On a bizarre infield here, laced with multicolored strings in strange, crazy-quilt shapes, one of baseball's oldest and most sadly neglected skills -- bunting -- has had a renaissance and a reformulation.
This is the classroom of Bunny Mick, the 57-year-old Houston coach the Astro Players call "Bunty" Mick because he is the only instructor in the major leagues whose sole task is to teach players how not to hit a ball very hard.
Mick -- a former minor league manager who, after becoming a prosperous businessman, returned to basebal on a part-time lark -- is not merely preserving an endangered species of play; he has, in his spring-training-only avocation, systematically reinvented the bunt, turning all of accepted theory on its head.
In the five-year process, Mick has transformed the old-fashioned, dead-ball-style Astros from (in Houston Manager Bill Virdon's words) "the worst bunting team I ever saw into perhaps the best."
For years, ever since the coming of blighted AstroTurf fields and the advent of the designated hitter, the delicate bunt has been forced toward extinction. What was once a fundamental skill suddenly has became a rare gift. Where grass and dirt were the friends of the bunt, dragging the ball to a quick halt, ersatz grass has made precision bunting as difficult as trying to chip a golf ball to a quick stop on a bowling alley.As Pete Rose puts it, "Bunting's gone from being the easiest thing in the game to the hardest. When I came up (1962), everybody could do it. Now ain't nobody can do it."
Once, the bunt roamed the foul lines of the major leagues as the buffalo roamed the plains. Well, sort of. Back in '17, Ray Chapman had 67 sacrifice hits in a season; last year in the AL, home of the DH where nobody plays for one run, the average team had 65 sacrifices. Eddie Collins had 511 career sacrifices. Now, a venal age lists among its records: Harmon Killebrew, 8,147 at bats, zero sacrifices.
For 50 years, before George Herman Ruth waddled into the game, one of the trademarks of the sport was the deftly placed bunt, be it a sacrifice, suicide squeeze, drag or push bunt. A man like Collins with dozens of bunt hits a year was no oddity. The gentle, sneaky bunt was at the strategic heart of a game that was played one tactically crafted run at a time. Those were the days when a whole run, like a whole dollar, was a unit of measurement to be respected.
'Twas said the Ty Cobb spent more time laying down practice bunts, until he could roll them dead on top of a silver dollar along the third base line, than he did working on his hitting. Even his grip -- hands one to three inches apart -- was designed to disguise his intentions.
Gone are the days of '08 when an average team hit 14 homers a season and scored 525 runs. Now, Cobb's Tiger heirs score 840 runs in a year and still finish fourth. Breathes there a team that still values the bunt as all of baseball once did? Does there remain a club that negotiates for runs one at a time, and barters them for a division flag? Does the game still have one man whose sole duty is to study the bunt, refine it, and pass it on?
As Steve Martin might say, "naaaaaahhh." But the Astros and Mick come close.
Only Houston has a "bunting coach." That's because only the Astros think they need one. Ironically, the stadium that spawned the synthetic turf field -- the Astrodome -- also is the only park where the fences are so remote and the stale indoor air so dead that baseball is played much as it was before 1920. The Astros, who were 24th in baseball in homers (75) last year, managed to finish seventh in the NL in runs -- and win their division -- by nurturing themselves on a diet of sacrifices, hit and runs, squeezes, bunt hits, wheedled walks (second in the league) and stolen bases.
"Some teams might not need to bunt well. But we'd be dead if we didn't. Our vast improvement in bunting is one of our major pluses," says 20-game winner Noe Niekro who, for instance, has in the last two years been called on to sacrifice bunt 32 times. He completed the mission successfully 31 times.
Mick never has revealed his technical secrets. But then nobody's ever asked. "I might as well tell all," he said. "I'd hate to see the bunt keep dying out. If you picked a team at random and asked what I thought they were doing incorrectly, I'd probably have to say, 'Everything.'"
How does this Ted Williams of bunting contradict current vogues?
Many teams no longer want players to square and face the pitcher when they sacrifice. Instead, to buy back the vital split seconds that are lost to turf, they simply twiest their feet at the last instant, spinning to face the pitch.
"Terrible," says Mick. "You're offbalance for any outside strike."
The Astros square away earlier, rather than later. "Who cares if you tip the play," asks Mick. "The sacrifice is no surprise. The fielders are going to be down your throat anyway. By squaring early, they may charge too much, then you can chop it past them."
Mick's men put their inside foot on the inside line of the box -- "as close to the plate as is legal." That way, by flexing the legs in a squat or leaning slightly outward, the bunter can cover the whole strike zone.
"Start with the bat set level at the top of the strike zone and sight over it. That way, anything above the bat is automatically a ball. Then work down to the ball. Ideally, on a knee-high pitch, you're in a squat, still sighting over the top of the bat," says Mick. "Also, work from the outside in, being more conscious of the outside pitch, then reacting if it's closer to the body."
Many bunters chop the ball down, hoping the bounce will kill the ball's speed. "Don't bunt down," pleads Mick. "Cast the ball outward, like a soft line drive. If you bunt down, you'll hit pebbles and pock marks. A third of the time, the ball won't go where you want. We don't depend on lucky bounces."
A vice born of trying to bunt down is holding the bat at a 45-degree angle, barrel up. "The minute that bat is out of level, you're in trouble," says Mick. "I'm convinced that for every inch the bat is more than six inches below the eyes, you get about 10 percent less efficiency. And, for every inch the bat is out of level, either up or down if you're stabbing at a low pitch, you also lose about 10 percent."
Now for the heart of the matter. How do you deaden the ball, kill the roll?
"First, find the dead wood in the bat," says Mick. "Turn the trademark on the bat toward the pitcher, which you'd never do when hitting, so you aren't bunting with the dense tight grain. Next, never bunt with the sweet spot -- the meat of the bat from four to eight inches in from the end. Bunt with the outer four inches of the bat where you get that hollow, weak sound.
"Finally, find the weakest way to grip the bat. The knob hand should be so loose it's almost limp. And don't let it slide up from the knob. That gives too firm a grip. The fingers up by the trademark should not be pointing out, the way almost everybody's do. Grip only the back half of the barrel with the thumb pointing out (toward the end of the bat) and the other four fingers pointing in (toward the handle). That grip is so weak that the pitch sometimes knocks the bat out of our bunter's hands. That's perfectly okay."
Mick's piece de resistance is what he calls "the double spring action of the arms." Most bunters instinctively use a push-pull motion while the knob hand pulls back to dictate the last-second angle of the bunt.Mick presets the angle of the bunt, making it no secret. "You can only bunt toward first or third. What's the mystery?" he asks.
Having preset the angle, as the ball arrives, Houston's bunters pull back with both hands . In essence, they try to catch the ball on the bat.
The results are lovely. The ball strikes the bat squarely and is cast outward (not downward) in a soft line, but it comes off with a thunk. The combination of dead wood on the end of the bat, a baby's grip and the pull-back spring action by both arms at the moment of impact produce a bunt that would die on polished glass, much less AstroTurf.
The Astros are just as adroit at bunting for hits as they are at basic sacrificing.Two-thirds of the lineup is ready to drag at the drop of a sign, led by outfielder Terry Puhl, who averages a couple of dozen bunt hits year.
One drag and push bunts, all the theories are the same: preset the angle, use the trademark-side dead wood on the end of the bat, plus that double-spring arm action, catch the ball on the bat, cast the ball outward. Also, instead of running toward first base, the Astros' first step is toward the pitcher. "We sacrifice half a step getting away from the plate," says Mick, "but, because out bunt is 10 feet better (more accurate), we more than make it up."
"When you drag-bunt Bunny's way," says Puhl, "it feels so soft it's like you're carrying the ball with you as you start to run to first."
To traditionalists who archly oppose the lax trends of the modern baseball age, few scenes could be more tonic than seeing the Astros labor here under Mick.
"I'm amazed they listen to me," says Mick of the million-bucks-a-man Astro starting rotation that has a larger payroll than the entire Minnesota team.
Every day here, the Astros trudge through Mick's tiny private diamond. Each must pass his daily test. Mick's infield is covered with red, blue, yellow and black strings. Each area has a point value. If the ball's fair, but within 30 feet of the catcher, that's one point. If it's down the line fair, but more than 40 feet out, that's five. If it's between 30 and 40 feet, that's the maximum 10 points. The Astros pepper that 10-point zone. The only penalty is the dreaded black-string area straight back at the pitcher, the zone that leads to double plays -- minus 10.
The Astros think they are merely playing an idle bunting game, a casual idyll of spring. But Mick knows better. He is the last protector of one of baseball's gentle, neglected arts. "Bend your knees more, Joe," he calls to Niekro, annual salary $1.1 million.
"Aw, Jeez, Bunny," grumbles Niekro, "you know the big-league rule. It's not how well you bunt that counts. It's how good you look doin' it."
Bunny Mick, keeper of the flame, gets a small hurt expression on his face.
"Just kidding," grins Niekro as he lays down a stinking dead mackerel of a bunt that would make the Georgia Peach proud.