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Ruth & Mantle bunted, why not Gardner?

Speedy outfielder Brett Gardner is promising to add more bunting to his game, but he probably will not become another Brett Butler, who proudly said bunting made him a millionaire. 

Bunting has not been a part big of Major League Baseball for decades.  A successful  sacrifice bunt is a big deal, bunting for a base hit is like hitting a grand slam home run.

In 1991, Newsday interviewed Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto and other players on the lost art of bunting. 

When you see a pitcher fail to move a runner, a missed squeeze play, or any stuation calling for just putting the ball in play, this story may ring true. 

 

A MAN in the baseball clubhouse inquired about the subject of a story a reporter was working on. Told it was about bunting, he smirked and said, "Oh, you mean what they use to make flags?"

Bunting used to be prominently woven into the fabric of baseball, a work of art perfected by Phil Rizzuto, a weapon of deception Mickey Mantle cherished more than a home run. Today it is an anachronism, practiced by few, mastered by fewer. When you hear someone bunted for a base hit, odds are the (Brett) Butler did it.

Butler, the Dodgers' centerfielder, led the majors with 24 bunt hits in 1990. "Bunting helped make me a millionaire," he said. "I wasn't a real good hitter when I was a kid. My goal was to get on base. I worked on it in the minors. I was successful; my average was high. When I got to the big leagues I had only two bunt hits the first year because you hear things like 'you're giving in to the pitcher' when you bunt. Then I hit .269 in Cleveland with 29 bunt hits [in 1984]. If I didn't do that I would have hit .220 and who knows where I'd be.

"I have to use what God has given me, and that is bunting. To me, I can't add any more to my game," Butler said. "Guys like Vince Coleman can learn to bunt, which would add to their game. I look at players who have tremendous ability who could add to their game. I've sat and talked to young players and said, 'Put this in your game and you can make a lot of money.' But they either can't or won't. That's what bothers me."

Butler's role model for bunting was Mantle. "We've talked about bunting," Butler said, "and Mickey takes more pride in his bunting than his home runs."

Bunting belonged to the days when games were played in ballparks, not stadia; on natural grass, not artificial turf; when everyone, including the pitcher, took a turn at bat.

Rangers manager Bobby Valentine said managers know the value of bunting, but players generally refuse to employ it. "It's hard for me to understand why the individual doesn't take it upon himself to use it as a weapon," Valentine said. "The players are so involved in their individual well-being. I mean, it just has to be in your arsenal, and yet there is a reluctance to do it. I don't believe I've ever had a guy get to the big leagues who knew how to bunt."

Why? "Bunting, Butler excluded, isn't conducive to the big contracts," former Padres and Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett said. "Kids are coming up, their heroes are Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry. So they all want to hit homers and are not working on the bunt."

Yesterday's stars enjoyed bunting. "I'll tell you what," Mantle said. "One of the saddest parts in my career was I ended up hitting .298 and I figured if I had bunted a few more times [each season], I'd have hit .300 . . . They [critics] could say what they want to about it, but I bet you I scored a hell of a lot of runs on those bunts."

Charlie Segar, who covered the Yankees for the New York Daily Mirror in the late 1920s, recalled Babe Ruth as being an excellent bunter. "Babe was at the plate, and they put on the shift. When they did, Babe laid down a perfect bunt," Segar said. "Everyone got a big laugh. Babe got the biggest laugh of all. Cobb beat out a lot of bunts and also Gehrig once in a while. They didn't share the same attitude as guys today do. Jackie Robinson's first major-league hit was a bunt."

The seemingly simple act of dribbling a ball a few yards has its place in baseball history. Rizzuto executed perhaps the most famous bunt of all time when he squeezed home Joe DiMaggio on Sept. 17, 1951, to give the Yankees a key 2-1 victory over the Indians. It was the bunt heard 'round the baseball world because it gave the Yankees a one-game lead on Cleveland with 12 games to play.

"It was a tie ballgame in the bottom of the ninth inning," Rizzuto recalled. "DiMaggio was almost on top of home plate when I bunted. [Bob] Lemon threw me a pitch right at my head but I could bunt the ball anyplace they threw it. By the time Lemon picked up the ball DiMaggio had already scored. Lemon threw his glove and ball up at the screen. Mantle, in his rookie season, was in the on-deck circle."

"I was going crazy, jumping up and down, because I didn't have to bat next," Mantle said. Mantle himself might have tried the squeeze if Rizzuto had failed. "Mantle bunted more than anybody on the Yankees, next to me," Rizzuto said.

Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, who grew up in the Dodger system, said bunting - and every other fundamental - was drilled into each player. "It was a policy of the Dodgers," Reese said. "Sometimes Mr. [Branch] Rickey would get out there himself. He taught me how to slide. Guys don't want to bunt? Mantle bunted with two strikes all the time and I never saw him foul one off. How's that?"

Rizzuto despairs at the lack of bunting in today's game. "It's a lost art because nobody practices it," he said. "When [Joe] McCarthy was manager he put circles about 10 feet down the third- and first-base line and you had to bunt at least five balls in that circle before you could leave. The sluggers and everybody knew how to bunt. Now players would rather hit a home run once in every 40 at-bats."

During his tenures as Yankee manager, Billy Martin asked Rizzuto to show players how to bunt during spring training. "The only guys who came down were the kids, the rookies. But they never stayed with the club," Rizzuto said. "The shame is, bunting is not so difficult. It's one of the few things you can learn. You can be very proficient. All you have to do is practice. If a guy does a sacrifice today, he gets high-fives and low-fives and medium-fives. I can't believe the huckleberries. It's like they hit a home run."

It certainly was not unusual for power hitters to sacrifice, either. "I squeezed runs in, I sacrificed, I've bunted," said Yankees batting coach Frank Howard, who hit 382 career home runs. "I executed 60 percent of the time. You got to know how to do it, you're damn right."

Roger Maris even spent one at-bat on a bunt on his way to 61 homers in 1961. "He was going for the home run record," Tony Kubek said. "He dragged a bunt and got me over to third with the winning run. A complete ballplayer will win the game at that particular time with the bunt. If Billy asked Reggie to bunt, late in the ballgame, the guy should be willing to bunt. Whatever is best for the club. But if a guy wants to be selfish, and he'd rather strike out, well . . . "

A bunt played a big part in a chain of events for the 1978 Yankees. Martin did signal for Jackson to sacrifice, then changed his mind. Jackson, miffed at being asked to perform what he considered a menial chore, attempted the bunt anyway. It failed. A furious Martin suspended Jackson for insubordination, and in the aftermath, Martin was fired.

"I sacrificed about three or four times in my career, but not in my heyday, not when I was calling the shots," Jackson said. "That day Billy asked me to bunt, then he changed to hit, I stayed bunting and I got suspended. That was all about a feud. I just stood up there and stuck the bat out."

Jackson does not believe power hitters should be asked to bunt. "The only time you bunt is when you can't handle a [pitcher]," he said. "When I was in my heyday, 28 years old, if you bunted you did the opposition a favor. There are rare occasions when you bunt to get a guy in scoring position if you're struggling, in a fog, in a funk. But when you have a bat in your hand and you're a legitimate 30-home run guy like me or Kevin Mitchell, you don't bunt. No way. Got it?"

Today's Yankees are being schooled to sacrifice by Stump Merrill. "It's an element of the game that you have to be able to do," the manager said. "There comes a point in the game where you gotta take what they are giving you."

Merrill's current team has no Murderers' Row, and no Yankee is above a bunt. "I think everybody should know how to bunt," Don Mattingly said. "It's part of the game, plain and simple. If they ask me to do it, I try to get it down. I think we're here to do what we're supposed to."

That was the situation power hitter Kevin Maas found himself in against the White Sox earlier this season. When the left side of the infield was left open for the lefthanded Maas, he bunted for a base hit. Mantle was proud. "Thatta boy!" Mantle said of the effort. Maas bunted again for a hit against the Mariners. "There may be a time when it's crucial for you to do it," Maas said. "At least you'll know how to do it. I won't say I work on it as much as my swinging or my defense, but I think about it so it's not totally foreign to me."

Most of the Mets are not good bunters. The speedy Coleman is working on his bunting, but there is a certain amount of reluctance. "Bunting is a matter of confidence, and if you're not successful at it, then you're not going to try," Coleman said. "So if you are able to be successful, then it will open up your game tremendously. To bring the first baseman in, the second baseman in and then once they come in, that creates holes. And if you are trying to hit the ball on the ground a lot, as I do, you have a lot more space, room to create base hits. And it can be an extra weapon to use for anybody that has speed."

Rickey Henderson, the game's all-time base-stealer, wants nothing to do with bunting. "It's never been my game because I can hit better than I can bunt," he said. "Guys who can't hit, they bunt. That's not me. If you're a leadoff hitter and you ain't getting on base no other way, then you should bunt. I'm not going to bunt when I can hit." Henderson also does not know how to bunt. "I got hit in the eye in 1982 and '83," he said. "That was enough for me."

Mets hitting instructor Mike Cubbage said it is imperative for a hitter to be in the right frame of mind to bunt. He sees no excuse for not bunting in the appropriate situation. Gregg Jefferies is an example. "Jefferies is a great athlete who can handle the bat and there's no reason why, if called on to bunt, that he shouldn't be able to lead the National League in bunts," Cubbage said. "You've got to have the mind-set. In the minor leagues, we taught all our guys to bunt because it's a great slump-breaker."

The truly complete hitters know how to bunt, even if they rarely resort to it. "I've generally not bunted as much as I should have because I feel like I have an ability to put the bat on the ball," said the Padres' Tony Gwynn, a four-time NL batting champ. "The bunting game has kind of been pushed aside because of the numbers guys could put on the board by swinging a bat. So bunting is kind of a lost art. You don't see it happen too often except on a sacrifice where guys completely give themselves up, turn it square and put the ball down. You don't see a lot of guys trying to beat out a bunt hit. I think a lot of guys should work on it."

Butler is the best bunter in the majors for base hits and Jay Bell, the Pirates' shortstop, is tops at sacrifices. He led the majors last year with a club-record 39 sacrifice bunts, with 64 percent leading to a run. At the All-Star break this season, Bell had a major-league-leading 20 sacrifice bunts, 14 of which led to runs. "I was always a No. 3 hitter throughout the minor leagues and I was never asked to bunt," Bell said. "When I got to Cleveland, Doc [Edwards, the manager] asked me to bunt a few times and I wasn't very good at all. That was one of the things that led to me getting traded to Pittsburgh. When I got over here I told [batting coach] Tommy Sands I need to learn how to bunt. And I did.

"It is a fundamental part of the game. And it certainly has been a help to our team," Bell said. "I think that's part of the reason why we did so well last year. It's because we did a lot of fundamental things right."

Even with all his success, Bell rarely is sought out by his teammates for tips on bunting. "Some of the pitchers, but not many of the regulars," he said. "Basically, I'm the only one who is excited to bunt."

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