BUNTS ARE A BEAUTIFUL THING

By Murray Chass

August 7, 2011

If you’re as big on bunting as I am, seeing Juan Pierre pop a bunt over the third baseman’s head for a hit has to be the highlight of the week. Pierre’s hit against the New York Yankees, though, was only one of four bunts that grabbed my attention last week. It was definitely a good week for bunting, sadly a lost art in today’s homer-happy game.Juan Pierre Bunt 225

If Phil Rizzuto, the Yankees’ Hall of Fame shortstop, were alive, he would rejoice alongside me because as a player he was baseball’s master at bunting and in retirement its most ardent advocate.

Two of Rizzuto’s fellow Yankees, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, were among the players I applauded last week for their bunting exploits. Gardner, the Yankees’ leadoff batter, opened a game against the Chicago White Sox with a bunt single, and Jeter duplicated his effort by also bunting for a hit.

The dual hits led to a four-run inning, and the four-run outburst led to an 18-7 win.

When is the last time you saw a team start a game with two bunt hits? The Elias Sports Bureau said it happened only one other time this season, April 12, in a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros.

Michael Bourn led off the Astros’ half of the first inning by bunting for a hit, and Angel Sanchez followed with another bunt hit. Three runs resulted, and the Astros won, 11-2.

When it comes to bunting for hits, though, Pierre is by himself. His bunt hit against the Yankees was his major league-leading 15th bunt hit of the season, according to Elias, putting him four ahead of Houston’s Jason Bourgeois.

In his career, which began in 2000, Pierre has 189 bunt hits, including two doubles. Closest to him in that time is Willy Taveras with 122.

The beauty of Pierre’s bunt against the Yankees was that third baseman Eric Chavez was coming in to protect against a bunt, and Pierre popped the ball over his head, too high for him to intercept, too far behind him to reach back and grab. Chavez was helpless in his effort to snare the ball.

“It was set up early in the series with CC pitching,” Pierre said by telephone from Minneapolis Friday, referring to CC Sabathia. “I bunted and Chavez got me out. He made a pretty good play. He was in real close, taking away the bunt down the line.”

Pierre, a left-hand hitter, who turns 34 Sunday, did not claim to be able to pop the ball over the third baseman’s head any time he wanted.

“I wish I could do it regularly,” he said, “because I’d do it all the time. If I get a pitch up and out, I try to hit it over his head. Actually, I want to hit the ball toward the shortstop if he’s charging. I’ve gotten a couple doubles doing that. I’ve been successful with it.”

It’s too bad that Michael Kay didn’t know that. The Yankees’ lead broadcaster, Kay was on the air when Pierre executed his pop bunt single. Kay and John Flaherty, his partner in the booth, proceeded to debate whether or not Pierre deliberately did what he did.

Flaherty said yes, he thought Pierre did. No way that he could do that deliberately, Kay countered. It was surprising that someone who has been around for Pierre’s entire career would not know of his ability to bunt, using his bat the way a magician uses his wand.

There was nothing magical about Erick Aybar’s bunt against Detroit, but it was controversial and became a subject of debate.

Aybar, the Angels’ shortstop, led off the eighth inning of a game the Tigers were ahead, 3-0, by bunting. Nothing wrong with the leadoff batter trying to get on base in a tight game, right? Except Justin Verlander was pitching a no-hitter and didn’t appreciate Aybar’s attempt to spoil it with a bunt single.

Justin Verlander 225Verlander called the bunt “bush league” but acknowledged that it was a “tight game.” The pitcher apparently was so unnerved by the bunt that he fielded it and threw the ball away, enabling Aybar to reach second on the two-base error. He went on to score, and the Angels added a second run on Macier Izturis’ single, certainly justifying Aybar’s bunt.

But Verlander lost his no-hitter and his temper, yelling at Aybar after the inning.

If the game had been one-sided, I would agree that bunting to break up a no-hitter is a poor play. Not in this instance, however. Pitchers can’t expect the opposing team to accept its fate and lay down its weapons.

In 1978, the Atlanta Braves stopped Pete Rose’s record-threatening hitting streak at 44 games, and Rose complained bitterly that the Braves’ pitchers did not challenge him with fastballs but instead threw him off-speed stuff. Well, they were trying to get him out, and if he couldn’t handle off-speed pitches, they chose the right strategy.

Verlander would have preferred that Aybar swing away, but his bunt triggered a rally that nearly pulled the game out for the Angels. You can’t legitimately argue with that strategy.

PIRATES ARE PUMPKINS AGAIN

The Pittsburgh Pirates obviously couldn’t stand prosperity. They had been down so long they suffered a serious setback when they reached the rarified air of first place.Pirates Lose4 225

Through their own grit and determination and the grace of the poor quality of their division, the National League Central, the downtrodden Pirates spent four days in first place and another day tied for first. They had half a game lead on two of the days and a percentage-point lead the other two days.

Since they last occupied the division’s top spot (July 25), the Pirates (through Saturday) lost 11 of 12 games, including the last nine. Philadelphia, the league’s best team, began the Pirates’ perilous plunge by sweeping a three-game series.

Then the Chicago Cubs, the league’s second-worst team, wiped out the Pirates in a four-game series in front of horrified Pirates fans. San Diego, in last place, extended the Pirates’ problems by winning the first two games of their series.

After a major league-record 18 successive losing seasons, the Pirates last month soared seven games over .500 at 51-44. It soon figures to be a bittersweet memory in another disappointing, if not disastrous season.

A-ROD THE LIGHTNING ROD

Alex Rodriguez’s name can’t be found among the league leaders, but that’s because the category he leads isn’t published anywhere and, in fact, doesn’t exist.

Rodriguez, however, leads the majors in Major League Baseball investigations. No one else is close.

Alex Rodriguez Strikeout3 225The New York Yankees’ third baseman is the lightning rod for all of the ills baseball perceives it has. The latest is the supermarket tabloid report that Rodriguez played in an illegal high-stakes poker game.

My first thought about that accusation was of the low-stakes but presumably also illegal poker games my father played weekly with neighborhood friends. He was a good poker player and usually won, but I never thought that he was doing anything illegal.

My father’s pastime and success at it did not influence me to become a poker player. Nor have I had any interest in watching the poker that has become popular on television.

As a result, I initially questioned an investigation of Rodriguez for playing a card game. I am aware, on the other hand, of all sports’ concern that consorting with gamblers could lead athletes down a path of temptation.

But, I wondered, here’s Rodriguez making $25 million to $30 million a year, how could even a high-stakes poker game get him trapped in the clutches of gamblers?

I posed that question to Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner and the most moral man I know. He provided a good answer, as he usually does.

“No matter how wealthy someone is,” Vincent said, “a gambler can get to him. Say the player owes him $100,000. He says to the player, ‘Forget what you owe. The next time you know something about the team, an injury, a player going through a tough time, call me and let me know.’ The gambler is looking for an edge.”

And he added, “No matter how much money someone has, he doesn’t like to lose it.”

I called one other person, Arnie Wexler, who touts gamblers off gambling. He describes himself as a recovering compulsive gambler. He is passionate about his work and knows gamblers and gambling. I asked him the question about wealthy athletes and gambling losses.

“Got a call a few years ago from a guy playing in the NL,” he replied in an e-mail. “He was making $800,000 a year and owed Trump in AC $25,000. Could not pay it and was afraid MLB would find out. I cut a deal 4 him for the $8,000 he had.”

More e-mail, much more e-mail, followed. As I said, the man is passionate about his subject. He said he is working on a book about gambling but has not found a publisher.

“I have gotten calls on my 888 LAST BET help line and met with guys who had and made more than him,” he wrote, referring to A-Rod, “and ended up busted and 2 are in jail even today.

“2 come to mind 1 a big time NYC lawyer who had over 100 lawyers working 4 him came to me when he owed over $4,000,000 in AC and could not pay it.

“I worked out a deal for him to pay it out. Today he’s in jail.

“Another guy lost $27,000,000 in all cash in AC. Today hes in jail if he’s still alive.

“Look at Pete Rose John Daily (sic) Lenny Dykstra and Art Schlister. I have been trying to help him from 1980. Hes in jail again right now.”

As for my question about what makes a poker game illegal, Wexler wrote, “They are illegal. It’s only legal if the state takes a piece.”

There has been speculation that if M.L.B. investigators determine that Rodriguez played in these high-stakes poker games, he could face suspension. Union officials don’t think so.

“The union sees nothing in the report of his alleged poker playing that would warrant suspension,” one official said.

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