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.”