Stealing first is a fun idea, not much more

Stealing first base might never become a thing in the big leagues, but you can currently do it in the Atlantic League. (Getty Images)
Stealing first base might never become a thing in the big leagues, but you can currently do it in the Atlantic League. (Getty Images)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — A 33-year-old outfielder for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the independent Atlantic League on Saturday surrendered his at-bat after a single pitch for the good of the club, for 90 feet in a one-run game against the Lancaster Barnstormers.

Tony Thomas, born in New Orleans, drafted 12 years ago by the Chicago Cubs out of Florida State, a veteran now of four Indy ball seasons and a couple winters in Mexico, stole first base.

He is a .229 hitter with a .285 on-base percentage in a league nobody wants to be in and is ever grateful for. A man does not, generally, cede at-bats his way out of Indy ball. He hits his way out of Indy ball. Or he does not.

And, yet, on ball one in the sixth inning of that one-run game between the third- and fourth-place teams in the Freedom Division of the Atlantic League, on a pitch that skittered past everyone, Tony Thomas bolted for first base. He reached without a throw and therefore stole a base that only a few seemed aware was steal-able and would be scored as a fielder’s choice, and had his batting average fall a little more. This is how heroes are made in Waldorf, Maryland.

“I knew,” Thomas told a team reporter, “at that time of the game we needed baserunners.”

The eight-team Atlantic League is where Major League Baseball sends its ideas, its whims, its wouldn’t-it-be-funny-ifs. It’s where the robot umps are, where defensive shifts are not. It’s where, one day, the pitcher will be asked to step back two feet and throw from there.

Rick White is the president of the Atlantic League and has a very good attitude about all this.

“We know not everything we’re working on is getting to the major leagues,” he said Monday afternoon.

But, he said, the league is prideful of its part in influencing the direction of the game, even if umpires are told when to raise their arms for a strike, even if some dude is racing to first base on ball one, and perhaps especially so. Because curiosity — even the morbid kind — means eyeballs, and that — relevance — is what the league desires for its players, managers, coaches and umpires. It’s good baseball and smart baseball being played and coached and umpired by men overlooked or on the fringes or holding on. The league sells itself on opportunity, sometimes the last of those, which probably is why Tony Thomas went out to win a game on Saturday and so began a conversation about just how weird baseball is willing to get.

The answer, about as far as you can get from the big leagues and still be a professional player in the United States, is steal-first-base weird.

The rule is, the batter/baserunner may steal first base on any pitch not caught in flight. Basically, it’s the dropped-third-strike rule widened to seatbelt-extender size. The defensive play at first base is a force. The batter must have both feet out of the batter’s box and have made an affirmative move toward first to be considered in the act of stealing the base. This is the umpire’s judgment. Any runners on base are at that point in play as well, meaning, for example, an existing runner at first may be forced out at second base. Also, the batter/baserunner must commit before the first defensive player fields the ball.

A successful steal of first base is, again, recorded as a fielder’s choice, so as an out, with no stolen base awarded. It is, therefore, a selfless act, not unlike chopping a two-hopper to the second baseman with none out and a runner at second base, which is worth a few half-hearted high fives and an uncomfortable turn in the arbitration hearing.

“It is absolutely a work in progress,” White said. “The context of all of this is testing the rule.”

They’ll give it a go. People will give it a chance or hate it and write letters to White asking why he’s so determined to ruin the game.

“I respect both views,” he said. “And at the end of the discussion, we are obligated to honor MLB. We knew what we were signing up for when we partnered with them.”

The journey from MLB’s competition committee to the Atlantic League to the minor leagues to Yankee Stadium is a long one and littered with various other weirdness. Still, it seemed worthy of a lap around a couple big-league clubhouses in the meantime, because nobody ever likes change, especially change that counts batting average among its casualties.

The sticking point seemed to be the at-bat left undone. Especially in 2019, when even ordinary at-bats end up with the baseball in the bleachers.

“But I might get a hit!” Albert Pujols said, incredulous at the question. “That’s impossible. No.”

Then, over his shoulder, he laughed and added, “Call me selfish then!”

Asked if he could think of a scenario in which he would bail on an at-bat and attempt to steal first base, Los Angeles Angels infielder David Fletcher gave it some thought and said, “Every time. If I knew I could make it, every time.”

He gave it some more thought and added, “Never. No. Never. Ah, I don’t know.”

Said Tommy La Stella: “It’s so strange because you’re forfeiting an at-bat. You’d think if they are encouraging team offense, they wouldn’t penalize you. Maybe if they could do something that is stat neutral.”

Tyler White of the Houston Astros went immediately to a hitter’s worst scenario, which sounded like a two-strike count against a lock-down closer in a one-run game.

“Then,” he said with a smile, “maybe you run.”

Oh, and in the postseason.

“When you get to the playoffs and the stats don’t matter,” he said, “you’re going. Then again, in this situation, you want the World Series to be decided on one mix-up pitch?”

Astros manager A.J. Hinch was on the fence. On one side, it could be the worst idea baseball has ever had. On the other, it definitely is the worst idea baseball has ever had.

While granting, “I hit ninth, so I woulda had to,” the very notion of batters running out ball twos seemed to him foolish.

“That doesn’t feel like baseball,” he said. “I hope it never comes.”

It almost certainly won’t, of course. But, it’s interesting to think about …

“I don’t think it’s interesting at all,” Hinch said.

Anyway.

If nothing else, there was a day once in the middle of a summer in which Tony Thomas stole first base and helped win a baseball game while a lot of people stood around and wondered what the heck Tony Thomas was doing. And the fact was, he was playing by the rules.

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