Even Orioles first base coach Davey Lopes, known for his serious demeanor, seems amused at the reporter's inquiry:
"We're interested in doing a story on what the first base coach does."
Lopes smiles and very nearly chuckles, sort of goes "Hummmph," suggesting that this is probably the correct approach, preferable to: "The guys at the office can't fathom what the heck you first base coaches are up to out there."
Let's face it, of all the on-field jobs in the big leagues, this looks like one your brother-in-law the insurance broker could handle. Little pressure, not much to do. Stand out there, swing the arms a bit, clap a few times, pat a few butts and keep up the encouraging chatter. Baseball's version of a casino greeter: "Welcome to first base, I'm Davey, I'll be your coach this evening."
Not quite, say the men who ply the trade. None interviewed for this story claims to be the straw that stirs the drink, but each one says that there is more to the job than meets the eye.
There would have to be, of course.
"You're not just standing there," Lopes says. It only looks that way in comparison to the third base coach, the master of baseball semaphore who is usually seen flashing signs or waving his arms. The first base coach works more subtly.
"You just don't take for granted you're a helmet catcher," says Chicago White Sox first base coach Doug Mansolino. "There are other things you can do to help your ballclub."
For one thing, he gives information to the runner, who may arrive at first base in varying states of unknowing. He may know the number of outs and who's on base, as do the other 45,000 people in the ballpark, but may not have noticed the outfield alignment. He may have seen the alignment, but not know which outfielders possess strong arms. He may not know the pace of the pitcher's delivery to home plate, if the pitcher has a slide-step delivery, or the particulars of his move to first base.
Lopes' backup, Don Buford, former San Francisco Giants first base coach, says the coach acts as a "thorn in the side" of the runner. Much as your mother reminds you of things you probably already know: Watch out for the force play, freeze on a line drive, stay on the bag, don't get caught in a rundown.
Minnesota Twins first base coach Wayne Terwilliger says that if a pitcher throws a lot of breaking balls, particularly the split-fingered fastball, he reminds the runner to "look out for a ball in the dirt" and be ready to run.
"I'm trying to keep them thinking base running," says New York Yankees first base coach Brian Butterfield. "Sometimes, guys are struggling offensively and defensively. I don't want to say they don't care, but they're not as focused as they might be."
Some runners rely on the first base coach for statistics on the pitcher, which the coach may keep in his head or on paper.
Lopes keeps a little book in which he notes delivery speeds of vTC every American League pitcher, that is, the time that elapses between the pitcher's first move in the windup and the moment the ball hits the catcher's glove. Notice that when a runner reaches first base, the first base coach often pulls out a stopwatch to time the pitcher's delivery. The line is drawn at 1.3 seconds -- a delivery that fast or faster is considered difficult to steal against. At more than 1.5 seconds, says Lopes, "you walk to second base."
A few pitchers mentioned by the coaches as tough to run against: Tim Belcher, John Doherty, Terry Mulholland, Jimmy Key, Jack McDowell and Mark Langston.
Lopes, also a base running coach, is an authority on reading pitchers, having stolen 557 bases in a 16-year major-league career, putting him 14th all-time. His skill comes in handy at first, as he reminds the runner to shorten or lengthen the lead, or be aware of the first baseman moving in for a pickoff.
"You're his eyes and ears" when the first baseman is playing behind the runner, says Mansolino. Some first base coaches also back up the runner in spotting signals from the third base coach. If there's a running play on and the man at first misses the signal, he may turn to the first base coach for help in the form of a visual or verbal signal.
Having said this, the coaches agree that the prospective base-stealer who relies on signals from the first base coach, rather than his own instincts, is in trouble.
Asked how much help he gives Tim Raines, the No. 6 all-time base stealer, Mansolino says, "not much. I'm just there to give him the times. I'll basically tell him what he already knows."
And if a runner gets caught stealing, or tagged out in a rundown or while trying to tag up to second on a fly ball, the first base coach seldom if ever takes the blame. He's out in the sunshine but not the harsh media spotlight, removed from the controversy and second-guessing that often shadows the third base coach.
So, what's the worst thing that can happen out there?
"To get caught with the hidden-ball trick," says Mansolino, who never has had a runner picked off this way on his watch. "It's been tried."
"To me," says Terwilliger, 69, a 45-year veteran of professional baseball, "it would be to get hit in the [butt] with a hard foul ball. Because they'll say, "He's getting too old."
Terwilliger holds the distinction of being rated "best first base coach in the American League by USA Today" in 1991, according to the Twins' media guide. He has no idea what to make of this honor, except to speculate that the paper picked him either for the way he wears his uniform, for his unusual last name or because "I was older. The guy who's older must know something."
USA Today baseball editor Bob Velin says the recognition was given before he held his current job, and not since 1991. He can't figure it out, either. Asked how one could rate first base coaches, Velin responded with a verbal shrug:
"I would find it difficult to do, other than how they pat the guys on the butt when they come to first base."