If you think of first base coaches as being kind of expendable, I don’t blame you. First base is the coaching position where a player gets sent if a team is down a coach for the day. It’s where the volunteer assistants get put in the college game, while the head coach or the top assistant mans third. It’s the place the A’s sent Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh when they want to have some fun and get him involved, but not, like, put him in the lineup, like they did with Will Ferrell. Heck, the Iowa Cubs once sent a chicken to coach first, and Matt Szczur subsequently got picked off. This was during an actual game!
Among the bases coached, first base is decidedly the least sexy. Think about how you see the positions portrayed in mass media: The guy at third base is giving signs, judging fly balls and deciding whether to hold or send guys and waving them home, his arm swinging like a windmill. The first base coach, meanwhile, is generally slapping guys on the butt when they get a hit and taking their batting gloves.
When the third base coach makes the news, it’s either praise for aggressiveness or skepticism for passivity. Think Mike Jirschele, for example, and his role in game seven of last year’s World Series. It often takes near tragedy for a first base coach to reach the public conversation, though.
Out of the current group of MLB managers, six were third base coaches before gaining their current jobs. Only John Gibbons of the Blue Jays went from first base coach directly to manager. The Nationals’ Matt Williams was also a first base coach, with the Diamondbacks, but he moved across the diamond before taking his current job. Former Astros manager Bo Porter was a third base coach with the Nationals before taking the job with the Astros, and he’s currently back at that post with the Braves. Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo was considered to be a candidate for the manager vacancy Mike Matheny eventually filled after Tony La Russa left.
Third base coaches are apparently higher on the coaching totem pole, and there isn’t really a logical reason for that arrangement. The first base coach, despite getting less camera time and apparently having lesser opportunity for career advancement, is an absolutely crucial part of a coaching staff, especially if a team relies on base running to impact the game. This Boston Globe article by Pete Abraham covers some of the misconceptions and duties behind the position.
We can go a bit further than that, though. Because much of my brief career has involved covering college baseball, I tend to turn to college coaches as sources. For this article, I looked to Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell, primarily because he’s one of the best college baseball coaches in the country. Since 2007, he’s taken the Cardinals to three College World Series and set a single-season Atlantic Coast Conference record for wins with 25 last year.
I didn’t know, however, that Louisville has been in the top five in Division I in stolen bases for the past three years. I didn’t know that when McDonnell coached first base for the 2009 Collegiate National Team, which stole 93 bases in 24 games, and only got caught 10 times. That’s more than the next two seasons’ totals combined.
“There’s guys who are more passionate and better than me in other areas,” McDonnell says. “But you talk about first base coaching, I’m telling you…”
I had the luck to get the ear of what might be the most ardent defender of first base coaching in the country, so I’ll let him convince you.
McDonnell doesn’t stand out there anymore, now that he’s running a program. He sits in the dugout with a bucket hat, zinc on his upper lip and a towel around his neck, fighting the southern sun that has baked him for years. He can concentrate on the game better, stay ahead of it, having his scouting reports and pitch charts on hand whenever he needs them. He can call signs just fine from the dugout.
But in his years at The Citadel and Ole Miss in the 1990s and early 2000s, first base was his domain, and he makes sure his coaches and players know it. In the first two practices of the fall, McDonnell will gather everybody around first base and have a talk about numbers, how the hits and errors and walks and hit batters and catchers interferences a team accrues in the season totals in the hundreds, maybe over 1,000. Offense starts at the plate, but first isn’t far behind. With a stopwatch and a keen eye, a first base coach can get the full book on an opposing pitcher, which is what really matters for the running game.
“If you’re going to be a great base running team, you’re going to be a great base runner, it’s going to start at first base,” McDonnell says. “It’s going to be because you know what to do off of first base.”
With that in mind, with first base being the hub of a team’s base running game and, by extension, its offense, why not put a head coach or top assistant at first? Why not stand at the base where, by simple probability, you’re going to see the most base runners?
As is the case with much of baseball, it’s simply a matter of tradition. The head coach probably runs the offense, giving the signs and communicating with the hitters, and he is theoretically closer to them at third base. (That only holds true for right-handed hitters, though.)
First base, though, is where you can really teach and reinforce a team’s base running tenets. If a slugger is up, a runner must be looking for—and be ready to go on—a breaking ball in the dirt. A guy has to have his head down and be taking a hard turn around second on a single. On a line drive, you freeze and find the ball. All those are things a player might forget because of game day nerves or simple inexperience and need a more experienced, even-keeled coach to remind him of.
And sometimes, a player just forgets a signs or never learns them. While at Ole Miss, McDonnell coached current Seattle Mariner Seth Smith. Smith was not with the team in the fall to learn the signs because he was a backup quarterback for the Rebels.
So when Smith reached base and was subjected to the team’s barrage of gestures—“They had so many signs, I swear to God I didn’t know all of them,” McDonnell says—he relied on the first base coach to help him out. There might be verbal signs, of saying a certain name or number. The coach might hold up a certain number of fingers. He might tap the runner’s shoulder a certain number of times. He might just whisper in his ear, because it’s not like the first baseman is listening that closely.
“Like, why are we tricking our own kids?” McDonnell says. “Everybody’s grandmother knows when you’re bunting, so if you want the kid to bunt, make sure he knows the bunt sign and keep it simple.”
If first base coaching ever wants a national spokesman, McDonnell is probably their guy. When a Cardinals’ player needs to take the position, they’re fighting for it. Speak to McDonnell, and you’ll come away believing most first base coaches deserve a raise or three. The current recipient of McDonnell’s knowledge and enthusiasm is Adam Vrabel, his volunteer assistant.
“He’s only been with me one year, so in one year he’s got the wrath of the most passionate first base coach in the country,” McDonnell says. “My goal is you have to get better, and you have to be the best first base coach in the country. You have to.”
Photo courtesy of Cody Wilcoxson of USA Baseball
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