Though times change, bunting remains an art


John Lee Lowenstein of Wolf Point, Mont., spent 15 seasons in the major leagues during which he hit .253 and a walk-off home run to win Game 1 of the 1979 World Series for the Baltimore Orioles.

He wasn't known as much of a bunter, having gotten down a total of 27 over those 15 big league campaigns.

"Sure, I screwed up that sacrifice bunt, but look at it this way," Lowenstein once said. "I'm a better bunter than a billion Chinese. Those poor suckers can't bunt at all."

Yes, the Chinese christened their first aircraft carrier this month, raising a concern they are using a lot of our U.S. dollars to build a military presence. But let's see them drop one down the third-base line to move a runner into scoring position during a one-run game.

As Americans, we used to be able to roll out of bed in the morning and drop down 20 sacrifice bunts -- 10 to the third-base side, 10 to the first-base side -- out of habit. We were a baseball-playing nation, and the value of the bunt was ingrained in our thought patterns at an early age, either by our fathers, our Little League coaches or Gene Mauch.

Now, we have become a football-playing populace, with a little soccer thrown in for the kids. And in baseball we primarily dig the long ball, because Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux said chicks dig the long ball in a Nike commercial.

That was the perception a few years ago when guys still were sticking needles in their hips and belting baseballs from here to Hong Kong.

The bunt, like spinning plates on poles on "The Ed Sullivan Show," had become a lost art. It basically died in the 1960s. Or so it was said by Bob Costas.

They lowered the pitching mound, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal and Don Drysdale got old, guys started digging in and stopped choking up on the bat handle. And Earl Weaver, John Lowenstein's manager with the Orioles, said three-run homers were much cooler than sacrifice bunts.

Then "Moneyball" came along, with its sabermetrics and its empirical evidence and its Bill James and its Billy Beane, spouting proof that on-base and slugging percentages are much more indicative of a ballplayer's worth than his ability to drop a bunt down the third-base line to move a runner along.

First there was a book about Moneyball and Tony La Russa, and everybody read it; now there's a movie about Moneyball coming out, and I'm sure everybody will see it, or they couldn't have gotten Brad Pitt to portray Beane, the general manager and minority owner of the Oakland Athletics.

I'm not sure Marty Barrett, the former Rancho High star who spent 10 seasons and played 941 games in the major leagues, all but 10 with the Red Sox, will see "Moneyball" before it hits cable.

Barrett doesn't seem like a Brad Pitt sort of guy. He seems more like a Willie Keeler sort of guy.

Wee Willie was a great bunter whose plaque at Cooperstown says as much. Barrett was an excellent bunter who led the American League in the sacrifice variety for three straight seasons, from 1986 through 1988, though that was news to him.

There were reasons Barrett bunted a lot. For starters, he was good at it; bunting was part of his baseball DNA from the day he starting playing, he said.

With the Red Sox, he usually batted second, in front of good RBI guys such as Bill Buckner and, later, Wade Boggs. And with the Red Sox, he played second base behind guys such as Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst, guys who could make baseballs hum.

"It would be interesting to see my percentage (of bunts) in games when those two guys pitched," Barrett said.

Boggs would open a game with a single, Barrett would bunt him to second, Buckner would knock in Boggs, the Red Sox would lead 1-0. Clemens or Hurst would take the hill. That's the way it was in 1986.

"A lot of times, that was it," Barrett said, adding that was often the philosophy of Red Sox manager John McNamara and other skippers of the pre-steroid era. "Playing against (Jack) Morris, Frank Viola, maybe we bunt and get one on the board."

Barrett agreed that bunting seems a lost art, but the record book shows otherwise. In the years since sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies were separated as statistics, the National League (no designated hitter, real baseball) team average was 67 bunts in 1960, 68 in 1970, 81 in 1980, 73 in 1990, 66 in 2000 and 63 last year.

So perhaps there's still hope for guys who can get one down, and for guys in Austria learning how to spin dinner plates on poles in their garages.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowksi@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

 

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