fear and bunting in st. louis, part 1; the St. Louis Cardinals confront a gonzo problem with Mike Matheny and bunting

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a partially fictionalized account of the bunting saga of the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals. how mike matheny learned to stop worrying and love the bunt.

matheny: we were somewhere outside of milwaukee, on the edge of dairy country, when the bunting began to take hold. i remember saying something like, "i feel a little light-headed; maybe you should try to manufacture a run here," when all of a sudden the dugout was full of bats, all swooping and diving and gently presenting themselves in a squared fashion around the players and coaches. i could've sworn i saw carlos beltran holding eight bats, four in each hand, one between each finger, each one bigger and more prone to dumping a dribbling ball down the third base line than the next. and a voice was screaming "holy jesus, where did all these goddamn bats come from?"

matheny: the ownership had given mo and me about $100 or $110 million in cash, most of which we had already blown on three 30-something erstwhile-outfielder sluggers, a late-20's ex-third baseman who didn't really have a position, a fragile-ankled third baseman, a center-fielder with a possibly unsustainable BABIP, a walking machine who'd suddenly discovered how to drive the ball in the gap, an injury plagued shortstop whose best years were behind him, a hodgepodge of light-hitting midddle infielders, a catcher who was a defensive specialist and a contact hitter, a dozen or so major- and minor-league relievers all throwing in the mid- and high-90s, LOOGys, ROOGys, setupmen, closers, fourth outfielders, has-beens, never-weres, rookies, minor league free agents, vets past their expiration dates, and some hitchhiker we picked up in kansas city for a dollar. we had terabytes of data and video about our players; we had terabytes more data and video about everybody else. we had spray charts, run expectancy tables, scouting reports. we had elaborate double-steal plans, hidden ball tricks, third-to-first pickoffs. we had an entire liter of something called Rzepczynski; we had no idea what that would do to us. not that we needed all that for the season, but once you get locked into serious off-season preparation, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

matheny: the only thing that worried me was the bunting. there is nothing more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of a bunting binge. and i knew we'd get into that out-wasting stuff pretty soon.

matheny: and that day, all through batting practice, bunts were all around me. sac bunts with the pitcher. bunting for hits. bunting with utility infielders. bunting with sluggers who might hit 30 home runs. i couldn't think about anything else. i started asking aldrete if we should start sac bunting with nobody on base.

matheny: midway through batting practice, i called a halt to all the warm up swings in the cage. everybody was gonna bunt today. nothing but. bunt bunt bunt bunt bunt. jake westbrook was out there soft-tossing to the batters and all of a sudden he was ten feet tall and he was throwing a ball of fire, with sparks shooting out of it. it was headed towards matt holliday. it was going to hit him. i tried to protect him, shouting: "bunt goddam you, matt. bunt! bunt!" holliday, surprised by the sudden instruction, half-heartedly dragged his bat partially in front of him and fouled the ball off badly. but he'd not been hurt.

matheny: jose oquendo looked at me oddly and asked if i was okay. i staggered away to the dugout and poured a bottle of water over my head. when i looked back, westbrook was his usual size again. he looked into the dugout a long time before he took his position again to throw batting practice to matt carpenter.

matheny: as batting practice wound down, derrick goold came down with his pad and his recorder to ask me some questions. i knew i had to do my best to keep it together, no matter how much the vision of 27 sac bunt games danced in my head. "what do you think is the single most important thing for your players to keep in mind at the plate?" he asked. bunt bunt bunt bunt bunt, i thought to myself, but didn't say. instead, i fumbled for the answer i thought he wanted.

matheny: "well, uh . . . you know, to take each at-bat one at a time, and . . . uh . . . uh . . . " my focus was slipping. bunt bunt bunt. "and just, uh, execute against each . . . pitcher." i was soaked in sweat from the effort of keeping all the screaming voices inside my head. i hoped he would go away now that i'd answered his question. he didn't.

matheny: goold kept pressing: "is there anything you especially want to see the club work on against the milwaukee rotation?" oh god. bunt bunt bunt. i caught sight of rafael furcal, and my mind started to wander. could a switch hitter bunt from both sides of the plate in the same at-bat? goold was watching me, confused. i hadn't answered his question, and the silence had grown awkward. how long could i maintain? "uh, i want to see them . . . be . . . patient at the plate . . . and, uh, i'm sorry, i really have to get into the clubhouse for a final lineup check." goold nodded, confused, and let me walk off without any further questions.

matheny: i managed to dodge him, and pretty much everyone else until the game started. rafael furcal had taken a walk to lead off the first. jon jay stepped to the plate.

aldrete: as your bench coach, i strongly advise you to bunt in the first inning as often as possible. you gotta move those baserunners forward, man.

matheny: i made the call. i touched my chin and then my ear and then my eyebrow to signal jon jay for the sac bunt. nevermind that he was hitting .308 that day. it was the first inning. we had outs to burn. jay was surprised by the sign. i had to relay it again through oquendo to make sure he saw it. jay gave an almost imperceptible nod at the plate. he squared to bunt and fouled off the first pitch, but on the second pitch the bunt rolled cleanly up the line. aramis ramirez was charging as soon as the pitcher began his move to the plate, and furcal was out by three steps at second. oquendo looked back into the dugout with that stare of his.

matheny: matt holliday grounded into a double play in his next appearance, and the inning wrapped quickly. i was impatient while the guys were in the field, anxious to get them back at the plate so i could call for more bunts. finally, the players filed back into the dugout to drop their gloves and pick up batting helmets. jose oquendo was there, patting butts and chatting with the players before he took his spot in the third base coach's box.

matheny: allen craig led off the inning. i debated having him bunt to lead off, thinking that the element of surprise was on our side. then, i thought to myself that there was no one to really move over, and craig was working on a gimpy knee. i let him swing away. he managed to line a single into shallow left field. david freese was up next, and i signaled again for the bunt. david caught my eye as he stepped up to the plate.

matheny: as the first pitch came in, he watched it sail by outside for a ball. i frowned; it was outside, sure, but not out of the reach of a good bunt. he hadn't even squared the bat up. i signaled again for the bunt. the second pitch sped in, and he swung freely. i heard the crack of the bat, and the ball flew at a shallow angle to the wall in right center, richocheting in for an easy double, even for a fellow hobbled by leg injuries. craig scored from first without a play.

matheny: i was fuming. freese had ignored my call. run or no run, he was getting benched. as matt carpenter strode in, i signaled again for the bunt. this time, i could tell he had seen me. yet, when the pitch came, carpenter was swinging again.

matheny: by the end of the inning, we'd scored three runs and not a single bunt had been laid down. i was barking at carpenter and freese, when oquendo came over and took me by the elbow, guiding me to one side of the dugout. "i switched the signs, man. it's not their fault. i told them i thought the brewers might know our signs, and that the bunt sign was now going to be the sign for swinging away," he said. "but you know that's not what's going on. you can't stop bunting. you told me this wouldn't be a problem. you told me you could handle the bunting again."

matheny: i told him i didn't know what he was talking about. i was bunting just as much as i needed to. oquendo gave me a skeptical look. "ever since you and aldrete got into that bunting, you've been acting crazy. you are out of control. i can't let you do this to yourself, or these guys." i demanded he tell me what the new bunt sign was; he shook his head. "nah, mike. you got a problem. you got to get off the bunting."

matheny: of course, his secret didn't keep. he couldn't keep the players in the dark about what was going on. his stories about why the bunt sign, and always the bunt sign, got changed at the last minute couldn't fool anyone for long. the fact that i kept asking the guys what the bunt sign was kind of gave it away. in the end, he told them all that it wasn't safe for me to know the sign, that i was a problem bunter.

matheny: i kept figuring out the new signs as soon as he fixed them, though. sometimes, aldrete or i would lean on shane robinson and talk him into telling us what the new sign was in exchange for a promise of more playing time. and we bunted like mad when we could. some players, like freese and craig, just learned to ignore the bunt sign, no matter how much i yelled at them and threatened them with fines that they knew mozeliak wouldn't let me levy on them. the bunting continued - infrequent and sporadic, but just enough to remind me how hungry i was for more.

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