at the airport and his wife, Kelli, also flew in. They all went to the ballpark together and arrived five hours early. When he met Francona he called him “coach”. Francona yelled at him.
“Call me Terry,” he said.
The bases were loaded and there was no score in the second inning when Pedroia, batting ninth and playing shortstop, stepped into the batter’s box. He took the first pitch.
“Joe Saunders was pitching, a lefty. I was just excited, not scared. Yeah, I lined into a double play.”
Shortstop Orlando Cabrera made a leaping grab and stepped on second to force Mike Lowell.
“It’s just part of the game,” Pedroia says. “It was fun. I got a line-drive single my next time up.”
When Will Middlebrooks came to bat in the second inning on the night of May 2, 2012, he got some advice from a former MVP.
“[Pedroia] told me, ‘Just relax and have fun. Play your game. It’s as simple as that,’ ” says Middlebrooks.
He already knew the pitcher quite well.
“It was actually against one of my buddies, Brandon McCarthy of the A’s, I work out with him in the offseason,” Middlebrooks says. “And I walked, and I don’t do much of that. I felt good about it.”
He then stole second.
“I was surprisingly pretty calm,” he says. “It was at Fenway, my family flew in. I didn’t know where they were sitting. I wouldn’t have looked anyway. I never do. I know Brandon and I know he works sinkers and cutters off the corner of the plate, and you have to be pretty patient against him, but he just didn’t give me anything to hit. “
Five years earlier to the day, Saltalamacchia stepped into the box May 2, 2007, at Turner Field as the Braves’ catcher. It was his 22d birthday.
“I didn’t get much sleep,” says Saltalamacchia. “I couldn’t really feel my legs, they were shaking.
“You’re not really thinking, except for, ‘Don’t screw up, don’t look stupid with all these people watching.’ ”
The Phillies’ pitcher, Freddy Garcia, threw him two straight balls.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Hey, get a fastball, swing hard,’ ” Saltalamacchia says. “I felt comfortable. I hit the ball to deep center. [Aaron Rowand] went to the warning track and caught it. It was still pretty cool.”
Napoli was in Salt Lake City when he got the call to report to the Angels in Detroit.
“I flew all night to get there,” he says. Sleep was impossible.
“I was excited,” Napoli says. “I tossed and I turned. Is there any self-doubt? Yeah, I had butterflies, but I like that sort of thing. It didn’t bother me too much.”
He arrived at Comerica Park May 4, 2006, and was in the starting lineup, catching and batting eighth.
“I was tired and I think it relaxed me a little bit,” he says about how he felt when he stepped into the box against Verlander in the top of the third inning.
“I actually had two strikes and he threw me a curveball, and I hit it to left-center. It was pretty exciting, all the guys in the dugout were going crazy. It’s something I’ll never forget, they were on the top step, giving high fives. It was a cool experience. I guess it [homer] is part of history. Hank Aaron never did it, but he hit 755 home runs.”
Jose Iglesias entered the game as a pinch runner for Jed Lowrie in the eighth inning May 10, 2011, at the Rogers Centre. It was his third game in the big leagues, but he still hadn’t batted. Iglesias was scared in the top of the ninth.
“I was  years old and I was late to go to home plate for my at-bat because I didn’t know it was my turn,” he says. “It was crazy. Oh my God. Everybody had my back. They told me to relax. But it was tough. It was against Frankie Francisco, the closer. It was fun.”
After fouling off a pitch on an 0-and-2 count, Iglesias made up his mind to not go down looking.
“Even if he threw me a rosin bag, I was going to swing at it,” Iglesias says. “I was so nervous. I struck out — I didn’t even see the ball — but the ball got away and I made it to first. That’s good for the team.”
Pitchers are a real long shot to get a hit in their first at-bat. The exception was Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who homered on his first at-bat, then never hit another.
But what is extremely rare is a pitcher getting a triple in his debut in the show.
Sox closer Joel Hanrahan did just that July 28, 2007, while with the Nationals.
“I did the old take-a-first-pitch-strike as a [starting] pitcher against Mike Pelfrey against the Mets at old Shea Stadium,” Hanrahan says. “He was throwing 94-96 at that time, I think. I worked the count full, so I choked up a little bit. Basically I said to myself, ‘He’s going to throw me a fastball.’ I just closed my eyes and swung and I hit a line drive to left-center. I guess the center fielder was playing me to the right, playing me [opposite field]. I hit it good and I started running. And then I almost fell down between second and third. It was a good time.”
Jacoby Ellsbury was batting ninth in the lineup when he was introduced at Fenway Park June 30, 2007.
“It was a lifetime dream and I came up and got a nice fan ovation,” Ellsbury says.
The at-bat, against the Rangers’ Rob Tejeda, didn’t go as well.
“I swung, and it just went right in front of the plate,” Ellsbury says. “I can’t remember if it was a check swing or a swing, but I remember it not going very far and me getting tagged out. I thought it was foul. But anyways, I got a hit my next at-bat. All I knew is that my career was going to go up from there.’’
Sox manager John Farrell has some advice for the rookies striding to the plate, knees shaking.
“A guy comes to the big leagues because he’s earned it,” Farrell says. “We’re going to share this first experience with you. No reason to do anything different than what you’ve done. A lot of times young players think, ‘OK, now I’m in the big leagues, I’ve got to have more power, run faster.’ No, it’s a matter of maintaining the routine you’ve established and applying it here.”
Red Sox sports psychologist Bob Tewksbury says there’s only so much coaches can do.
“It’s like being a parent . . . there’s nothing you can say, and they’ve just got to do it,” Tewksbury says.
Looking back at the first time:
A look at how some members of the current Red Sox fared in their major league debuts:
|Player||Team||Year||Date||How he fared|
|David Ortiz||Twins||1997||Sept. 2||0-1 vs. Cubs|
|Shane Victorino||Padres||2003||April 2||0-0 vs. Giants|
|Jonny Gomes||Rays||2003||Sept. 12||2-3 vs. Yankees|
|Dustin Pedroia||Red Sox||2006||Aug. 22||1-3 vs. Angels|
|Mike Napoli||Angels||2006||May 4||1-4 (HR) vs. Tigers|
|Stephen Drew||Diamondbacks||2006||July 15||0-3 vs. Brewers|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia||Braves||2007||May 2||0-2 vs. Phillies|
|Joel Hanrahan||Nationals||2007||July 28||6 IP, 3 ER, ND vs. Mets|
|Jacoby Ellsbury||Red Sox||2007||June 30||1-4 vs. Rangers|
|Daniel Nava||Red Sox||2010||June 12||2-4 (GS) vs. Phillies|
|Ryan Lavarnway||Red Sox||2011||Aug. 18||0-4 vs. Royals|
|Jose Iglesias||Red Sox||2011||May 8||0-0 vs. Twins|
|Will Middlebrooks||Red Sox||2012||May 2||2-3 vs. Oakland|
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.