First Base of Last Resort
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 T-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; 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 lefthanded, and because in T-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 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 leftywho 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:
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, a move to first base, as you might guess from its position in the spectrum, carries a taint of decay, a connotation of demotion or compromise.