NEW YORK -- Have today's major leaguers sacrificed the bunt?
The players, the managers and the numbers say yes.
Even speedsters like Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman seem to be giving up on shortening up.
"Agents want their clients to show stats. You can't show any stats with bunts," said Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson. "It's a skill that's not worked on at the lower levels. Not only is it diminished, but I'm amazed how poorly it is done in today's game."
While not all agree with the philosophy of the little-used bunt, they concur it's disappearing.
"It used to be a big part of the offense but, something, perhaps artificial turf, has made the difference," said Reds Manager Lou Piniella, who spent his 18-year playing career in the American League. "You have to have team speed to think of using the bunt, but it has to be part of your game plan, too."
In 1960, the American League had an average of more than one sacrifice per game (661 in 617 games).
But with artificial turf and the designated hitter, that figure fell to .81 per game by 1980 and was .54 per game through the first half of 1990, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
National League sacrifices -- where the pitchers still bat -- have remained relatively constant through the '70s and '80s, staying just under one per game. But the vast majority of NL bunt attempts are for sacrifices, not hits.
Henderson, regarded as the premier leadoff man in baseball, is blunt in his disdain for the bunt. He tried it less than 10 times in 1989.
"I gave it up in the minor leagues because I didn't bunt well, so I threw it out of my hitting strategy," said Henderson, a key member of the Oakland Athletics' World Series champions in 1989. "Most guys who can't hit or who aren't hitting well will look to bunt for a hit but I just go up there to hit."
Coleman managed only 19 hits in 114 bunt attempts during 1989.
Most bunt attempts are either fouled or missed.
"There just aren't many good bunters anymore," said Giants Manager Roger Craig. "The pitchers bunt in our league because they have to. I'd say that some of the art of bunting has been lost."
"Livelier balls, stronger guys. Managers don't go to the bunt until late in the ballgame," said Anderson, who spent nine years managing Cincinnati, but has been with the Detroit Tigers since 1979. "Plus, you're looking at guys who hit 40-45 home runs a year. You're not going to have a designated hitter in a game so he can bunt and, on the artificial turf, you can make runs awfully quick, so why bunt?"
In the past, power-hitters such as Mickey Mantle, Steve Garvey and Mike Schmidt did not hesitate to bunt if the need or opportunity arose.
But in 1990, the game's best bunters are those who rely on speed instead of the element of surprise.
"I've got to use what skills I have to be effective in the game," said outfielder Brett Butler of the San Francisco Giants, who led the majors with 22 bunt hits in 1989. "A lot of it is an ego thing. I've heard a lot of people say thay if you bunt, you are giving in to the pitcher -- that it's a sign of weakness. I don't buy that."
Butler, who has also played for the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, credits the bunt with saving his career.
"I've got the speed and I'm not going to hit many home runs, so teams know I'm prone to bunt," Butler said. "I've averaged more than 20 bunt hits a year during the past six seasons. If I didn't bunt, I'd probably be out of the game by now."
Butler tried to bunt 115 times in 1989, the most of any player, but he was far from the most effective.
"You see fewer and fewer players doing it but it's in keeping with the game as a whole," said Vada Pinson, the Detroit Tigers' hitting coach, who spent 18 years in the majors with five teams. "Players don't work at skills the way they used to. Power hitters won't bunt. And so many guys come up earlier than they used to and they haven't been trained enough on the fundamentals."
Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres bunted with a 75 percent success rating -- figured by dividing bunt hits and sacrifices by total attempts. Jody Reed of the Boston Red Sox (65 percent) and teammate Marty Barrett (59 percent) were second and third.
The worst percentage bunters in 1989 were Kevin Seitzer (17 percent) of the Kansas City Royals, Otis Nixon (15 percent) of the Montreal Expos and Luis Polonia (13 percent), who split the year between Oakland and the New York Yankees.
"You don't hear about it any more," said Russ Nixon, former manager of the Atlanta Braves. "The ability to bunt used to be an item in a player's scouting report but today it's not even mentioned anymore."
Carlton Fisk, who has caught for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox during his 20-year career, believes there is a new approach to bunting.
"I wouldn't call it a lost art; maybe a misplaced art," Fisk said. "The American League has emerged into a pounder's league instead of a scratch-for-a-run league. Players still bunt, but only when they are asked to. Plus, there are many American League parks where it doesn't make sense to waste an out."
"I don't like the idea of giving you an out. I want you to earn an out from me," he said. "If it gets down to the late innings and I'm down, then I'll use it but with the turf fields and the short fences in places like Detroit, Boston and New York, why should I give away an out?"
Who's the best bunter of the last decade or two?
"Rod Carew is the best I've ever seen," Anderson said. "His bat control was incredible. He could bunt the ball and actually deaden it."
Besides Butler, the accolades these days go to players such as Steve Lyons of the Chicago White Sox, a lifetime .259 hitter with 15 career home runs. Lyons had 13 bunt hits in 1989.
"I think the bunt is an exciting play," Lyons said. "The home run is what's overrated."