The celebration following a first career hit is often as memorable as the hit itself
San Francisco Giants left fielder Connor Joe opened his rookie 2019 season in a horrible slump. One game, two games, three games, no hits. After the first 13 at-bats of his MLB career, the number under “hits” on his stat sheet still said zero.
All along, he tried not to get flustered as he fruitlessly pursued his first big league hit. He tried to stick with the same approach that had gotten him to the majors in the first place. Older players — guys who had been there, done that — encouraged him, told him to keep after it.
“There are a lot of veterans in this room who have a lot of experience, and for them to reach out to me at this time and during this opportunity is huge for me,” Joe told NBC Sports during the slump. “It shows that they care a lot about me, and they want the best for me and the best for the team.”
When he finally got that hit — a bloop single on April 6 that sparked a rally in a 6-4 win over Tampa Bay — those encouraging teammates exulted in the moment, with many of them raising their arms in the dugout in delight. Standing at first, Joe beamed a 1,000-watt smile, heated at least as much by relief as joy. His first big league hit! Finally!
There have been a thousand heartwarming stories about first hits — what the player overcame to reach the pinnacle of his profession, the dream fulfilled, what that moment meant to him and his family.
This is not one of them.
This is a story about what comes after — beer showers, pranks and other hijinks that welcome the rookie to the club.
Those encouraging Giants veterans, who had been so kind and gracious to Joe, gave him the full rookie treatment after he got his hit. First they doused him — Water? Gatorade? Whatever was in that big orange bucket? — during his live postgame TV interview. Then they threw him in a laundry cart, rolled it into the shower, and soaked him with beer, milk and who knows what else.
Pitcher Travis Bergen, who notched his first career win that day, got soaked by that same nasty mix right beside him because when it comes to silliness after milestones, baseball does not discriminate.
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Generally speaking, teammates and even opponents know when a guy gets his first hit, first win and first home run. Sometimes the scoreboard points it out, in case they don’t. Which is not to say those teammates always act like they know.
Richie Shaffer played parts of 2015 and 2016 with the Rays. His first hit was an opposite-field home run on Aug. 4, 2015. He smiled broadly as he rounded the bases and touched home plate. TV coverage showed his family celebrating in the stands.
At least somebody recognized the importance of the moment. As he descended the steps into the dugout, nobody greeted him. His teammates had gathered in a circle in an obvious and overstated ploy to completely ignore him. He recognized almost immediately what they were doing, so he played along. He mimicked walking through a tunnel of players (below), giving out ghost high fives to each side. He hugged and accepted congratulations from teammates who weren’t there.
When he had walked halfway across the dugout celebrating with imaginary friends, the circle of players giving him the silent treatment opened up and welcomed him in.
Usually, though, the congratulatory response is immediate and widespread.
Catcher John Hicks, who played for the Mariners and Tigers and was cut by Detroit after last season, says that after he got his first hit against the White Sox in 2015, even opponents congratulated him the next time they got to the plate. “We’re competing with each other, but there’s also a bond, like a fraternity of guys,” he says. “So few people get the opportunity to play in the big leagues that we’re happy for guys getting an opportunity to live their dream.”
The first hit is universally seen as the consummation of that dream, and that’s why there’s almost always a brief stoppage in play to retrieve the ball. The opponent often seems aware that the ball needs to be saved, and coaches and players usually holler, just in case, to make sure the ball makes its way into the dugout.
What happens to the ball once it gets there — well, that’s where things get interesting.
“We’re grown men playing a kid’s game, so we try to make things as fun as we can,” Hicks says. “Any time we can mess with a guy, we take full advantage of that.”
Stories abound of solemn post-game ceremonies in which the young and beaming player is gifted the ball. He looks down at it and sees writing. “That was nice of them,” he thinks. “They turned it from a ball into a keepsake already.” And then he looks closer. His name is misspelled, the date is wrong, the details are off. Worse, there are swear words all over it. He looks at what he thought was a prized possession and sees a piece of trash. “This was supposed to go in the center of my trophy room,” he thinks to himself. “I was going to show it to my kids, my grandkids, everybody. Now what am I going to do with it?”
He is confused. Disappointed. Maybe even mad.
Then he hears giggling. Then he hears guffaws. That’s not the real ball.
The real ball is pristine, maybe in a case already, and a professional calligrapher or some other skilled craftsman will commemorate it properly.
But at least he knows it’s the real ball. Sometimes, that real ball appears to be discarded right before his eyes.
Cubs infielder Nico Hoerner was a 22-year-old called up as an emergency fill-in with both Javy Baez and Addison Russell hurt during the thick of last season’s division race. The native Californian showed up in San Diego and started at shortstop against Padres pitcher Cal Quantrill, his former Stanford teammate.
In his first big league at bat, Hoerner quickly fell behind 0-2. Protecting the plate, he threw his hands at a low and outside breaking ball, made minimal contact and sent a looper to shallow right. It dropped between second baseman Greg Garcia and right fielder Josh Naylor for a clean, if rather unimpressive, base hit.
Naylor picked it up and threw it into the infield. Padres third baseman Manny Machado underhanded it toward the Cubs’ dugout.
Veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy was standing on the top step. As Hoerner looked on from first base, Lucroy caught the ball, turned around and threw it into the crowd — apparently.
His lifetime dream fulfilled, Hoerner watched as the singular memento of that lifetime dream disappeared into some random fan’s hands. He laughed with Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer in disbelief.
Ah, but he was right to disbelieve. Lucroy, a two-time All-Star, had tricked him. When Lucroy arrived at the top step to catch the ball Hoerner had hit, he had another ball in his hand behind his back. That’s the ball he threw into the crowd. He stuffed the real ball into his pocket, and after throwing the fake one, he immediately took the legit ball into the clubhouse for safekeeping.
“He pulled a little switch,” Hoerner, who went 3-for-5 with four RBIs in his MLB debut, said later. “I didn’t see it live. I was like, ‘Well, there goes the ball.’ I was still happy about the hit, but I was a little bummed about not having the ball. But I wasn’t going to say anything. He’s Jonathan Lucroy.”
AJ Reed’s first-hit experience was a meld of Joe’s and Hoerner’s. Then a first baseman for the Astros, Reed started his career 0-for-16 before singling to right. Teammate Jose Altuve jumped out of the dugout and called for the ball. He quickly handed it to someone else, caught a ball tossed to him by pitcher Doug Fister and threw that into the crowd. It was so seamless that you would have missed the exchange unless you were watching closely.
And the Astros weren’t done with Reed. After the game, they threw him into a laundry cart, rolled him into the shower, and doused him with beer, milk, ketchup, syrup, eggs and ice cream.
The beer shower, as it’s known, is perhaps even more common than the ol’ fake throw-the-ball-away trick. And it’s not limited to first hits. Jay Bruce got one after his 300th home run. Hicks jokes that Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera sets so many milestones he could have a beer shower almost weekly.
The Diamondbacks gave manager Torey Lovullo a beer shower after his 100th win, even though he had been ejected in the middle of the game. Last July 4, after Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was ejected, bench coach Oliver Marmol ran the game. St. Louis won, and players gave both Marmol and pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon beer showers to celebrate their respective first wins.
Last June, Shohei Ohtani, the pitcher/DH for the Angels, became the first Japanese MLB player to hit for the cycle, and to celebrate, the team gave him a beer shower, as they had after his first win and first hit. (They gave him the silent treatment after his first homer.) This time, they gave his interpreter a beer shower, too. Nobody, or at least nobody smart, fights the beer shower, because fighting is likely to make it worse. As gross as getting beer, milk, ketchup, syrup, eggs and ice cream dumped on you might sound, players love it because it shows they are part of the team.
Matt Magill debuted in the big leagues with the Dodgers at age 23 in 2013. But he didn’t get his first win and the beer shower that followed until May 11, 2018, when he was 28 and in his 11th professional season. “I knew what was going to possibly take place,” Magill told reporters afterward. “But until the beer hits you — you can’t really describe it. It’s incredible. This is what you dream of when you’re a kid — getting a win in a big league game.”
As ubiquitous as beer showers are, they are relatively unknown and usually garner only brief reporting. They are occasionally captured on a player’s social media accounts. But considering TV cameras capture everything else in the life of a team, the actual beer showers themselves don’t often get published. That’s because they only happen after wins, when there is bigger news to report — the win, the first hit, etc. Also, they happen where cameras rarely tread.
But one of the all-time great first hit pranks happened right in front of the cameras.
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In 2003, Chase Utley was a 24-year-old rookie trying to earn a roster spot with the Philadelphia Phillies. He split time between the big league club in Philadelphia and the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He struck out in his first at-bat in the fourth game of the major league season and did not get another at-bat in the major leagues until a few weeks later, in the Phillies’ 22nd game.
He came up with the bases loaded and his team holding a 2–0 lead against the Colorado Rockies. Facing Aaron Cook, Utley roped a low inside pitch over the right field wall. He sprinted around the bases and gave ferocious high fives to everyone between the plate and the dugout.
After the game, he was called into a meeting with then-manager Larry Bowa, then-general manager Ed Wade and John Kruk, a former Phillie working as a team broadcaster.
The encounter was captured on video. In it, Kruk, who ran the meeting, adopted a serious look. He held a clipboard and appeared to examine the paper on it. “As a 10-year major league vet, I’m a member of the major league baseball rules committee,” he told Utley, as Bowa and Wade looked on. “And we had some problems. They didn’t put you on the roster.”
Here Wade interjected to say there was a paperwork snafu related to a recent recall of Utley from Triple-A. At one point Wade blamed then-assistant general manager Ruben Amaro for the mistake. Somehow, Utley’s call-up from Scranton was never officially processed, and the penalty was severe.
“They’re going to fine the Phillies $250,000, and they’re going to have to forfeit every game that Chase has participated in this year,” Kruk said.
Left unstated was the obvious conclusion: If the game was forfeited, the grand slam wouldn’t count, and Utley would not have his first hit after all. Acting as if he was trying to help, Kruk asked Utley whether he drove from Scranton to Philadelphia. When Utley said he drove, Kruk suggested that could be a problem. He said major league baseball officials would want to see a plane ticket as proof that Utley didn’t just drive himself without actually being called up.
This was absurd, not least because Philadelphia is only a two-hour drive from Scranton. But Kruk sold it.
Then Kruk asked if Utley rented or owned where he lived in Scranton and where he was living in Philadelphia. He replied that he rented in Scranton and was living in a hotel in Philadelphia, both of which are answers that virtually every player in Utley’s situation would give. Kruk shook his head in disappointment, again acting as if the answers hurt Utley’s case.
Finally, he looked at Utley and said, “You know what the biggest problem with this is? Did you honestly think” — and when the word “think” left Kruk’s lips, Utley, who to that point had been looking to his left at Kruk, turned his head to face forward, and the expression on his face made it clear he knew he’d been had — “that major league baseball would make me a member of the rules committee?”
Utley stood up, swore, and started to storm out as Kruk burst into laughter. Utley stopped at the door. Kruk walked over, hugged him and said, “Welcome to the big leagues.”
— Written by Matt Crossman for Athlon Sports' 2020 MLB Preview.
(Top photo by AP)