Introducing the 1ABHR Club, Part II: Let’s Go to the Videotape!

Al Woods is hardly a household name, but know this: Among members of the 1ABHR Club, reserved for those who go yard in their first big league at-bat (see Part I), he is the first to have his debut tater appear on YouTube.

Unwittingly, Woods introduced us to a time when we can relive both the visual drama and the verbal banality produced by the first-AB dinger. Before the cliches take hold, though, there is always the pioneering moment, wholly original and unspoiled by the triteness it fathers. This was — and is — Woods’ dinger on April 7, 1977. Not only was it Woods’ debut. Not only was it Opening Day for his Blue Jays. It was the first game the Jays ever played.

Roll tape: With Toronto leading the White Sox, 5-4, in the sixth, pinch-hitter Woods has worked the count to 1-and-2 against starter Francisco Barrios.

Crack!

Announcer: “Hit hard! Right field!”

Back goes Richie Zisk, to a wall made of blue trash bags.

Announcer: “Home run!”

The 22-second clip immediately jumps to Woods’ crossing home plate. Soon thereafter it ends, unceremoniously, with no hint of the hokum that will characterize the clips of many of his 1ABHR descendants. There is no mention of his getting the ball back, no camera shot of family and friends high-fiving. There is no silent treatment, no curtain call.

There’s no “Can you believe it?!”

The date: September 8, 1998, Veterans Stadium.

With his Phillies leading the Mets, 12-3, in the seventh, Marlon Anderson steps into the box for his first big league at-bat. Facing reliever Mel Rojas, he has worked the count to 2-2 when Rojas leaves a hanger in his wheelhouse.

Half a minute hence, a Phillies coach has the ball in hand.

Announcer: “That ball’s gonna be valuable to this young man.”

It will be a recurring theme.

Announcer: “Welcome to the big leagues, kid!”

It will be a recurring theme.

In the seasons to follow, no fewer than nine players — Alex Cabrera, David Matranga, Jeremy Hermida, Mike Napoli, Jason Heyward, Starlin Castro, Jurickson Profar, Jorge Soler and Tyler Austin — will have their 1ABHR moments anointed with “Welcome to the big leagues!” or some variation.

Not to be outdone, at least 12 — Dave Eiland, Esteban Yan 얀, Mark Worrell, Luke Hughes, Tommy Milone, Brett Pill 필, Starling Marte, Eddie Rosario, Daniel Norris, Willson Contreras and Aaron Judge — will have their initiations commemorated with “Unbelievable!” or “Can you believe it?!”

There is also this: “Are you kidding me?!”

And its declarative cousin: “You have got to be kidding me!”

Among the honorees are Lou Montanez, Daniel Nava and Starling Marte. Nava probably deserved it most. Out of high school, he went without a scholarship. As a college walk-on, he got cut. As a pro, he was acquired by Boston for $1 from an independent team. Now here he was, at Fenway, belting a grand slam on the first pitch.

Announcer: “You have got to be kidding me!”

For his part, Jeremy Hermida hit the daily double by becoming the subject of both “You have got to be kidding!” and “Welcome to the big leagues!” Then again, why not? On August 31, 2005, Hermida became the second player — and first in 107 years — to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat.

A year removed from Hermida’s daily double, Mike Napoli hit the trifecta. Upon clubbing a Justin Verlander curveball over the leftfield fence at Comerica Park, Napoli became the subject of these pronouncements:

“Can you believe this?!”

“Welcome to the big leagues!”

“Are you kidding me?!”

That said — and said often — not every in-booth utterance is an after-the-fact application of the Thesaurus of Broadcasting Boilerplate. At times, delivered before the fact, the words prove prophetic. On June 9, 1999, Expos reliever Guillermo Mota stepped to the plate to face Boston reliever Mark Guthrie. Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 240 pounds, Mota cut an imposing figure. Then again, lots of pitchers look imposing — until they unleash their cartoonish swings. But Mota, as the video proves, was no cartoon.

Announcer: “In ’94 he hit .307 as a shortstop in the Instructional League. He’s done some things with the bat. First time up in the big leagues. Here’s the 1-1 pitch.”

Crack!

In comparable fashion came Gene Stechschulte’s 2001 initiation. With his team trailing the Diamondbacks, 15-1, the Cardinals reliever got the nod.

Announcer: “Here’s Gene Stechschulte, former position player.”

Crack!

Then there are actual position players. A September call-up, Miguel Olivo dug in for his first at-bat on September 15, 2002. Roll tape: Just as Yankees starter Andy Pettitte enters his wind-up, the announcer says of the 24-year-old White Sox catcher: “He’s hit for some power in the minor leagues.”

Crack!

Suddenly, he’s hit for some power in the major leagues.

Like Eddy Rodriguez, Gerardo Parra debuted against Johnny Cueto.

Announcer: “He just looks hitter-ish, doesn’t he?”

Crack!

And let’s not forget Napoli.

Announcer: “Of all the catchers in the Angels minor league system, this young man has the most power.”

Guess what sound comes next.

By contrast, other utterances are less prophetic than ironic.

Witness the time Marcus Thames joined the club. It came in 2002, at Yankee Stadium, when he stepped in against a notoriously intimidating fireballer.

Announcer: “He did not hit well at all at Columbus, down in the .220s, but with the injury to Juan Rivera … he gets a chance to play for the Yanks. And here he is against” — drumroll, please — “Randy Johnson.”

Thames hits the first pitch into the Yankees monuments.

You might say you couldn’t have written a better script.

Yankees skipper Joe Torre did say it. Speaking to reporters after Thames’ blast, he said, as if scripted, “You couldn’t have written a better script.”

That said, lots of people have said it.

Take Steve Busby. Following Jurickson Profar’s initiation, in 2012, the Rangers play-by-play man said not only, “Welcome to the big leagues, Jurickson Profar!” but also, “You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

Following his own initiation, in 1993, Marlins catcher Mitch Lyden did the job himself, telling reporters, “I couldn’t have scripted it any better.” In a way, he was right. First, he was batting behind Junior Felix 펠릭스, who, four years earlier, had joined the 1ABHR Club by homering on his first pitch. Second, he was playing at fabled Wrigley Field. In another way, he was wrong. Lyden would play only five more games in the major leagues. His first homer was his last.

You could write a better script.

The great irony of the 1ABHR Club is that guys like Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds aren’t members but guys like Mitch Lyden and Hoyt Wilhelm are. Indeed, among the top 350 home run hitters, only Earl Averill is a club member. And Averill is way down the list, tied with Ray Lankford in the 261st spot with 238 dingers.

If you follow baseball, the reason for the irony is obvious. The reason is baseball. In the ultimate small-sample-size sport, a single at-bat is perhaps the smallest sample of all. Anything can happen in that one small sample, even a big home run, and any at-bat can be isolated anywhere along the at-bat timeline, from, say, Paul Gillespie’s first to Paul Gillespie’s last.

Gillespie is one of just two major leaguers to homer in each of his first and last at-bats. The other is John Miller, who homered first and last but not in between: two seasons, 61 at-bats, two home runs. In comparison to many other members, however, Miller was positively prolific. Among the 107 members who are no longer active, 20 never hit another round-tripper.

Eight were pitchers: Bill LeFebvre, Dan Bankhead, Don Rose, Jose Sosa, Dave Eiland, Esteban Yan, Gene Stechschulte and Hoyt Wilhelm, who joins Earl Averill in the Hall of Fame wing of the 1ABHR Club. That’s right: Only two Cooperstown members are club members. And one is not only a pitcher but one of the worst-hitting hurlers in history. Nicknamed Old Folks, the knuckleballer would finish his career with a line of .088/.139/.106. Yet somehow, in the first of his 432 at-bats, he went yard.

It came on April 23, 1952, at the Polo Grounds, when he hit an opposite-fielder over the right field fence to give the Giants a 7-3 lead. Following that improbable blast, he would whiff in 39% of his at-bats.

Wilhelm’s is likely the unlikeliest of the many unlikely homers represented by the 1ABHR Club. One such homer came in 1922, when 27-year-old Pirates rookie Walter Mueller took the field at Cubs Park for his major league debut. Of course, that debut could have come at home. Not only had Mueller sat on the bench for the season’s first three weeks, but Pennsylvania at that time enforced a blue law that prohibited baseball on Sundays.

And so, strangely, the Pirates had interrupted what would have been a three-game homestand to play the third game in Chicago. Making matters weirder for Mueller was that in his first at-bat, he faced future Hall of Famer Pete Alexander. As intimidating as that might have been, Mueller hit Alexander’s first pitch for a three-run inside-the-park homer.

Except that he didn’t, statistically. The following day, the box score credited Mueller’s blast to “C. Rohwer.” To begin the season, the Pirates had rostered an infielder named Claude Rohwer. Though Rohwer had been returned to the minors, his name had remained. And so, in a sense, Rohwer had homered in his first big league at-bat without taking the usual step of getting a big league at-bat.

These days, proof of performance is easier to come by. A click of the keyboard is all that’s needed to deliver the truths of the game. It’s a shame that it took years for Mueller to get credit for his homer. It’s also a shame that Mueller’s homer, like those of the 51 other members whose achievements predate Al Woods’, are not archived on YouTube or any other visual medium. Absent from our consciousness, then, are all the “Welcome to the big leagues!” banalities that grow so tiresome when lined up one after another, yet absent, too, are the moments so dramatic that they leave even seasoned announcers with little in their lexicon but those same banalities.

Un-be-lievable!” shouts Twins play-by-play man Dick Bremer when rookie Eddie Rosario goes deep on May 6, 2015. “Absolutely unbelievable!”

If you’ve seen enough of these things, as I have, it’s not unbelievable at all. True, Rosario’s dinger did come on the first pitch he saw in the majors, but so have the homers of 29 other members. It happens. Still, if you’re a member of Rosario’s family, jumping around and trying to steady your iPhone, it happens just once. And it’s unbelievable.

“A dream come true,” says Eddie Sr. in a TV interview.

At moments like this, it seems that only cliche can … do it justice? To search for fresh phrases is to waste time in acknowledging what we have witnessed. And we witness it fast. Video captures the authenticity of reactions because the moment unfolds too quickly for staging. Witness Brandon Guyer’s retinue as they witness his initiation. A dozen people are seated in the family and friends section. Four point their phones toward home plate as Guyer steps in against Baltimore’s Zach Britton.

Crack!

They immediately jump to their feet, eyes fixed on the trajectory as if the next few moments will determine the fate of humankind. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends … they stare, each with a forward lean that suggests body language exerts an influence on flight. And though it happens swiftly, it unfolds in a reliable sequence: the rising, the widening of the eyes, the curling of the lips, the arching of the brows and then, just as the ball clears the wall, many celebrations are one celebration.

Other reactions are just as unrehearsed. Witness Don Zimmer, the Yankees coach, giggling uncontrollably following Marcus Thames’ home run. Witness pitchers in the Nationals bullpen leaping about as if they’ve won the lottery — which, in a way, teammate Tommy Milone just has, the pitcher having stroked a homer in his first at-bat. Ten seasons in, it is still his only blast.

There are also the reactions of the newly anointed members themselves. Freshly arrived in the big leagues, most are beholden to old-school dogma that demands a stoic bearing as they round the bases. But darned if most don’t break into a shy smile as they round second base or touch home plate. Witness Brett Pill’s grin as he rounds second base, and as he nears home plate, and as he approaches the dugout where his joyous teammates wait.

Not all teammates are joyous — not right away. Some respond with the silent treatment. Witness John Hester’s August 28, 2009 arrival in the D-backs dugout, where he is met with little but a bat rack. Then, suddenly, Miguel Montero leads a contingent of happy teammates who push Hester out for an equally hackneyed but still heartwarming tradition: the curtain call.

Plenty of other club members — among them Guillermo Mota, Alex Cabrera, Marcus Thames, Tommy Milone, Eddie Rosario and Willson Contreras — have received curtain calls. Players who join the club at home are fortunate. Not only do they get a homerish homer call in the booth, they also get a happy reaction from partisan fans.

Another happy reaction is the one that greeted Marlon Anderson: the getting back the ball. Short of visiting trophy rooms and memorabilia shops, we can’t know if pre-video members got back their home run balls. Even in the video era, many clips are absent or so severely edited that we have no way of knowing if the ball ended up in their hands.

In other cases, thanks to video, we do know. On July 4, 2000, 27-year-old Cardinals rookie Keith McDonald stepped to the plate at Busch Stadium for his first plate appearance. A 24th-round pick in the 1994 draft, McDonald had labored for seven years in the Cards minor league system before getting the call-up. Half a minute after he hit it, the ball came rolling into the dugout.

Announcer: “Now McDonald will have that ball with him forever.”

Brett Pill got his back, too, but not without drama. Unlike McDonald, he hit his on the road, where fans might not be in such a generous mood. Luckily, however, the ball hit the left field facing at Petco Park and caromed onto the field. Unluckily, Padres left fielder Kyle Blanks picked it up and tossed it into the stands. “Luckily,” Pill said later, “he threw it to some Giants fans.”

Minnesota’s Luke Hughes endured even more drama. Having pounded a Max Scherzer pitch into the seats at Comerica Park, Hughes looked on as a displeased Detroit fan threw the ball onto the field. It seemed he would get his souvenir. But wait! Right fielder Magglio Ordonez retrieved the ball and tossed it into the stands. Then, alerted to the ball’s importance, Ordonez asked for it back. A child returned it to him, and Ordonez tossed it to the dugout.

Then there’s Charlton Jimerson. On September 4, 2006, the 25-year-old Jimerson was called on to pinch hit for Astros starter Roger Clemens with two outs in the top of the sixth at Citizens Bank Park. On the mound for the Phillies: Cole Hamels. Not only was he holding a 1-0 lead, he was pitching a perfect game.

Announcer: “Hamels has retired the first 17. Pitch on the way.”

Crack!

Beyond the 409 sign, it lands among suddenly sullen fans.

Announcer: “And he might get the baseball back because the Philadelphia fans have thrown it back onto the field.”

One assumes they weren’t being generous.

One also assumes that Eddy Rodriguez, upon clocking a Johnny Cueto slider into the Cincinnati seats on Aug. 2, 2012, didn’t care one way or the other about the fans’ motives after they tossed his home run ball to the field.

Announcer: “And that’s a gift for the Padres because they want to give that to Eddy Rodriguez.”

One assumes, too, that the Padres did give it to Rodriguez, and that he kept it. He would play just one more big league game. In it, he would go hitless. And so that ball embodies his one hit, his one home run, his welcome to the club.

We hoped you liked reading Introducing the 1ABHR Club, Part II: Let’s Go to the Videotape! by John Paschal!

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John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.

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That’s Dick Bremer, not Cory Provus, on the call for Eddie Rosario.

This is a great series of articles. More of this kind of thing, please.