"He's like that guy in Seinfeld, the close-talker. You think Casey’s going to lick your face."
— Phil Nevin, then with the San Diego Padres, on former Reds star and talkative first baseman Sean Casey’s demeanor (as reported in the San Diego Times Union).
It’s a combination of chat room, eBay and speaker’s corner, where distraction and lobbying the guy in charge for a break or two are the names of the game.
Down at the opening turn on a ball diamond, the first baseman, runner, umpire and first base coach come together to do a little chatting and maybe swap a shopping tip or two.
"Just think about it. Nothing can happen [in baseball] unless the base runner gets to first," says Bob Watson, who spent the bulk of his 19 big-league season playing first base, and whose resume also includes time as the GM of the Houston Astros and in the Commissioner’s Office as league sheriff, doling out punishment for on-field transgressions by players.
"It’s the most important base … and there’s a lot that goes on."
Mostly, there’s a lot of talking going on.
You’ve seen it a thousand times. Guy gets on, TV shows a close-up of the first baseman coming up behind and patting the runner on the rear or the leg with his big trapper and they chat away, smiling at something or other.
What are they talking about? Let’s ask Adam Lind.
"First of all, I never slap a guy on the butt," says the co-protector of the first left turn, with Edwin Encarnacion, on the Toronto Blue Jays.
That out of the way, he also points out he never actually starts the conversations, you understand, but once they get going he’ll contribute.
"It’s usually about the pitchers, their struggles, like ‘He really sucks right now,’ or we didn’t get in until 6 a.m. this morning, or just some small talk.
"The only time it’s a little deeper is if it’s a friend of mine, and we have a chance to catch up … ask them about the family, how the kids are."
Know a good place?
Lind is such a nice young man. Would never think of merely trying to distract a runner.
Tell 'em I sent you
Bob Watson didn’t play a long time in the American League, but it was enough to find out where the best deals were on clothes.
"I remember the umpires were very instrumental helping players in Toronto for years," said the 19-year first baseman. "The umpires had a nice hook-up with the Ralph Lauren distribution centre, and you could go over and get anything they were distributing in Canada."
Of course, this was back when players didn’t make quite as much as they do now.
"You could get it at wholesale prices and, with the Canadian dollar [low at the time compared to the U.S.] you could get a $60 shirt for $20 sometimes.
"The guy [at Lauren] was a big baseball fan and of course the umpires knew about it and you had to have a friendly conversation with the umpire to find out about it."
You want a nice shirt, no yelling about close plays.
Mike Carp, of the Boston Red Sox, holds no such qualms. You arrive in his office, he’s going to do whatever he can to get you chatting.
"That’s the idea … to keep guys focussed on me, and not what’s happening in the game," he said, dressing for a recent contest. "The more chance I can get to keep him off his heels, and keep him from peeking in at a sign [from the catcher] or maybe miss a sign [from the third base coach] that’s what I’m going to do."
Watson concurs. You talk, talk, talk, talk. Get an advantage.
Of course, if you’re going to talk, it might as well be about something interesting.
"[You talk] probably about anything or everything other than the game of baseball," he said, over the phone from Houston. "It can be purely social. Where’s a good place to eat in town? Where can I get a good suit of clothes? Where can I get shoes? That kind of thing.
"Very few times are you talking about baseball, unless you are praising the hitter’s pitcher, or praising your pitcher, but very few times baseball."
Watson told the Seattle Times Union a decade back that he once caught pitcher Jon Matlack (National League, natch) with one of those conversations when the hurler was a runner.
They got into a chat about the best place to purchase fashionable togs on the streets of New York when a wild pitch went through the catcher. Matlack was so focussed on telling Watson about good shirts that he didn’t notice, despite the first base coach screaming at him, he could take off for second.
What they don’t tend to talk about much, say the first basemen, is that cute girl in the front row. That’s movie stuff.
"All the years I played the game, guys were asking where to go from bars to restaurants, from clothing stores to shoe stores," said Watson. "Besides the Toronto thing [see sidebar], the best place was in Atlanta. There was a place where you could get shoes at a wholesale price, a place called Friedmans [Slogan: ‘Big size shoes for large feet’].
"You found that out through the umpires."
Arbiters have always, it seems, known where stuff was. They are also in charge, leading to the other key job for the first baseman down there — kissing up to the umpire.
"Oh, definitely," says Carp. "You try to acknowledge the umpire when you go out there. They are playing the game too, so, I mean, you try to keep them on your side as best you can without crossing the line."
Close calls can go your way.
He’s not sure he’d be too comfortable asking an umpire about clothing deals, however.
So who do you really like out there, Mike?
"Torii Hunter, when he was with the Angels and I was with the Mariners, playing a lot. He was kind of a joy to be around. You’d talk during the game," he says. "He was really an upbeat presence out there."
And who didn’t you like out there?
"I didn’t like [Jacoby] Ellsbury very much."
He said that as the aforementioned leadoff man, now a teammate, walked by.
They both grinned.
For Watson, a favourite was Willie Mays. The great Mays, who would come by and Say Hey. That was pretty cool.
And Maury Wills, the fabulous Los Angeles Dodgers base stealer who had 586 thefts in his career.
"You could not hear him coming to first base," says Watson, who added you could usually tell if it was time to really stretch for a throw by how close the onrushing spikes were.
Not with Wills.
"You could not hear him coming. Of course, he usually didn’t stay around first base long, either."
No time for a conversation.