FORT MYERS, Fla. — The rookie steps into the batter’s box, his palms sweaty, his heart racing like a Justin Verlander fastball.
The odds of hitting a home run in a first major league at-bat are minuscule. There have been only 114 first-at-bat home runs since 1895, the year Babe Ruth was born.
But two current Red Sox players know the magic feeling. Daniel Nava hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues in 2010. Mike Napoli, then of the Angels, took American League Rookie of the Year Verlander deep in Detroit in 2006.
In the Red Sox clubhouse, remembering your first major league at-bat brings smiles. Men become boys again, if only for a moment.
“In the scope of things it’s insignificant,” says catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “But everyone remembers their first.”
Outfielder Jonny Gomes was a 22-year-old Devil Ray when he stepped into the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium Sept. 12, 2003.
“I remember everything,” says Gomes, who was initially scared because Yankee Stadium was “so big.”
But his fear quickly struck out.
“Once I stepped in the batter’s box it was like, ‘OK I’m right at home,’ ” he says.
“First pitch from David Wells, a big old curveball. I’m thinking like, ‘He’s got to know I have zero time in the big leagues, I’m wearing No. 60.”
Gomes guessed fastball.
“No way he throws a kid two curves in a row,” he says. “I’m sitting dead red, and I hit a stand-up double down the left-field line.”
Coaches know to call time and ask for the ball as a souvenir. Gomes still has it at home.
“I didn’t know what to do,” says Gomes. “Oh yeah, [Derek] Jeter gave me a tap on the butt and said, ‘Congrats.’ That was awesome.”
Shortstop Stephen Drew remembers having an accelerated heart rate during his first at-bat.
“It’s heart-pounding, for sure,” says Drew, who walked on a 3-2 pitch as a Diamondbacks rookie against the Brewers July 15, 2006, at Chase Field. “It’s unique and it’s special. You’re looking around and there are too many emotions. This is the elite of the elite, you want to have a good at-bat. Your dream is coming true.”
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway flied to deep center field against the Royals’ Luke Hochevar Aug. 18, 2011, at Kauffman Stadium. But that’s not what he remembers.
“In the minor leagues you have two [helmet flaps], and in the majors you only have one, so it felt like everybody was closer to me because I had nothing blocking my sensory perception on the right side of my face,” Lavarnway says. “It felt like everything was closer on my right side because I wasn’t used to the helmet.”
Outfielder Shane Victorino, then with San Diego, batted in the eighth inning against Dodgers reliever Paul Quantrill April 3, 2003, at Qualcomm Stadium.
“I definitely had a lot of adrenaline,” Victorino says. “I was just trying to put the bat on the ball, wasn’t trying to jack one. I knew he was a sinkerball pitcher and he threw me a ground ball. I hit it pretty good. [Adrian] Beltre made a nice diving play to his left, scooped it, picked it up, and threw me out from third.”
Rarer than rareVictorino was playing center field for the Phillies when Nava came up with the bases loaded in the second inning June 12, 2010, at Fenway Park.
Joe Blanton was on the mound. “First-pitch fastball,” says Victorino. “Trying to sneak the cheese past a rat. Bam! Right-center into the bullpen. I said, ‘Oh my God!’ ”
Nava was only the second player in major league history to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw.
He remembers being in Indianapolis with the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox the day before.
“We had a rain delay, I was just hanging out and Torey [Lovullo], our manager, said, ‘Hey, I got some good news, you’re going up to Boston but I don’t know if you’ll be activated.’ ”
When Nava arrived at Fenway, there was more good news.
“Tito [manager Terry Francona] called me in his office and said welcome and shook my hand and made me feel at home. And then he said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be starting in left, hitting ninth. We’ve got a great lineup so don’t feel like you’ve got to carry the load. Just go out there, have fun, and get a couple of knocks.’ ’’
Nava wasn’t worried about hitting, he was worried about The Wall. He immediately ran outside to practice fielding balls off the Green Monster.
“We didn’t take BP on the field because it was raining,” he says.
Veteran broadcaster Joe Castiglione had some advice for him. “He said, ‘You only get one first pitch, so you might as well be up there swinging.’ The gist was to make the most of the situation.”
The 5-foot-10-inch outfielder came to the plate in the second inning with the bases loaded and the Sox trailing, 2-1. He did what he always does.Continued...