Bunts

by Thomas Healy

 

  “Bunts are modest and often useful things….”                                                                                                     George F. Will
 
“I was so nervous the first time I got to bat in the big leagues,” Milt Worrell recalled as he addressed the other patients at the lunch table, “I had to bite down hard on a rope of licorice to keep my teeth from chattering.  All the skipper wanted me to do was bunt the runner over to second base.  I was a pretty fair bunter so, despite how nervous I was, I was confident I could do the job.”
 
Pausing, he took another sip of apple juice.
 
“I took the first two pitches because they were out of the strike zone.  I was sure then the pitcher would throw me a strike so before he made his delivery I had already squared around to bunt.  The ball was coming so fast it looked the size of a pinball and I didn’t know if I’d be able to make contact with it.”
 
“You did, though, didn’t you?” one of the men at the table interrupted with a slight grin.
 
Worrell nodded then, all of a sudden, rose out of his chair and picked up a soup spoon, which he held in front of his chest as if it were a miniature bat.  “Surprising even myself, I got all of the bat on the ball,” he said, jabbing out the spoon, “and dropped the ball down the first base line.  The first baseman knew I was up there to bunt and was charging in so fast the ball looked as if it might roll past him.  For a second, I thought I might beat it out for a hit but he threw me out by half a step.  I did what I was supposed to do, though.  I moved the runner over to second and, believe me, guys, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better day in my life than I did that day.”
 
 
“Please, gentlemen,” their therapist, Walter Bledman, said, “let us stand now and say the Serenity Prayer together.”
 
At once, Worrell and the eleven other men joined hands and solemnly bowed their heads.
 
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” they said in unison, “the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
 
 
Sipping some black coffee, Worrell stared at the spiral green notebook that Bledman handed out to him and the other members of the group at the end of their first meeting.  He said they needed to take stock of themselves during their course of treatment at Shearside and encouraged them to identify and write down the particular aspects of their character they felt most needed to be repaired and strengthened.  A therapist at the last facility where Worrell was a patient also had suggested that he keep a journal but he found it very difficult to articulate his personal problems in words so, for the first three days he was there, was unable to write down a single word in his notebook.  He was frustrated, embarrassed even, aware that some patients had already filled out many pages in their notebooks.  So, in order to get something down in his book, he decided to list the different ways to bunt a baseball then identify his particular weakness in executing each bunt.  It was foolish, he knew, but at least he wasn’t staring idly at a blank sheet of paper every night.
 
Slowly he took another sip of coffee, staring at his empty notebook.  Then, smiling to himself, he printed at the top of the first page “Five Ways To Bunt A Baseball.”
 
“The purpose of the sacrifice bunt is to give up an out in order to advance a base runner,” he wrote in his barely legible handwriting.  “It is the most common type of bunt and the one I was called upon to execute the most in my baseball career.  I don’t really know why but I just had the ability, the knack you could say, to ‘deaden’ the pace of the ball so it didn’t roll straight back to the pitcher.  My one problem was that I wasn’t always able to put it where I wanted it to go.  So, after batting practice, I’d have a bat boy place handkerchiefs at different spots on the infield---hell, sometimes there were so many it looked like snow had fallen---and I’d try to drop bunts onto them.  It took many long hours of practice but, eventually, I was able to lay down a bunt anywhere I wanted.”
 
 
Only one telephone was available on Ward D for use by patients who were restricted to making one call a day.  The third night Worrell was at Shearside he called his wife, Mindy, and listened to her say “Hello” three times before he hung up.  Of course, she knew where he was, still he was too embarrassed to speak with her from another treatment facility and swore to himself he would not call her again until he was released.
 
 
“You’re a pretty rare bird,” Kirk Beckgren, another patient, remarked as he joined Worrell in the garden to rake leaves.
“I am?”
 
He nodded, scooping some leaves into a black trash bag.  “I’ve never met anyone before who played in the big leagues.”
 
“Oh.”
 
“As a car salesman, believe me, I’ve met a lot of people over the years but never someone who made it to the Majors.”
 
He grinned.  “I was just up there for a cup of coffee.”
 
“You were there, though,” he said enviously.  “As someone who played some ball in high school, I know what an accomplishment that is, Milt.”
Nodding, he knelt down to remove some stickers from the blades of his rake.
 
“How long were you up there for?”
 
“A season and a half.”
 
“You get injured?  Is that why you didn’t stay longer?”
 
He shook his head.  “I used to tell folks that because every ball player gets injured, sooner or later, but, no, I wasn’t injured seriously enough to lose my spot on the roster.  Truth be told, I just couldn’t hit the breaking balls they throw up there with any consistency.”
 
“I guess they must have been pretty wicked.”
 
“I could bunt anything,” he said a little defensively as he knelt down again, “but if that’s all you can do they’ll find someone who can do more with a bat.”
 
“Regardless of how long you were up there, you once were a big league ball player, and no one can ever take that away from you.  Right?”
“Right,” he grunted, removing more stickers from his rake.
 
 
“All problem drinkers suffer from the lack of self-esteem,” Bledman told the patients in his group.  “For whatever reason, you don’t believe you’re good enough.  You think others are always a little bit better.  And to compensate for this feeling of inferiority you drink more than you should.”
He paused for a moment and, one by one, regarded the twelve men seated in a circle around him, softly clicking his thumbnails against one another.  Then he walked over to an empty chair beside the door, lifted it up, and walked back to the center of the room and set it down with a loud thud.
“If you are to make any progress here at Shearside, gentlemen, your confidence has to be restored otherwise you’ll continue to drink.  So as a start I want you to imagine that the reason for your poor self-esteem is seated in this chair,” he said, slowly tilting the chair on its back legs.  “Clearly, you first have to recognize the cause of your drinking problem before you can overcome it.”
 
Worrell stared intently, as Bledman requested, but all he saw were some water marks on the front legs of the wobbly wooden chair.
 
 
“I only managed to get 17 hits in my brief stint in the big leagues,” Worrell scribbled in his notebook, “and nearly half of them were bunts.  Most of the time when I went up to the plate to bunt it was to sacrifice a runner over to another base but every now and then I dropped down a bunt for a hit.  Because I batted from the right side of the plate I wasn’t able to drag a bunt along the first base line as left-handed batters could but I was able to get some hits by pushing the ball past the pitcher.  It wasn’t easy to do, despite all the practicing I did, because if the ball was bunted too hard it would then be an easy play for the second baseman to make.”
 
 
“This your first time here?” a slim, spectacled patient who was not a member of Worrell’s group asked as they waited in the hot meal line in the cafeteria.
 
“At Shearside?”
 
He nodded, setting some silverware on his tray.
 
“It is.”
 
“But not your first time at a treatment facility?”
 
“Why do you say that?” Worrell asked, surprised by his perceptiveness.
 
He shrugged.  “I guess because you don’t look scared like so many of the people who are here for the first time.  You look as if you’ve jumped through the hoops here before.”
 
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I have been in treatment before.”
 
“I thought so,” the man said almost smugly.  “What caused you to return, if you don’t mind me asking?”
 
The bluntness of the question startled him, though he supposed it shouldn’t have because he knew from the previous facility he had been at that patients were encouraged to confront one another about what compelled them to become so dependent on alcohol.  He remembered, on a bathroom wall there, someone had scratched with a paper clip, “Give Each Other Hell If You Hope To Get Well.”
 
“I was out having dinner with some guys from work and, before I knew it, I was the only one left at the table.  The others all had gone home but I wasn’t ready to leave yet, and because I wasn’t hungry anymore I ordered a shot of tequila.  Just one, I told myself, but I had more than one and eventually the restaurant manager had to call a cab to take me home I was so sloshed.”
 
“Everyone here, I’m sure, has thought that they could get away with having one drink but that’s just not possible.”
 
“I know.”
 
“The first step we have to achieve at any of the facilities we’re at is to admit that we’re powerless over alcohol.  It’s the demon in our lives, not us.”
 
 
Yawning loudly, Morrell was tired and ready to go to bed but before he did he went over to his desk and took out his notebook.  He was determined to write something in it every night, as Bledman suggested, even if only a sentence or two.
 
“By far, the riskiest bunt in baseball is the squeeze bunt,” he wrote.  “There are two types of squeezes.  One is the safety squeeze in which the batter lays down a bunt in order to score a runner from third base.  Always, when asked to squeeze home a runner, I tried to bunt the ball away from the pitcher so he couldn’t make a quick play on the runner.  The other type is the suicide squeeze.  Here the runner on third base starts running home before the ball is thrown by the pitcher so the batter has to lay down a bunt that stays in fair territory otherwise the runner will easily be thrown out.  I was able to execute a suicide squeeze only once in the big leagues, and just a couple other times in the three and a half seasons I spent in the minors.”
 
Abruptly, he leaned back from his desk, angrily circling the word “suicide” until it became little more than a dark splotch in his notebook.
Earlier in the afternoon, when that guy who spotted him as a repeater wanted to know the reason for his relapse, he was deliberately vague in his answer.  He didn’t believe it was any of his concern so he just shrugged and said he had a sudden craving for a drink that he couldn’t resist.  There was a lot more to it than that, he knew, still circling the dark mark in his notebook.
 
A second baseman, he played alongside many shortstops during his time in the Dodgers’ organization but the one he was the most comfortable with was Rusty Grissom, a lanky kid who signed a contract straight out of high school.  The one season they played together they turned more double plays than any other double-play combination in their league.  Rusty was a much better prospect than he was and managed to spend almost four years in the big leagues before a chronically sore knee forced him out of the game.  Even after they finished playing ball, they stayed in touch, exchanging Christmas cards, calling one another a couple of times during the season.  But he was surprised the last time he heard from him because it was in the middle of winter.  Pitchers and catchers wouldn’t report to training camp for several more weeks.  For a few minutes, as usual, they discussed the prospects of the Dodgers for the upcoming season and which teams were most likely to contend with them for the pennant.  Rusty then mentioned he recently had been looking at some snapshots from the year they played together in Albuquerque and said he could not believe how young they looked in their uniforms.
 
Worrell leaned forward and picked up his pen.
 
“He said that season was, easily, the most important one of his career because it made him believe he could earn a living as a professional ball player.  He added that he never had a better teammate and thanked him for always being there when it really mattered.”
 
Three days later, he learned that his old teammate fell from the balcony of his apartment and died from massive head injuries.  The fall was ruled an accident, since the balcony was very slippery from all the rain that had fallen that day, but he was skeptical, particularly after the unexpected telephone call he received from his friend.  He didn’t know what he could have done but just wished he could have been beside him again that day it rained so hard.  That night he didn’t have dinner with anyone from work but went to a bar down on the waterfront and ordered his first drink in eighteen months and continued to order drinks until the bartender refused to serve him anymore.
 
 
“All right, gentlemen, make a circle around me if you will,” Bledman requested, urgently clapping his hands.” 
 
Worrell did as he was asked and stood behind the diminutive therapist who then stepped out of the circle.
 
“Now close your eyes,” he continued, “and walk forward with your arms at your sides.”
 
They did this exercise his first week at Shearside and he hated it because all he did was bump into other patients.  So, quickly, he isolated himself from the others but not this morning.  Today he looked forward to the contact and bumped into one person after another, smiling as proudly as if he had laid down an absolutely perfect bunt. 

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