OAKLAND — After Matt Chapman framed a first pitch from Erik Chavez — right at the bottom of the zone — the two Gold Glove third basemen met in front of home plate, and shared a brief moment. Chapman signed a ball for Chavez, and the two of them signed a ball together, which Chapman would heave into the stands towards a clutch of unwitting fans. Then, Chavez signed a ball for Chapman. The two had never met before, save for briefly last season.
The 25-year old Chapman took the signed ball and scampered over to his father like an excited youngster who had just gotten a coveted autograph from on top of the roof of the dugout. He handed him the ball. Chapman wanted to make sure his new treasure was kept safe.
“I was a big fan,” Chapman said of Chavez before Saturday’s game. “I loved watching baseball growing up. He played right around the time I was growing up, and baseball started to become really important to me.”
After he grew up watching the six-time Gold Glove third baseman of Oakland’s Moneyball teams, the current best defender in baseball was presented with the Rawlings Gold Glove and Platinum Glove by Chavez before Friday’s Opening Night at the Oakland Coliseum — a 6-2 loss for the A’s. It was an imminently appropriate passing of the torch.
“[Frank] Menechino actually texted me this morning, and said, ‘Did you see him yesterday?’” Chavez said before his first pitch. “I go, ’Nah.’ He said, ‘He looks exactly like you.’ I said, ‘Frankie, I doubt that. I know he’s got a better arm than I do.’”
Menechino, Chavez’s teammate in Oakland from 1999 to 2003, was referring to a specific play from Thursday, when Chapman took a hot shot to third, bobbled it briefly behind the bag, stepped on third and threw across the diamond for a double play to end the top of the fifth on Opening Day.
“I think I made one of those plays,” said Chavez, now a special advisor to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who have been victimized multiple times over the first two games of the season’s opening series. “It looked pretty similar to me. I think that’s what Menechino was referencing.”
Chapman’s favorite grab by Chavez was from June 10, 2003, when Chavez, pursuing a foul pop up, slid into the dugout to make a catch.
“It’s iconic,” Chapman said. “I did the cooler jump, did the one where I ran and caught it and jumped over the cooler, but not the sliding.”
Chapman has now set himself the task of winning multiple Gold Gloves in a row, just like Chavez
“Anyone can win it once. How many people can consistently do it?” Chapman said.
Observers have noted the similarities between Chapman and Chavez — young, power-hitting third basemen with preternatural glove work — since Chapman began making seemingly impossible plays. That’s no accident.
“I really liked infield and watching infielders,” Chapman said. “He was obviously one of the best.”
Two months ago, Chavez got a call from the A’s to see if he’d be game to present Chapman with his first career Gold Glove. Chavez himself won six straight from 2001 to 2005. Neither knew that Chapman would be catching Chavez’s first pitch until days before.
“I’m glad I got to,” Chapman said. “He had nothing but nice things to say.”
Chapman, who led the Major Leagues in defensive runs saved last season, dinged the visiting Angels with a short-hop backhanded pick up the line for an out to start the top of the second on Thursday, after getting an early start on his Platinum Glove re-election campaign with a backhanded, somersaulting grab in foul ground during the Bay Bridge Series against the San Francisco Giants.
“[Jurickson] Profar came to me on the bench afterwards and he goes, ‘Man, what an unbelievable play,’” manager Bob Melvin said. “I went, ‘Just wait.’ I mean, it seems kind of routine. He works on that play every single day.”
Later Thursday, he victimized his former catcher, Jonathan Lucroy, leaping to spear a liner up the third base line in the top of the third. Lucroy pointed at his former teammate and smiled.
“Lucroy, who was with Scott Rolen, he had said Scott Rolen was probably the best third baseman he’d seen,” Chavez said. “He says Chapman is even better.”
Chavez has observed Chapman from afar, and even though he’s employed by the Angels, he’s happy for anything that makes the game fun to watch. Chapman certainly is that, which is why Chavez reveled in handing Chapman his hardware, after Rickey Henderson handed him the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award, and after Melvin got his Manager of the Year award, and Khris Davis got his Edgar Martinez Award.
“Once you stop playing, you just kind of root for all these guys,” said Chavez, who split his final four seasons with the Yankees and Diamondbacks. “You root for the state of the game. There’s a lot of really good, young players, and obviously in the position I was in, I just want these guys to be healthy, and make as good a runs as they possibly can.”
Unlike last offseason, when he was able to work extensively on his fielding, Chapman didn’t take a single ground ball or take a single swing from the end of the season until spring training, thanks to surgeries on his hand and shoulder. While he was nervous about being rusty, he certainly hasn’t looked it. He’s just looked like Chavez, who Melvin saw plenty of times while managing the Seattle Mariners.
“Premier guys, leadership, all the above, defense, offense, this organization’s been really lucky to have those type of impactful players over at that corner,” Melvin said, when asked about the franchise’s last three third basemen: Chavez, AL MVP Josh Donaldson and Chapman. “Chappy runs right along with that group, to be able to, in your first year, be recognized as the best defensive player in all of baseball, where do you go from there? Other than the fact that you’d like to do it again.”