Standing on first base earlier this month at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, locked in conversation with Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz saw an opening to make a quick buck, and he wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass him by.
“I bet the first baseman that (Willians) Astudillo would swing at the first pitch five bucks — and I won,” Cruz said proudly with a laugh. “That was an easy one.”
Astudillo, as he often does, did indeed swing at the first pitch, grounding into a double play that wiped Cruz off the base paths, but not before he earned his teammate a small prize. No word yet on whether Mountcastle has paid up.
Look around during a baseball game and it’s common to find opponents standing side by side, chatting away — and often laughing together — on the bases. It’s most common, of course, at first base, where there’s the highest volume of traffic and the fielder is often hanging around close to the bag.
“Most of the guys over there are fairly communicative and enjoy a good laugh or whatever during the game and a little bit of interaction,” said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, a former first-base coach who said he enjoyed talking to players who came his way in that role. “Some don’t. It all depends on the first baseman more than anything else.”
What they’re talking about — and how much they’re talking — varies by the players involved, the game situation and a whole host of other factors, like their prior relationship, for example.
But one thing’s for certain: If you reach first base against the Twins, you’re very likely to be treated to some kind of conversation. That’s because the guy most often standing over there — Miguel Sanó, whose nickname is “Boqueton,” which roughly translates to “big mouth” — will talk to anyone and everyone.
“We’re talking a lot of different stuff. We’re talking about hitting. We’re talking about ourselves. We’re talking about stuff like family, about the game and stuff like that,” Sanó said. “There’s a lot of players when they get on first, they like to talk. That’s fun, talking to people on other teams.”
It helps that Sanó is bilingual, fluent in both Spanish and English, which allows him to have conversations with nearly everybody who stops by at first base. He even has been learning some Japanese lately — and is quick to rattle off the list of Japanese words he knows — with help from teammate Kenta Maeda, which allowed him to converse with Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani when the Twins played Los Angeles earlier this season.
Sanó jokes often with White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, who will sometimes get a playful shove, when the two see each other in a game.
“Anderson, I’m pushing a lot because when he came to the big leagues his first year, we have a good relationship and we’re talking a lot, making some jokes about the swing each other makes,” Sanó said. “(He says), ‘You’re … a big guy, big gorilla, you have so much power.’ Stuff like that. We’re talking about a lot of good stuff. We try to have some fun.”
First-base coach Tommy Watkins, who stands just a few feet from opposing first basemen all game, has developed different relationships with each of them over the years.
During the Yankees’ trip to town earlier in June, DJ LeMahieu proudly told Watkins about his daughter, his first child, who was born in late May. Watkins described White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu as a “super nice guy” who doesn’t always say too much but is always smiling. Carlos Santana, now with the Royals after years in Cleveland, often turns around and yells at Watkins to be quiet when the Twins coach is trying to give directions to a baserunner at second base.
And Athletics first baseman Matt Olson often tries to prevent Watkins from touching first base, as he likes to do, by straddling the bag. Watkins has now figured out how to get him to stop that, though.
“I tell him if he does that, he’s not going to get any hits,” Watkins jokes.
Twins shortstop Andrelton Simmons has always enjoyed his conversations with the Rangers’ Joey Gallo. Conversations he has on the bases can range from anything like asking a player about his family to complimenting his swing to talking a little politics.
“The good stuff is confidential,” Simmons said.
Luis Arraez likes seeing fellow Ranger Nate Lowe on the field. He speaks with everyone as a way to keep practicing his English, he said. Baldelli talked often with Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak. And former Twins star first baseman Justin Morneau remembers Kevin Millar and Sean Casey as being big talkers during their playing days.
“They’re still on TV talking,” quipped Morneau, who also has found a post-playing career talking on TV.
But there’s one opposing player whose name came up far more frequently than anybody else: Detroit Tigers veteran Miguel Cabrera.
A familiar foe
Over the course of a 162-game season, there’s plenty of time to get to know your division foes if you’re so inclined. And since he was shipped to Detroit ahead of the 2008 season, Cabrera has made himself well acquainted with all those around him.
After all, he’s had plenty of time to do so. Cabrera, in his 19th season, is closing in on 3,000 hits, has walked more than 1,000 times and has spent plenty of time manning first base himself.
And when he’s there, he’s talking. Constantly. Everybody, it seems, has a Cabrera story.
“Miguel Cabrera is just crazy. He’s usually not talking to me,” Watkins said. “He’s yelling in our dugout at somebody.”
That somebody is usually Astudillo — at least when he’s in the majors — who, like Sanó, often engages opposing players in conversation when he’s playing first. Cabrera and Astudillo’s conversations can be constant, with no let up between the two loquacious ballplayers.
Cruz, Sanó and Arraez each listed the future hall of famer as someone they speak to often.
As a kid growing up in Venezuela, Arraez watched and idolized Cabrera, who is 14 years his senior. So when Cabrera recently asked him how he hit the ball the opposite way, Arraez was both surprised and flattered.
“I look at him and say, ‘You’ve got like almost 3,000 hits. What are you asking me (for)?’ ” Arraez said.
'A little strategy'
It’s not all laughs at first base.
When Simmons gets on base, he goes through a checklist of things with Watkins, asking about the pitchers, how quick they are, what their pickoff move is like, as well as the outfielders and their arm strength.
It was during that time, when the runner was trying to talk to the first-base coach or pick up signs from the coach at third, that Morneau would try to gain a competitive advantage when he played first base.
“There were times when base stealers got over there … and guys I knew who could run and I would try to engage in conversation with them and try to maybe distract them a little bit,” Morneau said. “I would attempt to have a little more conversation with those guys even if I didn’t know them. There was maybe a little strategy involved in some of those conversations.”
He often would try to see if a guy would give away any information, something he could potentially pass along to the catcher, asking the runner what pitch he hit and what he had been looking for.
The move to first was a drastic change for Morneau, who was drafted as a catcher. Behind the plate, he was thinking through pitches and sequences. Once he shifted over to first, he found himself bored at times, with less to think about in between pitches.
And so he instead put his social skills to work, trying to help the team that way — and make a few new acquaintances along the way at “the most social position on the field.”
“At the end of the day, I think we’re all like a family,” Simmons said. “You want everybody to do good but you do want to win every game yourself. You want guys to stay healthy out there and just, you know, touch base, find out a little bit about their lives, see who I’m working with or against.”