Upon a runner’s arrival at first base, there’s no telling what will be said next.
The first baseman and the runner, in the closest proximity between two players outside of the batter and catcher, can choose not to say anything and focus completely on the game. Or they can chat. Most choose the latter.
“I guess the etiquette would be that you say, ‘Hey,’ and whatever happens from there happens,” Red Sox infielder Michael Chavis said.
Often, that means only small talk. A brief “hey” or “how’s it going” typically suffices for most players. But there are times when the conversation takes a turn. The small talk can be used as a small part of overall strategy. Or the small talk can turn into stories. These stories can then yield a connection.
Sometimes that bonding is not welcomed, though. Such was the case for Toronto first baseman Justin Smoak on May 29, 2018, in a game against the Red Sox. He didn’t realize just how well he would get to know Red Sox infielder Brock Holt when Holt walked to first.
Holt skipped the typical “what’s up?” and went straight to discussing the pitch that zinged his butt cheek.
He sarcastically asked Smoak if he thought the pitch was on purpose. Smoak said no with a similar sarcastic tone. Blue Jays reliever Danny Barnes had hit Holt on the first pitch to him after Red Sox pitchers nailed three Toronto batters earlier in the game.
Not sure that Smoak understood how much the pitch truly stung, Holt decided he needed a visual aid.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah. Whenever it bruises up, I will send you a picture,’ ” Holt recalled telling Smoak. “He goes, ‘Please don’t.’ A few days later, it started bruising up, and I knew it was a perfect ball. A dark, black bruise.”
Holt asked the strength coach to take a photo in the weight room. Teammate David Price gave him Smoak’s number. Then Holt sent the picture.
“I don’t think he wanted to get a picture of my butt cheek,” Holt said.
Smoak certainly had not forgotten the incident more than a year later, but he chose another conversation for his most memorable at first base: his chat with Derek Jeter. Smoak had recently entered the league when Jeter beat out a chopper to first, providing a young Smoak with the chance to chat with a baseball legend. The substance of the conversation didn’t matter to Smoak. Talking with Jeter was enough to classify the conversation as memorable.
Otherwise, Smoak tends to stick to small talk. He’s not alone. Red Sox first base coach Tom Goodwin, who has a first-hand view of these exchanges, said that neither Baltimore’s Trey Mancini, New York’s Luke Voit, nor Smoak are big talkers with baserunners.
Said Smoak, “I try to minimize it unless I at times think, depending on the situation, if they’re trying to steal second or trying to look at what signs guys are putting down to see if they can steal on certain pitches. So at times, I will maybe come up with something to get them off of what they are trying to do.”
Yes, there can be strategy in some of these conversations. Only some, though, may try to use it to distract. Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts doesn’t notice many first basemen trying to distract him because “they have to focus, too.”
Goodwin tries not to listen to what his baserunners and the first basemen are discussing. It’s of no consequence to him. He enjoys conversations with first basemen when it is just him standing next to the bag, but he leaves the players to their own discussions. The first basemen try to get into his conversations with the baserunners more than he tries to get into the conversation between the two players.
With first basemen within earshot, Goodwin sometimes will use code words to get the message across to the runner. For example, he said, he could use a word that starts with the letter R to communicate that a hit-and-run is on.
Goodwin is not opposed to his runners talking with the first baseman. In fact, it can be important.
“It’s funny, because you want them to do the same stuff they do if we have something on or if we don’t have something on,” Goodwin said. “So that the guy at first base doesn’t come to grips and say, ‘Uh oh, he didn’t talk to me this time. There must be something on.’
“It’s a little cat-and-mouse game, I would say, but it doesn’t stop guys from doing their jobs.”
Smoak called it a game within the game. Sometimes, he said, he reads into how chatty a baserunner is. But he can usually tell which guys are going to try to take a base and which are not anyway.
Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield is typically one of the guys trying to steal. He led the American League in stolen bases in 2017 and 2018. He always says hi when he arrives at first, but immediately his focus turns to stealing second. He never worries about changing his routine as a tell to the first baseman.
“Everyone knows I am trying to run anytime I get on,” Merrifield said.
He occasionally takes time for conversation, however. In one of the first moments in his big league career, Merrifield had the chance to chat with former Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer.
“He patted me on the butt and said, ‘Hey man, I like watching you play,’ ” Merrifield recalled. “That has really stuck with me. That was the first time I really felt like a big leaguer.
Conversations with veteran players are something that Chavis, a rookie, has enjoyed. He bonded with Seattle’s Daniel Vogelbach over a shared Christian faith.
Then in a conversation with Minnesota’s Nelson Cruz, Chavis walked away with a strong first impression after Cruz reached over and fixed the eye-black sticker Chavis was wearing.
Chavis has enjoyed these exchanges.
“Weirdly, I feel like it just keeps me relaxed,” Chavis said. “It’s a borderline thing where you have to be focused, but if I get too focused, I get tense.”
Mitch Moreland, the Red Sox’s primary first baseman, tends to take a different approach. He seldom expands brief greetings into full conversations. Unless the topic of hunting comes up.
Earlier this year, Tampa Bay rookie Nate Lowe rounded first, and Moreland, a fellow Mississippi State Bulldog, gave him a “Go Dawgs.”
“That’s right,” Lowe replied. Then Lowe bashed rival Ole Miss.
As the conversation continued, Lowe mentioned that he sat in the same spot where Moreland had hunted doves.
“It was kind of cool because it took me back home for a minute,” Moreland said. “That’s something I did for 20 years growing up, going to that spot. It was cool talking to him for a little bit.”
Moments after mentioning the dove hunting, Lowe took off.
With a ground ball in play, the conversation had to end. It was on to the next one for Moreland. Cue the brief greeting.
From there, there’s no telling where it may go.
Nick Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.