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First basemen, the Gatekeepers
Continuing our tour of the positions on the baseball field, let’s consider first base: The Gatekeeper. First base is the traditional position where the sluggers are placed, although you can’t really say they can be “hidden”, as more outs are made at first base than anywhere else on the field (except for strikeouts). The first baseman must have at least a modicum of defensive skills, principally in the ability to catch the ball as thrown by the other fielders. To elevate performance above the norm, a good fielding first baseman must also be able to make accurate throws especially to second base and home, cover at least some ground around the bag and make the toss to the pitcher covering the base, and handle pop-ups especially in foul territory. Not nearly the defensive agenda of a middle infielder, catcher, or even a third baseman, but enough of a menu of plays so that a really bad first baseman, at least in the American League, becomes a Designated Hitter, and if in the National League, must greatly outperform on the offensive side of the ledger. Epically bad fielders at first base become like Dick Stuart, a slugger who toiled mostly for the Red Sox, Phillies and Pirates in the 1960’s who was known (after the movie) as “Dr. Strangeglove”; he set the record of 29 errors for a first baseman, which still stands.
Along with the catcher, the first baseman sports a mitt (the other players wear gloves); unlike the catcher, the first baseman is the one infielder who may be left-handed. Baseball is supremely about laterality, and favors the left-handed in almost all respects, except that a right-handed thrower can play any position, while a southpaw may only pitch, play first, or the outfield (there have been novelty acts like Mike Squires of the Chicago White Sox playing third base on a few occasions in the 1970’s).
Like catchers, first basemen are gregarious, frequently engaging their guests in conversation and small talk; and while most hitters regard the catcher’s attempts with disdain, almost everyone is happy to talk to the first baseman; after all, a measure of success in baseball is, in fact, attaining first base so why not be happy and communicative?
First and foremost, of course, first base is an offensive position, usually where teams put their top sluggers if not best hitters, the guys most likely to hit home runs and drive base runners home. The players near the top year in and year out for home runs, runs batted in and Most Valuable Player are pre-eminently first basemen. Since 2005 first basemen have been MVP’s of the National League every year except for 2007 when Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies won the award.
With twenty-five first basemen currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame, no position save pitchers can claim more. And let’s note the passing this week of Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame Harmon Killebrew, one of the notable sluggers of his generation and a fine exemplar of the first base position. During the later 1970’s “Killer” (no nick-name was more inaccurate!) was an announcer on Oakland Athletics TV broadcasts and he brought wisdom, insight and humor to the games.
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