Musings: Michael Chavis's Debut To Remember

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

MICHAEL CHAVIS’S DEBUT TO REMEMBER

It was the ninth inning of a tense game between the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays on

a recent night; the score was tied, 5 to 5, after the Sox had squandered a 5-0 lead; Jackie

Bradley Jr. was on first base; the public address announcer at the dump otherwise known

as Tropicana Field announced a pinch hitter for the Red Sox; “Now batting for Boston,

and making his major league debut, number twenty-three, Michael Chavis.”

Who?

Chavis, newly arrived with the Sox after being called up from Pawtucket, was coming to

bat for the first time as a big leaguer. His name hadn’t even been printed yet in the Rays’

programs and most people in the the dump - er, ballpark – who did not follow the Red

Sox closely had no idea who he was. They’d know soon enough.

With the count at 2 and 2, Rays reliever Jose Alvarado, who had struck out Chavis in a

spring training game a month earlier, unleashed a 99 mile an hour sinking fastball, down

and in. Chavis was ready. He lashed a screaming line drive to center, directly at

centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. That’s when things got interesting.

Kiermaier is a defender with uncommon grace and speed; he is the winner of two Gold

Gloves, plus a Platinum Glove, awarded annually to the best defensive player in the

league, regardless of position. He is known for his robbery of home runs in the far

reaches of left center and right centerfields and for his diving catches of sure base hits.

But, like virtually all centerfielders, he has an Achilles heel. He has trouble with line

drives hit directly at him. Centerfielders tend to freeze for a moment when a ball is

coming straight at them; they are unable to tell if it is hit with top-spin and will sink in

front of them, or if it will carry over their heads. In a word, they get handcuffed. That’s

what happened to Kiermaier on the ball Chavis hit. He hesitated for a moment before

realizing the ball was going long, then got turned around in the wrong direction and

ended up back-pedaling furiously before lunging awkwardly for the ball as it sailed over

his head. As soon as the ball was by him he reverted to the Gold Glove Kiermaier,

playing the carom off the wall perfectly and gunning a throw back to the infield.

Bradley held up at third and Chavis was in safely at second with a double and – at that

point – a lifetime batting average of 1.000. As Kiermaier tried to compose himself in

centerfield Andrew Benintendi hit a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Bradley with the go-

ahead run in what would be a 6 to 5 Red Sox victory.

Kiermaier is hardly the only centerfielder to be victimized by a line drive hit directly at

him. It happens eventually to all – or almost all – centerfielders. There was one who was

never flummoxed by such drives. Dom DiMaggio handled them with ease, and he

credited the stance he took in the outfield as the reason why.

He took his position, not facing straight in to home plate the way other outfielders did

and still do, but angled toward the leftfield line. Thus his left shoulder was pointed

toward the pitcher, the same way that a right-handed hitter’s would be. No one ever told

him to do that, he just figured on his own that if a batter could react more quickly to a

pitch by standing sideways to the pitcher, then a fielder should be able to do the same

thing. The ability to read line drives more easily was an added benefit. The real

advantage the stance gave him was in the quick breaks that he got on all fly balls. In 1948

he became the only player in American League history to have 500 or more put outs in a

single season before the schedule was expanded from 154 games to 162. It has been done

only twice since then, by Chet Lemon of the White Sox in 1977 and by Dwayne Murphy

of the Athletics in 1980. Incidentally, the only other outfielder I ever saw who took his

defensive stance facing the foul line was Dwayne Murphy. Isn’t it interesting that two out

of the only three outfielders in American League history to have made 500 or more

putouts in a single season stood facing sideway toward the infield, but it has never been

tried by anyone else?

No one comes close to that many putouts any more because the outfields are so much

smaller in the new ballparks. More acreage in the outfield meant that fielders had many

more opportunities to chase down long fly balls. A ball hit 415 feet to center that today

woud be over the fence for a home run would, in the old days, have been just another

loud out. For example, in the old Yankee Stadium it was 461 feet to centerfield, in

Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, 468 feet, and in Chicago’s Comiskey Park and Detroit’s

Briggs Stadium, 440 feet. When Dom DiMaggio played seven decades ago, Fenway

Park’s measurements were the same as they are today, 390 feet to straight away

centerfield and 420 to the triangle in right center. He is the only player who played in a

park with such a small outfield to amass so many putouts. By way of comparison, the

most putouts Jackie Bradley, Jr. has ever had in a single season is 365, and the most

Kevin Kiermaier has had is 412, a total that DiMaggio exceeded in six different years.

To get back to more recent history, if you were not watching on television the other night,

or if you were not one if the 21,000 hardy souls in and around Tampa who decided to

take a trip to the dump, you would have no idea of the drama surrounding Michael

Chavis’s first big league at bat. He was not credited with an RBI, and there is nothing in

the box score to indicate that the ball he hit reduced an award-winning outfielder to silly

putty. But if you were watching you’d have no doubt that Chavis was the man of the

hour.