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Bunts: Curt Flood, Camden Yards, Pete Rose and Other Reflections on Baseball

By George F. Will

(CNN) -- Political columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator George Will offers more than 70 passionate stories about his favorite sport. Here are Will's eulogy for the late Curt Flood ("Dred Scott in Spikes"), Will on Ted Williams ("When Ted Williams retired in 1960, a sportswriter said that Boston knew how Britain felt when it lost India. Indeed. Britain felt diminished, but also a bit relieved"), and on his own baseball career ("I was a very late draft choice of the Mittendorf Funeral Home Panthers. Our color was black"). Here are subjects ranging from the author's 1977 purchase of a single share of stock in the Chicago Cubs, a purchase brokered by Warren Buffett ("a St. Louis Cardinal fan, but not otherwise sinister"), to the collision between Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti, to the building of Camden Yards in Baltimore, to the dismantling of the 1997 World Series Champion Florida Martins.



It was October baseball at its best, played in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon and in the shadow cast by the long season that had led to this dramatic moment. An autumnal sense of winding down pervaded Baltimore's Camden Yards, with the light and warmth of summer seeping away amid hints of winter. The lights were on and so were sweaters and game six of the American League Championship Series was scoreless in the bottom of the seventh inning.

During the 1997 regular season the Orioles had become only the third "wire to wire" team in American League history -- in first place from game 1 through game 162. But the Indians were leading the Series three games to two when shortstop Mike Bordick led off the seventh for the Orioles with a single. The next batter was Brady Anderson, who, on the first pitch, squared as though to bunt, but took a breaking ball for ball one. He did not want to bunt, but he wanted the Indians' pitcher, Charles Nagy, and catcher, Sandy Alomar, to think he might be bunting and to pitch to him with that in mind. Perhaps they did. The next pitch was a high fastball, a pitch easier to hit than to bunt. Anderson slapped it into right for a single. Bordick stopped at second.

If the Orioles could score Bordick, they would be six outs from forcing a seventh game. It would be a home game, so if they could advance Bordick 180 feet they would be favored to advance to the World Series. However, the Orioles were 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position in this game. The next batter, Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar, Sandy's brother and one of baseball's better hunters, would try to move Bordick the 90 feet to third base, from which he could score on a sacrifice fly.

The inning, and perhaps the game, and even the season were coming down to one taut moment, a test of anticipation and execution by Roberto Alomar, and by brother Sandy and the rest of the Indians. Would Roberto Alomar drop down a bunt? And if so, where? That would depend on which bunt defense the Indians chose, and that choice would depend on what the Indians thought Roberto Alomar and the Orioles were thinking. So the first task for both teams was to get some information.

To that end, after Alomar got set in the batters box, Nagy, a righthander, stepped off the mound and looked to second. He was signaled to do so from the Indians' bench. Nowadays, managers call for "step-offs" -- for the pitcher to step off the rubber -- and throw-overs to first base, and pickoff plays. (Until relatively recently, managers did not involve themselves in such micromanagement of games. In 1948, the Indians won the American League pennant and the World Series under a player-manager, shortstop Lou Boudreau, who had a spectacular season, batting .355 with 18 home runs and 106 RBI. It is inconceivable that he could have called step-offs and throw-overs while playing shortstop.) Usually a step-off is called to see if some motion by the batter or by a base runner betrays the intentions of the team at bat.

Reflecting about that play, Davey Johnson, the Orioles' manager, recalls thinking that the Indians might be looking for evidence that the Orioles were going to try a hit-and-run. Such evidence, betrayed just before Nagy stepped off or in response to his doing so, might be some slight lean or start by Bordick or Anderson, or some adjustment by Alomar of his stance, or some slight movement of his bat.

The bat control that makes Alomar a deft bunter also makes him adept at the hit-and-run. Besides, Johnson does not often call for a bunt. On the other hand, in situations like this Alomar sometimes bunts on his own. He has been in baseball since he was in diapers (his father had a fifteen-year major league career) and he has abundant confidence in his situational judgments. Furthermore, he spent his first three seasons in the National League (with the Padres). In that league, for a number of reasons (principally, tradition, and bigger parks, and the absence of the designated hitter) there is somewhat less of an emphasis on "big bang," long-ball baseball, somewhat more willingness to give up an out to advance a runner 90 feet.

In any case, when Nagy stepped off, neither Bordick nor Anderson nor Alomar did anything that looked like evidence of a hit-and-run, or a bunt. But Mike Hargrove, the Indians' manager, was not suspecting a hit-and-run and did not doubt what Johnson had in mind and what Alomar was going to do. "The situation," Hargrove says, "was screaming bunt." If ever there was a time to play for one run, this was it.

Thinking back on this minidrama, Hargrove says the rush of decisions concerning Alomar's at bat is "a little bit of a blur," but he says the Nagy step off might have been part of a pickoff play at second: The shortstop breaks for third, and perhaps the runner on second thinks he can and should lengthen his lead. The second baseman darts in behind the runner to take the throw from the pitcher. However, the pitcher does not have to throw to second when that play is put on, and Nagy did not throw.

Now it was time for the first pitch to Alomar, and it was Alomar's and the Orioles' turn to try to learn something. Alomar shortened up and partially squared to bunt, but he took the first pitch, a buntable breaking ball. His eyes were less on the pitch than on the left side of the Indians' infield, third baseman Matt Williams and shortstop Omar Vizquel. Both are among the best defensive players at their positions; both have won Gold Gloves. Together, they give a manager confidence to put on the "wheel" or "rotation" play in a situation like this.

But Mike Hargrove had not done so. Yet.

On the "wheel" or "rotation" play the third baseman charges the bunt, as does the first baseman, as the pitcher covers the middle of the infield. The second baseman sprints to cover second. And the shortstop breaks toward third, racing the runner on second and arriving at third -- if all goes well -- in time to force the lead runner. However, on the first pitch to Alomar, Williams had, in Johnson's words, "played it regular." Playing it "regular" means, Johnson says, that "the third baseman doesn't come until he sees [the ball] coming toward him." Williams had not charged. He had been edging in toward Alomar as Nagy prepared to deliver the first pitch, but then had held back.

So what information had the Orioles acquired? Precious little. They had learned that the wheel play was not on. Not on the first pitch, at least. Which did not surprise Johnson: "Our reports were that they did not run the wheel." When told that Johnson had assumed the Indians did not use that play, Hargrove said, laughing, "That's what you get for assuming."

The trouble is, in baseball, as in the rest of life, we live by assuming. We act all the time on assumptions about how children, the weather, stocks and other things are apt to behave. And in fact the Orioles' reports had been basically right. Hargrove says the Indians only use the wheel play "two or three times a year." But, he says, "we work at it all the time." They were about to work it for what Hargrove thinks was only the second time in 1997.

After Alomar took that first pitch, Williams looked in to the Indians' dugout on the third-base side of Camden Yards, then turned toward his teammates and went through a series of signs. Next, he went to the mound and, with his glove over his mouth to frustrate any lip-readers in the Orioles' dugout, spoke to Nagy. As Johnson said later, "Williams is a National League guy." He had spent the ten seasons prior to 1997 with the Giants, and the wheel play was a routine part of his defensive craftsmanship. So Alomar and the Orioles had to wonder whether Williams had signaled a new play -- the wheel -- or whether all this was just a charade to get the Orioles thinking that the Indians would not play the second pitch the way they had played the first. If the Indians were not going to use the wheel, Alomar's job would be to bunt the ball toward third hard enough that Williams, not Nagy, would have to field it, drawing him away from third, leaving the Indians with only the option of getting Alomar at first as Bordick and Anderson advanced.

Alomar bunted the second pitch toward third, and he and the Orioles instantly, and to their sorrow, had the answer to their question. This time Williams was charging and Vizquel was on the run to his right, toward third. Williams fielded the ball about 25 feet in front of the plate, whirled and threw to Vizquel, who beat Bordick to third by at least 15 feet for the force-out.

The time that had elapsed between Anderson's single touching the rightfield grass and Williams' throw touching Vizquel's glove: one minute and fifty-nine seconds.

The Orioles still had a threat going, with Anderson -- who is a lot faster than Bordick is going from second to home -- on second and Alomar on first. But the Indians, having been challenged to anticipate correctly and execute flawlessly, had done so. The next batter, Geronimo Berroa, grounded the first pitch into a double play with Roberto Alomar out at second. The game remained scoreless until the eleventh inning, when the Indians' second baseman, Tony Fernandez, lofted a home run over the right-field scoreboard.

That, and one more inning of good relief pitching, sent the Indians to the World Series. However, the hinge of the game was the play four innings earlier.

It was not a baseball fan who said that God gave us memory so that we could have roses in winter. Roses are all very well, but real fans are warmed between the postseason and the preseason by the afterglow of episodes like Alomar's bunt and the Indians' businesslike but beautiful 5-6 putout in the seventh.

Bunts are modest and often useful things, although they are not always well understood, even by those who are supposed to know when and how to lay them down. In a baseball story in McClure's magazine in 1917, back when the ball was dead and bunting was an essential and admired skill, a manager marveled at a player's misconceptions:

"So I asks him, 'Young man, can you bunt?' 'Mr. Ryan,' says he, 'I don't like to brag about myself, but I can bunt farther than any other man on the team.' Them's his very words. Can you beat it?"

The origin of the word "bunt" is lost in the mists of history, which of course does not inhibit either speculation or certitude. In the Church of Baseball, the mere absence of conclusive evidence is no impediment to belief. Baseball fans are forever in the grip of originitis, a mild mental illness that manifests itself in a powerful craving for usually unattainable knowledge of when this or that practice originated. Baseball's most venerable "knowledge" is the most preposterous: It is the Abner Doubleday myth, the story that in the summer of 1839 young Abner sashayed into Farmer Phinney's pasture at Cooperstown and said, "Let there be baseball," or words to that effect. There is even a theory about the origin of the use of batting gloves. It is that in 1968 Ken Harrelson, then with the Bostons (concerning that way of speaking, see the essay about Bill Rigney in this volume), assumed he was not expected to play in a particular night game. So he played 36 holes of golf before going to the ballpark, where he arrived with blistered hands and found his name on the lineup card. (That is what you get for assuming.) So he wore his golf gloves to bat.

One theory about the origin of the word "bunt" is that it evolved from the word "butting," which is what Tim Murnane of the Boston Red Stockings called it when he used his flat-sided bat -- such bats were legal back then -- to put a ball into play without swinging. Another theory is that "bunt" derived from "buntling" to designate a baby hit. That is a particularly charming theory, so let's accept it until some spoilsport refutes it.

I have titled this collection of baseball writings Bunts because they are mostly small, most of them having been written for newspapers, magazines and book review publications. Baseball, unlike basketball or hockey or soccer, is a game of episodes, not of flow, and so lends itself to snapshots. These essays are verbal snapshots taken of baseball during a quarter of a century of usually exhilarating, sometimes exasperating but always affectionate observation of the game. The subjects of these essays range from the nobility of Curt Flood, to the torments of Billy Martin, to the self-destruction of Pete Rose. They range from what baseball has done exquisitely right -- Camden Yards, for example -- to what it has done ruinously wrong -- labor relations. Two of the longer essays, the one on broadcaster Jon Miller and the concluding survey of the game at the end of the century, were written for this volume.

Connie Mack, who spent sixty-four years in Major League Baseball -- fifty-three of them in dugouts, and fifty of those wearing a business suit and necktie and stiff collar and managing the Philadelphia Athletics -- said near the end of his life, "I have never known a day when I didn't learn something new about this game." There is indeed a lot to learn. The writings in this volume contain much of what one fan has learned from a lifetime constantly refreshed by sips from the meandering stream of baseball's life.

I am sometimes asked when it was that I first came upon that stream which irrigates my life. I answer that I do not know, because I have no memory of life before baseball. My mother recalled that at age six, after listening to a broadcast of a 1947 World Series game that the Yankees lost, I asked her if the Yankees' mothers would be sad. (She said, "No." She should have said, "Not for long.") My interest in baseball was fed by radio. I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a university community, and radio was my connection with metropolitan America. As we lived more or less midway between Chicago and St. Louis, the family Philco crackled with the broadcasts of the Cubs (Burt Wilson), White Sox (Bob Elson), Cardinals (Harry Caray) and Browns (Buddy Blattner). Baseball was in the air.

For half a century, and especially in the almost quarter of a century covered by the columns and other essays in this volume, the national pastime has been a full participant in the three great dramas of the nation in that period. These dramas have concerned relations between the races, the temptations and stresses of prosperity and the aggressive assertion of new rights. In this period I have come of middle age, and baseball has grown up.

These rites of passage are supposed to be tinged with melancholy -- farewell to innocence and all that -- and baseball has in fact paid a price for its growth into an institution more complex and less intimate than it was. In a sense, baseball has become both more and less close to those of us who care about it. It is closer to us in the sense that we know more about its internal workings as a business, and we know more about (and there is more to know about) what the players and managers are doing during games. On the other hand, a certain social distance has opened up between the people on the field and the people in the stands. Players and managers are highly paid celebrities, with all the attendant demands on them, and often a certain wariness from them. The stakes of success and failure are much higher than they were.

So much has changed, but the most remarkable thing is that the essential feature -- the enjoyment fans derive from a close connection with the game -- has not. The following writings wend their way through the delights and, yes, exasperations of one fan's experiences with this American delight. The volume ends with a summing-up, an examination of baseball's evolution through the century. It is nice to know that my last words in this volume will not be the last word on anything, because baseball is a work in progress. If you don't believe me, just remember -- and heed -- the fan's familiar cry: "Wait 'til next year!"


March 21, 1974

A reader demands to know how I contracted the infectious conservatism for which he plans to horsewhip me. So if you have tears, prepare to shed them now as I reveal how my gloomy temperament received its conservative warp from early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs.

The differences between conservatives and liberals are as much a matter of temperament as ideas. Liberals are temperamentally inclined to see the world as a harmonious carnival of sweetness and light, where goodwill prevails, good intentions are rewarded, the race is to the swift and a benevolent Nature arranges a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. Conservatives (and Cub fans) know better.

Conservatives know the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse, the battle is not to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding and an unscrupulous Providence consigns innocents to suffering. I learned this early.

Out in central Illinois, where men are men and I am native, in 1948, at age seven, I made a mad, fateful blunder. I fell ankle over elbows in love with the Cubs. Barely advanced beyond the bib-and-cradle stage, I plighted my troth to a baseball team destined to dash the cup of life's joy from my lips.

Spring, Earth's renewal, a season of hope for the rest of mankind, became for me an experience comparable to being slapped around the mouth with a damp carp. Summer was like being bashed across the bridge of the nose with a crowbar -- ninety times. My youth was like one long rainy Monday in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Each year the Cubs charged onto the field to challenge the theory that there are limits to the changes one can ring on pure incompetence. By mid-April, when other kids' teams were girding for Homeric battles at the top of the league, my heroes had wilted like salted slugs and begun their gadarene descent to the bottom. By September they had set a mark for ineptness at which others -- but not next year's Cubs -- would shoot in vain.

Every litter must have its runt, but my Cubs were almost all runts. Topps baseball gum cards always struggled to say something nice about each player. All they could say about the Cubs' infielder Eddie Miksis is that in 1951 he was tenth in the league in stolen bases, with eleven.

Like the boy who stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled, I was loyal. And the downward trajectory of my life was set.

In 1949 I reported for Little League, the teams sponsored by local merchants. My friends played for teams like Rasmussen Masonry Braves and Kuhn's Department Store Cubs. Their team colors were bright red and vivid blue. I was a very late draft choice of the Mittendorf Funeral Home Panthers. Our color was black. An eight-year-old could not face these fires without being singed, unless he had the crust of an armadillo, and how many eight-year-olds do?

Of the sixteen teams that existed in 1949, all have since won league championships -- all but the Cubs. And which of the old National League teams was first to finish in tenth place behind even the expansion teams? Don't ask. Since 1949 the Cubs have lost more than 2,200 games. That's more than 6,000 hours of losing baseball. They never made me like losing, but they gave me superb training for 1964 when I cast my first vote for president, for Barry Goldwater.

My cruel addiction continued. In 1964 I chose to do three years of graduate study at Princeton because Princeton is midway between Philadelphia and New York -- two National League cities. All I remember about my wedding day in 1967 is that the Cubs dropped a doubleheader.

But the gentleman with the horse-whip should stay his hand. I share his fervent desire that I should quit writing about politics. I still hope to reverse the career pattern of James Reston, who began working in baseball but has sunk to writing a political column (for The New York Times). I hope to rise as far as he has fallen. I want to be a baseball writer when I grow up.

As the 1998 season began, the Cubs had lost 4,120 games since opening, day 1949, more than any other major league team. The second-losingest team in that space is the Athletics, who have lost 4,064.

Copyright George F. Will. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-684-83820-6
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