There’s nothing better than delivering a big hit in a baseball game. Whether its a deep ball in the gap or a line drive up the middle; there is this moment you have during the follow through and exiting the batter’s box that is explicable. It’s euphoric. It’s a statement of “look at me, I’m that good and you’re not!”
On this day I was experiencing that feeling every time I stepped to the plate. Already 3 for 3, I was walking up to the dish with runners on 1st and 2nd, no outs and a one-run lead. It’s a hitter’s dream! As a leadoff hitter with exceptional speed; a double play was low risk, and with the way I was hitting; this at bat looked like a 4 for 4 day with some RBI’s added to my name.
As I set to get in the batter’s box, our head coach suddenly gets my attention with a set of body movements that indicates a play is on. Baseball signals are like a form of Morse Code done with body movements. The message of instructions were sent me to….BUNT! “Are you sure about this? It doesn’t make much sense. They’ll be looking for it.” is what came to my head. I looked at the coach with surprise. To ensure I got the message; he once again went through the set of instructions touching the bill of his cap and swiping the belt buckle. The bunt was on. Or was it?
The pitcher being right handed and myself a left-handed hitter, came at me with a smart first pitch; a back-door curveball. It’s a pitch that most left-handed hitters take early in the count unless it ends up inside and up. It’s also the perfect pitch to bunt as the trajectory of the pitch makes it easy to place the bunt on the ground and not pop it up. It’s a pitch I’ve bunted a thousand times down the 3rd base line for a comfortable base hit. Not this time though. I let it go. Never indicating a bunt attempt either. As the umpire calls out “Strike”, I figured my lack of effort to bunt would be baseball Morse Code back to the coach that the situation merits another approach.
I stepped out of the box again only to see our coach get more animated with his body messaging and as if it wasn’t clear before; the instructions to bunt were on. In my head, I was saying, “I am 3 for 3 with ducks on the pond and you want me to bunt?” “Who do you think I am?” “I own this game and this pitcher is about to lose his head after I send his pitch out of the park like a missile launch.” Message denied buddy.
I step into the box again, and the pitcher comes back with the same pitch in the same exact spot! “Strike” is bellowed again from behind the plate and now it is 0-2. In baseball, bunting with two strikes is high-risk roulette. If you foul the pitch off attempting a bunt; it is an automatic out. It’s a ridiculous rule but a rule is a rule, and given the rule, I figured the 0-2 count gave me a “get out of bunt jail for free” card.
I stepped out of the box and tried to step back in quickly to prevent any recourse I knew may come from the decision. A quick step back in the box would indicate “let’s move on,” and “we can discuss this later after I finish this pitcher off.” What preceded was a roar like none other! Not a bellow nor a holler, but a massive booming roar. “BEAVERS! STEP OUT! YOU ARE GOING TO BUNT ON THIS PITCH! I DON’T CARE IF THE PITCH HITS THE DIRT, YOU ARE BUNTING!” is what was yelled for every player and fan to hear. If the previous two pitches were a stand-off at the OK Corral between coach and player; this guy just nuked me and wanted to watch me bleed to death in public. I was mad, embarrassed, and…second guessing myself. There was a moment where I had to decide, “Do I continue to be defiant? Do I conform? Do I swing away and smoke a double down the line to show him up and everyone to see? Do I attempt the bunt and foul out, or worse strike out?” With no time to think about the situation but a few seconds; I stepped into the box not knowing what I was going to do. The pitch came, and it was once again a backdoor curveball. At 16 years of age, I wasn’t full of wisdom; I was full of testosterone and arrogance. That moment I wanted to hammer that pitch, but I didn’t. I complied. Reluctantly, I did what was demanded and put a bunt down towards the third base. I hustled down the line a bit faster than usual; partly out of spite and anger. I wanted to save face and my dignity. The bunt put down must have been relatively good because it drew no throw and I ran past first base figuring I’d get a time out from the coach and a quick replacement runner. No timeout came from across the diamond. No replacement runner. Just a bases-loaded situation and my coach acting as nothing happened. No glare over, no hollering, nothing. This made me feel as though I’d just entered into an episode of the Twilight Zone. I can’t recall much of what happened on the base paths after that, but I do know I never had to stop at third base.
The game ended and I knew a conversation was to come after. Our coach didn’t publicly embarrass me again, didn’t acknowledge the situation in front of the team. He just walked up to me and said: “You will bunt every time you go to the plate until I say to stop.” Nothing else, just that. He was intimidating in stature and a man of few words anyway. Message heard.
For the next 12-15 games, I bunted the ball every single at-bat. I bunted down the 3rd base line, pulled them towards the first base line, chipped running bunts past 3rd basemen who knew I was bunting and cheated in too much. For a stretch of 40 straight at-bats, I never swung the bat. I even quit taking batting practice swings. I’d just practice bunting. The results were 26 hits on 40 attempted bunts. To put this in perspective, by bunting 40 times and succeeding on 26 occasions; I increased my batting average over 200+ points, scored more runs than I had in the previous 40 at-bats during the year. We won more games. My contributions were immense, and they came in less than 10-foot increments.
On at-bat #41 I was given my “get out of bunt jail” card. I was free. I was a reformed man. On the second pitch of the at-bat, I put down a well-placed bunt for a hit. Good habits are hard to break 😉
What I learned:
Pride has many faces. Pride is defined as a state of holding one’s self or another in high esteem or a feeling of being good and worthy. There is good pride, and there is bad pride. Good pride can be a catalyst for you to become a better version of yourself. Bad pride can be a roadblock that keeps you from some of the greatest successes, relationships, and opportunities you could ever imagine. Pride can be the obstacle that prevents you from being a great player, a wise coach, a good spouse, or a substantial contributor. My coach never told me why he made me bunt for such an extensive period. It may have been a test to find out what kind of character I had. Would I put aside my ego or rot in my skewed self-image? For reasons too foggy for me to remember; the lesson was learned and appreciated.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Philippians 2:3