Gene Collier: Playing first base falls between hard and easy

Last I saw Keith Hernandez, he was leaning toward Elaine Benes at the bar, nailing his portion of the Seinfeld script with customary grace:

“Elaine,” Keith says, “you don’t know the first thing about first base.”

“Well,” she replies, laughing, “I know something about getting to first base, and I know you’ll never be there.”

The producers didn’t need the best defensive first baseman in a lifetime to execute that little pitch and catch. I’m sure Pedro Alvarez could have done it, but in Pedro’s case, no one can match Elaine’s brand of certainty concerning first-base viability.

The Pirates continue to hint at it, and that continues to inspire all manner of opinions about the nature of the position, regardless of whether it’s a suitable destination for this particular failing third baseman.

Some people seem to think you can put a donkey at first base and stick a butterfly net in its mouth and you can navigate through nine innings without much difficulty.

Others think playing first base is a highly sophisticated process better compared in required skill with the design and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The truth, as we so often find, lies between.

Even within the industry, such polarization exists, at least in dramatic representation.

In the Oscar-nominated film “Moneyball,” Brad Pitt, as Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane, tries to convince elbow-ravaged catcher Scott Hatteberg to come back and play first base. Beane visits Hatteberg’s home with a veteran scout named Wash.

“I’ve only ever played catcher,” Hatteberg says. “The thing is … ”

“You don’t know how to play first base,” Beane says. “It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash.”

Wash: “It’s incredibly hard.”

The problem with all this discussion lies in a kind of unstated dichotomy. The fact is, it’s not all that hard to play first, but it’s incredibly hard to play it well.

The Pirates don’t expect Alvarez to walk across the diamond and be Keith Hernandez or Don Mattingly or Mark Grace, all of whom were downright balletic in their footwork, flawless at holding the runner and on cutoffs, and simultaneously aggressive and prudent with their positioning. At the same time, nobody wants to watch a modern-day version of Mo Vaughn or Marv Throneberry, much less a 21st-century return to the gory days of Dick Stuart, aka Dr. Strangeglove.

As it happens, an email arrived recently asking me if Alvarez’s play at third base was among the worst in Pirates history, worse than Richie Hebner’s, and, while I replied that I never saw Hebner on a regular basis at third, I did cover him in Philadelphia during a period that was fairly instructive relative to the Alvarez situation.

In 16 major league seasons, Hebner made as many as 20 errors only three times. Alvarez has done it twice in his first five seasons and has 24 with 6½ weeks left in the season.

The Phillies signed Hebner as a free agent for the 1977 season, a couple of months after they separated themselves from Dick Allen for the second time. They did not need Hebner to play third, as it was being handled pretty well by a guy named Schmidt, so they put him at first, and pretty much without incident.

Over the next two seasons, Hebner was the same reliable offensive player he was for the Pirates. He posted an OPS of .864 in 1977 and then .834 in 1978, helping Philadelphia to division titles both times, in no small part because it turned out he was an average first baseman.

Though he had given them nothing but solid play, Hebner was traded the following spring because the Phillies managed to sign mega-free agent Pete Rose. They had no place to put Rose, but Rose was Rose, and they found a place — first base.

Both Hebner and Rose benefitted from a full spring training making the transition to first. Because he was a kind of baseball savant, Rose made himself into an above-average first baseman, and soon demonstrated a working knowledge of the position’s demands and even its refinements. It wasn’t long before he was getting out calls on throws for which he actually cheated off the bag as he stretched for them. After an especially dramatic third out, he would even spike the ball before running to the dugout.

Of course, the Pirates aren’t looking for theater at the position. In fact, most days, it doesn’t even look like they’re insisting on competence.

But the reality is, while they’ve continued to discuss internally the potential merits of moving Alvarez, the defending National League home-run champ appears to have completed the stunning disconnect from his confidence at the plate.

Now a .229 hitter who hasn’t homered in more than month, Alvarez is a continuing mess in the batters box, his front shoulder flying open, his eyes ever convincing him he should chase terrible pitches, his menace basically a memory.

Ironically, that’s the one aspect of playing first base that hasn’t been mentioned in all this.

Ideally, first base is for hitters.

Gene Collier:

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