In the spring of 1997, a group of boys took batting practice for an upcoming coach-pitch baseball game. Some hacked away, attempting to launch the ball far beyond the reach of the outfielders; others focused on keeping the ball down and driving it into a gap. One child stood out from the rest. Lanky blonde limbs rippled with muscle as he gripped the bat. He tapped the far side side of the plate once, twice, then lifted it to a rest on his shoulder. The usual chatter of practice gave way to silence as the coach threw the ball toward home plate.
Then, with a mighty thunk, Kevin Lake of Iowa City, laid a perfect bunt down the third base line. He slotted five there, hugging tightly to the line, and then five along the first baseline. His grand finale? A bloop that landed perfectly between second base and the pitchers mound, where no child could possibly field and throw him out in time.
“I took my craft seriously,” says Lake, now 27 years old. “The bunt is underappreciated. The great classical bunters — Rod Carew, Eddie Collins, Stuffy McInnis — they all had a signature style, one you could recognize from the nosebleeds. Today? These guys can’t even square up right for a sacrifice, let alone reach base. It’s a disgrace.”
Lake ascended rapidly through Iowa youth leagues, leaning on his preternatural gift for rolling the ball up the chalk. Once, major league scouts visited his high school games, enamored by this 90-grade skill. Then, due to an unfortunate accident (“I’ll never discuss that publicly, nor will I ever return to Regal Cinemas.”) Lake’s career derailed. From his West Loop Chicago apartment, Lake scours statistics of the minors and youth leagues across this great land looking for another to fulfill his destiny.
“It’s only a matter of time,” says Lake. His gaze lingers on the Chicago skyline, steel teeth set in relief against the frozen surface of lake Michigan. He sips a Miller Lite. “Another like me will come along and finish the revolution I started.”
How different is today’s game from it’s run-manufacturing past? Sacrifice bunts and bunt singles used to be part of the mythos of the game, like Cracker Jacks, pine tar, or a side woman in a divisional rival’s city. Now the game revolves around reaching base and hitting bombs. In honor of the small ball ways of baseball’s past, here are the five greatest bunts in the history of the Cleveland Indians.
5) October 9th, 1910: Nap Lajoie
Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb entered the final day of the season with a chance to win a car from Chalmers by virtue of having the highest batting average. Lajoie played a doubleheader and went 8-8, six of which were bunt singles. He also contributed a sacrifice bunt that was later ruled to be a bunt single, giving him nine hits on the day. Lajoie and Cobb both ended up getting cars at the end of the year, but Lajoie did it with the true grace and probable collusion with the opposing manager that any great bunter should have.
4) May 8th, 1981: Mike Hargove
The Human Rain delay excelled at laying down sick bunts. Throughout his career Hargrove laid down 44 sacrifice hits, but perhaps none were more important than this crucial bunt against the Minnesota Twins in the Astrodome. With the Indians down 5-7, Hargrove stepped to the plate with runners on first and second, no outs. A homer would put the Indians in the lead, and a hit would score at least one while potentially moving two more into scoring position. Even a walk would have done wonders, and Hargrove ended up leading the 1981 American League in OBP with .424.
Manager Dave Garcia didn’t have time for any of this. He decided to play the game the way the good lord intended for it to be played on Astroturf. Hargrove laid it down and advanced both runners, sacrificing himself in the process. Later in the inning Bo Diaz knocked them both in with a pinch-hit double, tying the game. While some “sabermagicians” might point to the double as being the pivotal hit in the inning, baseball purists recognize that the bunt served as the catalyst for the furious comeback.
Did the Indians lose on a walk-off after a passed ball in the bottom of the ninth? Sure, but for weeks after, the streets of Cleveland buzzed about the recession and Hargrove’s bunt.
3) The Slug Bunt
It’s worth pointing out that this was only one of two ridiculous bunts in the inning, both of which proved vital in a strange Indians win. While Davis won’t suit up in an Indians uniform this season, don’t expect his highlight-reel bunts to stop anytime soon.
2) Jeffrey Lionel Magee’s inside-the-park-homerun bunt
What’s that? “Maniac” Magee never played for the Cleveland Indians? We don’t know that for sure; maybe after the book ends he goes on to a live a long and fulfilling life, including six years with the Indians filled with stolen bases and acrobatic catches.
That’s not what we’re here to discuss. What I’d like to present to you is a bunt so spectacular that it should adorn every greatest bunt list, regardless of what the criteria for inclusion are. Jeffrey Lionel Magee faced off against the terrifying McNab, and because he couldn’t strike Magee out with a normal ball, McNab elected to throw a frog.
He'd never -- nobody'd ever -- tried to hit a fastfrog before.
So what did the kid do? He bunted it [...] laid down a perfect bunt in front of the plate, third-base side, and he took off for first. He was halfway to second before McNab jolted himself into action. The kid was trying for an inside-the-park-home-run bunt—the rarest feat in baseball.
So McNab lumbered off the mound after the frog, which was now hopping down the third-base line. As a matter of fact, it was so close to the line that McNab had a brilliant idea—just herd the frog across the line and it would be a foul ball (or frog). [...] But now the frog shot through his legs, over to the mound, and now toward shortstop and now toward second, and the kid was rounding third and digging for home, and—unbefroggable!—the "ball" was heading back home too! The ball, the batter, the pitcher all racing for home plate, and it was the batter, the new kid out of nowhere, who crossed the plate first, at the same time scooping up his book, twirling his borrowed red cap back to the cheering others, and logging on past the empty stands and up the hill to the boulevard.
Jerry Spinelli, Maniac Magee, 1990
Is it fair to use fiction in a contest like this? Probably not, but this was my other choice for second:
1) September 3, 2000: Kenny Lofton
You knew that Lofton would end up at the top of this list when you started reading it. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Lofton lays down a picture-perfect bunt to reach base. This bunt, by itself, doesn’t necessarily deserve to be named the greatest in the history of Cleveland Indians baseball. It must be considered in context to be truly appreciated.
Lofton’s line for the game: 4 R, 4 H, 5 SB, 1 RBI, 1 BB, and a walk-off dinger. That, and he tied the American League record for most consecutive games with a run scored.
Please send this video to every member of the BBWAA that failed to vote for Kenny Lofton.
Will we ever see a bunting renaissance?
“The fabric of today’s game doesn’t contain a thread of the discipline and grit required for great bunters,” says Lake. Five Miller Lite tallboys lay next to his couch, empty. It is 12:30 in the afternoon. A picture of Ray Chapman hangs on the wall with the numbers 67 and 1917 etched into a corner, the number and year of his sacrifice hits record. “All these teams that don’t care about striking out, just want to hit bombs... it’ll come back. Someday. I promise you. There’s a kid in Oviedo, Florida, right now that....”
Lake trails off and stares out the window of his apartment for a moment. The thought rolls in his mind, a baseball spinning forward through the clay, the pitcher dashing to retrieve it before it escapes.
“It’ll come back,” he whispers.