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Em-brace yourself: #HugWatch is upon us

MLB.com @castrovince

In the distance, he saw Rajai Davis trotting toward him, and Austin Jackson knew instantly what had occurred.

Roughly five minutes before baseball's non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31, 2014, Davis' defensive replacement of Jackson in center field -- with the bases loaded and Gordon Beckham up to bat with a 2-2 count -- was borne out of a swap, not a strategy. Everybody in the building knew it, and that's why Jackson, who would soon learn he had been sent to Seattle, got a standing ovation as he headed into Detroit's dugout.

In the distance, he saw Rajai Davis trotting toward him, and Austin Jackson knew instantly what had occurred.

Roughly five minutes before baseball's non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31, 2014, Davis' defensive replacement of Jackson in center field -- with the bases loaded and Gordon Beckham up to bat with a 2-2 count -- was borne out of a swap, not a strategy. Everybody in the building knew it, and that's why Jackson, who would soon learn he had been sent to Seattle, got a standing ovation as he headed into Detroit's dugout.

"To be playing and then, in the middle of an at-bat, get called off," Jackson says now, "it's a crazy situation."

But if Jackson thought it was crazy within the confines of Comerica Park, he should have seen all the people processing the proceedings on Twitter. In retrospect, we can appreciate his trade not just because of its emotional immediacy, but also because it served as the first real validation of what is now an ingrained social media phenomenon:

#HugWatch.

Tweet from @paul_boye: A real #HugWatch in Detroit!!

Tweet from @ScottCandage: #HUGWATCH in Detroit pays off! Austin Jackson getting the hugs after being pulled.

Tweet from @Troutnado: #HugWatch pic.twitter.com/IcBK6x0jZj

Baseball is one of the only sports with a schedule that lends itself to Deadline deals playing out right in front of our eyes. Combine that uniqueness with the ubiquitous presence of the broadcast cameras and the advent of an online platform that allows us to converse, connect and contemplate with each other in real time, and you have the formula for what has become a trending topic tradition -- one fans have again embraced in the lead-up to Monday's 4 p.m. ET Deadline.

The practice of hug-hunting goes back further than you might think.

In 1903, when the Brooklyn Superbas were short on catching help in the second game of a road doubleheader in Cincinnati, they called upon a local amateur catcher to fill in for a fatigued Lew Ritter. The guy walked in his only plate appearance, and the game was called in the seventh inning to allow the Superbas to catch their train to Pittsburgh.

The Cincinnatians in attendance at the Palace of the Fans, having just witnessed the very brief big league career of one Edward Ambrose Hug, had unwittingly just invented Hug Watch.

In the ensuing decades, hugs became tell-tale trade signs, so much so that when White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle wanted to deke his mates in the dugout one July day in 2007, with his free agency pending and trade rumors swirling around him, he began hugging them mid-inning. What they thought was a farewell was actually a farce, for minutes later it was announced to the audience that Buehrle and the Sox had agreed to a contract extension.

As a hashtag, however, #HugWatch took some time to develop.

An advanced search of Twitter from its launch in 2006 through '11 uncovered just one use of the phrase. And though it did involve baseball, it was -- hilariously -- a TV producer tweeting that he was at a wedding also attended by Mike Sweeney, one of the game's all-time most notorious huggers.

Tweet from @RochesRWinners: Mike Sweeney is here at the wedding reception. #Hugwatch

Not until 2012 did fans begin to wrap their arms and minds around #HugWatch as we now know it.

Video: PIT@CHC: Johnson, Soto hug teammates after trade

Best we can tell, it happened the night of July 30, when the Cubs were in the middle of executing a pair of trades sending Geovany Soto to the Rangers and Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves. Johnson and Soto were pulled in consecutive innings, and it was hugs all around.

Tweet from @keithlaw: With all the hugging, it sounds like a gymnastics meet has broken out in the Cubs' dugout

Though there were a couple uses of #HugWatch around 10:50 p.m. ET that night, this tweet from an account spoofing ESPN reporter Buster Olney appears to be the first instance in which the hashtag got some small measure of trade-speculating traction:

Tweet from @TRIPPINGOLNEY: #HUGWATCH

Soon thereafter, in Seattle, Blue Jays left fielder Travis Snider headed out to his position at the start of the seventh inning, only to be summoned back to the dugout and told he had been traded to Pittsburgh. As he gave bear hugs to everybody on the bench, Twitter took note.

Tweet from @deanleyland: #HugWatch has moved to Seattle

Video: TOR@SEA: Snider hugs teammates after being traded

The Deadline arrived the next day, and thus began the first #HugWatch hibernation.

But a swap season seed had been sewn.

Tweet from @PfunkTypeR: I'm already clearing my calendar for next year's #hugwatch.

The following summer, we learned the perils of our new Twitter trend.

On July 19, 2013, White Sox right fielder Alex Rios was pulled after the sixth inning. Twitter seized upon unconfirmed reports of Rios getting some squeezes in the Sox dugout.

Tweet from @timwilliamsP2: #HugWatch RT @adamcrowley2: Alex Rios pulled after 7 and was seen hugging his teammates. Could be on the move.

Reporters checked in with their sources, and Pirates fans were especially on edge given rumors that Rios would be headed their way. Alas, Rios had merely been benched for a lack of hustle. It was unrequited hug. (Rios would be claimed on waivers by the Rangers a few weeks later, and any hugs happened behind the scenes.)

Video: MIN@CWS: Broadcast crew on Sox dealing Rios to Texas

It was not until Jackson's Seattle swap that a baseball nation hung up on #HugWatch reaped its first real reward. And then on the night of July 29, 2015, #HugWatch reached emotional highs and lows nobody could have imagined.

Twitter reports began to swirl that the Mets had acquired Carlos Gomez from the Brewers. More details began to emerge about Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores being involved. All of this happened with Flores still on the field, where his first real hint of what was happening came via an ovation from the Citi Field faithful. The thought of leaving his baseball home compelled real tears from Flores. And that's when we collectively realized we were no longer hug watchers, but hug voyeurs.

Video: Wilmer Flores' roller-coaster week ends with walk-off

And as it turns out, the deal was dead, anyway.

Tweet from @Dmc04005: Wilmer Flores: when #hugwatch goes wrong

"I got traded for like one hour," Flores says now. "And then I was not. It was a little bit crazy. I was sad because of all the guys here, the team."

He really was a man in need of a hug.

Video: CIN@SD: Kemp gets goodbyes in dugout after trade

Thankfully, #HugWatch is usually harmless. We await word on hugs in all levels of professional baseball. Like body language experts, we try to decipher a hug's true intent. Hugs have become sources, of a sort. The White House can try to contain leaks, but a ballclub can't contain hugs.

Because the vast majority of trades take place before or after games, the public hugs don't happen as often as Twitter would like them to. But there are moments -- like Matt Kemp's sayonara to San Diego last summer and Eduardo Nunez's San Francisco swan song earlier this month -- that make the watch worthwhile.

Video: PIT@SF: Nunez leaves the game, hugs teammates goodbye

"Anytime something kinda strange is happening around this time," says Jackson, #HugWatch's first hero, "you start to see radars rising a little bit."

The antenna is up on Twitter. Everybody's looking for a hug.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. Anthony DiComo and Scott Merkin contributed to this article.