Free Advice to Big Papi

David Ortiz Grand Slam. Getty Images

David Ortiz Grand Slam. Getty Images.

This quickie is from longtime pal and esteemed baseball historian John B. Holway. It relates to the current American League Championship Series, and thus is more current than Our Game readers have come to expect. But baseball’s history begins not in 1839 or 1744 but with the conclusion of last night’s game. Holway and I co-wrote The Pitcher and worked together on Total Baseballs first edition. But John’s forays into baseball’s dimly understood past predates mine by eons. He has been researching baseball since 1944. Renowned for his work on the Negro Leagues, he has also written frequently about Ted Williams, whom he saw hit two home runs in the 1946 All-Star Game. The Williams Shift is relevant here.

How do you give advice to David Ortiz?
 
No, not with the bases loaded and four runs down.
 
But I was shouting it to him almost every other time up this postseason.
 
“BUNT!!!”
 
They give him a 50-foot open target at third base. Even I could drop a bunt into it.
 
I know David can. Because I saw him do it. About seven years ago in Tampa. You could almost see him shrug and chuckle, “Well, if they’re gonna give it to me…”–then he pushed a 250-foot bunt into left field and jogged to first while the left fielder loped over to stop the ball before it rolled to the fence. Then Papi trotted home on Manny Ramirez’s homer.
 
I wonder if Boston could have beaten Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers in Game 1 if Ortiz had bunted every time they invited him to. He sure could have broken up two no-hitters fast.

Ted Williams, Look, October 15, 1946.

Ted Williams, Look, October 15, 1946.

 
In 1946 Lou Boudreau pulled his Shift on Ted.Ty Cobb and everybody told Ted to hit to left: It would open up right field so he could drill singles and doubles into it again. But he wouldn’t do it.
 
However, that fall he did win the pennant with an inside-the-park homer to left. And I saw him bunt to third with a swollen elbow in the World Series.
 
Then he got stubborn again.
 
Funny thing: Seven fielders were crowding into right field, but the wary pitchers were still pitching him outside; they were as stubborn as he was.
 
It took Ted a year and a half to see the light, but finally the smartest hitter in history started hitting the ball where it was pitched, lifting  homers over the Monster or glancing hits against it like Wade Boggs. Over the years he’d hit a couple over the Wall every season or dump a few flies on the grass in front of it.
 
Yet Boudreau and others were even more stubborn than Ted. Lou didn’t call the Shift off until about 1950.
 
In ‘58 I saw Ted beat Pete Runnels for the batting crown in the final series with three homers–to right, to center, and to left.
 
 
 

5 Comments

I did see Ortiz bunt for a hit this year. If he bunts it hard enough, it’s an easy double.

I recall reading an anecdote many years ago that addressed the issue of what a player should do as opposed to what he can do. Some of the members of New York’s famed Murderer’s Row were watching Joe Sewell take batting practice. The little infielder was spraying line drives to every field, the ball coming off his bat like “popcorn flying off a hot griddle,” according to the writer. One of the Yankees remarked that Sewell’s constant contact was a marvel, a remark to which Babe Ruth responded by saying, “Aw [insert colorful ballplayer language here], I could do that if I wanted to.”

Several of his teammates–who probably should have known better–scoffed and, in similarly colorful language, challenged him to put his money where his mouth was. Ruth is said to have shrugged, and when Sewell was done taking his hacks, the big outfielder grabbed his bat and headed for the cage. Stepping into the batter’s box, the Babe then choked up on his truncheon and yelled out to the pitcher to throw whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted.

Ruth proceeded to smash line drives all over Yankee Stadium, to left, right, and center, with the same consistency as Sewell had but with more power–balls that had died on the outfield grass several feet beyond the infield for Joe now skittered and rolled deep into both gaps and down both lines for the Bambino.

He continued this exhibition for about five minutes, then returned to the dugout. He said, “I could hit .400 every year if that’s what I wanted to do.” One of his teammates then asked why he didn’t and the Babe replied, “Because that’s not what Colonel Ruppert pays me to do. He pays me to hit home runs.”

Ted Williams was in the same situation: he was not being paid by Tom Yawkey either to flare the ball to left or to confound the defense by bunting. He was paid to hit the ball deep as well as consistently. And while some, like Ty Cobb, saw Williams as merely stubborn, those who have read _The Science of Hitting_ and _My Turn at Bat_ know that this most cerebral of hitters, far from sticking to the status quo, worked hard to find a way to drive the ball to the opposite field while maintaining his power.

It wasn’t an easy technique to master and it took some time, but eventually Williams learned how to employ the inside-out swing, one which would enable him to drive the ball to the opposite field with the same oomph he imparted on the balls he hit to right. This would pay great dividends at the plate, especially during the 1957 season when Ted fell five hits shy of batting .400, and in 1958 when he won his sixth and final batting title.

As for current Red Sox players foiling the shift, I think the occasional bunt would be a splendid idea for someone like Jarrod Saltalamacchia–no one is going to complain much if a .273 hitter plumps up his average and gets on base by dropping one down. It might even spread the defense a little bit (especially given Miguel Cabrera’s current defensive constraints due to injury).

But with regard to Big Papi, one of the smartest hitters I’ve ever seen in half a century watching the Red Sox, this Boston fan is content to let him work things out for himself. With all due respect to Mr. Holway, one of baseball’s finest historians, and with due consideration for the rare game situation wherein a bunt might be as good as a blast, singles and doubles the opposite way are not what Mr. Henry pays David Ortiz to do.

Well done, Mr. Reed.

In fact, this is such a solid reply that I will feature it as a post.

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