Nationals, other players find something to talk about on the base paths

August 23, 2012

The baseball season is arduously long, and players spend countless hours standing on or near the bases. There are millions of snippets of time between plays, pitches and pitching changes. So, to pass the time and catch up with friends, players talk. A lot.

The bases are baseball’s equivalent of an office water cooler. There’s a protocol of how and when to talk. It’s mostly friendly, but there are elements of strategy. And while a major league rule suggests that players in uniform shouldn’t fraternize, chatting between opponents is common practice. Players have crossed paths somehow, as teammates, rivals or in the minor leagues.

“It’s a fraternity, man,” Atlanta Braves utility man Eric Hinske said. “You’re in the big leagues. Everybody is cordial, unless you get in a bench-clearing brawl. We’re all human. We’re out there having fun.”

The conversations are mostly small talk: How is the family? How are you doing? What are you doing in the offseason? How are the fans this season? Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche and Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, close friends and former teammates, always talk about hunting while on the bases. When Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond comes across a face he remembers from his time in the minor leagues, he offers encouragement: Happy to see you here and keep it up.

“Most players will at least say hi,” Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa said.

“You’re talking to a guy that’s been around so I pretty much know everybody,” Jones said. “I can strike up a conversation with just about anybody out there.”

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman are known as polite. Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips is chatty. Kevin Millar, now retired, and White Sox first baseman Adam Dunn, a former National, crack jokes. New York Mets third baseman David Wright likes to talk baseball, balls and strikes. Even with bitter division rivals, players say small talk still occurs.

“We’re not fighting rivals,” Nationals first baseman Tyler Moore said. “We want to win but they’re cool on the field and off.”

There are small courtesies. If a player gets a hit or works a pitcher for a walk, it’s within understood etiquette to compliment him. It’s also okay to tell the opponent how clean the hit was or if it was a borderline error. But if the hit put the opposing team up or it’s a close game, players don’t often talk. They also do not share batting tips.

Not all players are approachable. Two-time all-star Darin Erstad, who won a World Series with the 2002 Anaheim Angels, was known to never utter a word when on the bases. Jeff Kent, a five-time all-star and 2000 National League MVP, was the same way.

Even rookies find most opponents generally friendly. There is generally a basic level of conversation that newbies can have: the stadium, the fans or maybe hitting. But being new to the majors can provide some lonely moments at first base.

“I’ve only played like four games over there and half the time I get over there I don’t know anybody,” quipped Moore, a rookie.

It’s a delicate dance, too. Early in his career, Nationals utility man Mark DeRosa met Barry Bonds on the bases. At that point, Bonds was a multiple National League MVP award winner with the Giants and DeRosa was a young player for the Braves who was nervous to open his mouth.

“ ‘What’s up Bar? How you doing?’ ” DeRosa recalled saying. “And hopefully you get a response.”

Bonds complimented DeRosa, as did Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., when DeRosa started the conversation: “You’re playing a good game. Keep on grinding.”

Bonds, however, also tested DeRosa. “He was asking me where pitches were on him, trying to feel me out and see if I would lie to him or not. . . . You have to be [honest]. I told him it was strike three.”

It’s not all just light and breezy. There is, in fact, an element of strategy to it. For some players, such as Desmond, a keen observer of pitchers’ and players’ mannerisms, chatting with opponents even briefly gives him clues into their mood.

Between plays, Desmond will occasionally chat with an opposing player, starting with an innocuous “Hey, what’s up, man?” From there, Desmond’s ears are perked.

“I kind of feel them out a little bit,” he said. “Know where their head’s at. If they’re really focused, I know that’s a guy we’ve got to watch out for.”

At times, it can even distract the opponent between pitches or slow them down by a hair, Desmond said. And if they’re stealing third base, an inch can make a difference.

Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, one of the league’s most prolific base-stealers, also has a friendly, Texas-raised personality. But even he notices opponents sometimes chatting him up in the hopes of distracting him as he gears up to steal a base.

“I’m just like, ‘I hear ya talking,’ but once I get off the base, no talking,” he said. “I will but I’m probably not going on that pitch then.”

Although it’s common practice, there’s a long-standing regulation in MLB’s rule book that suggests friendliness between players on the field isn’t allowed. The last sentence in rule 3.09 reads: “Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform.”

An MLB spokesman said the league made the rule a point of emphasis to managers during spring training. The league isn’t focused on the interactions on the base paths, only such things as bear hugs between players or extended jovial conversations between them when the stadium gates are open.

“We need to update that,” said Harold Reynolds, a two-time all-star and MLB Network analyst who said he received some of the best advice in his career from Reggie Jackson and Frank White during conversations on the bases. “I think the world has changed so much since the rule book was written.

“When I first got to the big leagues, a National League player in the all-star game didn’t even talk to an American League player. You never saw them. You never played interleague play.”

At the heart of the practice is a basic question of sportsmanship: Doesn’t it look a little strange to see opponents yukking it up on the bases during the games?

“I think in people’s minds that means you’re not focused on the game, or not really wanting to beat this team,” LaRoche said. “If you play every day that couldn’t be further from the truth. You can separate the two. When I’m facing Tim Hudson, and he gets on first, we’re going to be joking around together. He’s a friend of mine. That doesn’t mean that when I come to the plate the next at-bat, that he’s going to take it easy on me or I’m not going to be serious. We know when it’s time that we got a job to do. . . .

“We’re lucky enough to play a game for a living, so I think we should enjoy every second of it.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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