Today marks a decade since Ben Davis bunted on Curt Schilling. If that reference fails to ring a bell, you clearly have some catching up to do. Might I suggest your nearest copy of The Baseball Codes, from which the following passage is excerpted:
Davis came up in the eighth inning as the twenty-third hitter to face Curt Schilling, entirely cognizant that his team was 0-for-22 to that point. Because swinging the bat against the big right-hander had not yet paid dividends, Davis switched gears and, noting the deep positioning of third baseman Craig Counsell, laid down a bunt. Although the execution was lacking—Davis popped the ball up, just over Schilling’s head—the hit nonetheless fell between the mound and second baseman Jay Bell, who was also stationed deep. Davis safely reached base with his team’s ﬁrst hit.
The Arizona bench exploded at the audacity, calling the player gutless and intoning that he was afraid to take his hacks like a man. To judge the play by the unwritten rules, the Diamondbacks had a point. “The ﬁrst hit of a no-hitter is not a bunt,” said Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Jackson ﬁfteen years earlier, in 1986, after Angels rookie Devon White attempted to break up his own no-hitter with a failed eighth-inning bunt attempt. “I don’t know how long he’s been around,” Jackson said about the outﬁelder, “but he’s got to go down.” Arizona manager Bob Brenly felt the same way about Ben Davis, calling the play “chickenshit” and saying that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”
“It wasn’t the heat of the pennant race in September, or something like that,” said Diamondbacks left ﬁelder Luis Gonzalez. “They say every game counts, but when a guy’s doing something masterful like that, if you get a hit you want to earn it in the right way.” Third baseman Matt Williams said he wouldn’t have done it. First baseman Mark Grace said that, although he didn’t fault Davis, if it was him he wouldn’t have had the balls. Schilling was “a little stunned” at the move; his experience taught him that players should earn their way on base in that type of situation.
There was, however, a mitigating factor. The score of the game was 2–0, and when Davis reached base it brought the tying run to the plate. The Padres clearly hadn’t been getting it done against Schilling in any other regard, so from a strategic standpoint Davis’s approach worked. “I don’t know if you saw my swings against him . . . ,” the catcher said. “I’m just trying to get on base any way I can right there, and I did.”
“What if it’s the seventh game of the World Series? Would they or anybody be upset?” asked Padres manager Bruce Bochy. “No, because that’s a huge game and you’re trying to win.” Arizona, he said, wanted the Padres to “drop our weapons and raise our hands.”
Even Schilling grasped both sides of the argument. Though stopping short of taking Davis’s side, he expressed understanding for those who did. “Whether I agree with it being the right thing to do or not is not really relevant,” he said. “It was a 2–0 game. . . . If it’s 9–0, yeah, I think it’s a horseshit thing to do. But it was a 2–0 game and the bottom line is, unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games. That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”
One interesting aspect of the play was that even among the ranks of baseball’s old guard—guys who lived for and played by the Code—there was hardly unanimity of opinion. Cases were made both for and against Davis, with precedents cited from every generation—like the bunt by Milwaukee catcher Bill Schroeder that broke up a 1987 no-hitter by Royals left-hander Charlie Leibrandt in the sixth inning. Nineteen years after that, when Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist bunted for his team’s ﬁrst hit in the sixth inning of a game against Seattle’s Jerrod Washburn, the pitcher himself agreed that nothing improper had transpired. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” Washburn said, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”
The Schilling-Davis affair, however, was full of gray area. Some baseball people will accept a no-hitter-spoiling bunt if bunting is an established part of the hitter’s offensive repertoire—but Ben Davis was hardly a bunter. In fact, said Brenly, “That was the only time Ben Davis ever tried to bunt for a base hit to my recollection. . . . For a backup catcher who had never bunted for a base hit before in his life to do it, I thought that was unnecessary to begin with, and disrespectful, to top it off.”
The notion of disrespect stems from the fact that Davis clearly took advantage of Counsell’s extra-deep positioning, as the inﬁelder attempted to protect against hard-hit balls that might otherwise have shot by him. Counsell felt safe at that range because he thought there was little chance that a runner as slow as Davis would so blatantly violate the unwritten rules.
Part of the problem was that Davis’s bunt wasn’t even good enough to beneﬁt from Counsell’s positioning. “I was mad that it was such a bad bunt and was still a hit,” said Schilling. “He bunted as bad a ball as you can bunt, to the most perfect spot in the inﬁeld to bunt it. . . . I never said it was a horseshit play. I thought it was a horseshit bunt.”
Once the dust settled a bit, the last man standing at the center of the controversy wasn’t Schilling or even Davis—it was Brenly, who, as the most outspoken critic of the play, was left in its aftermath to defend his initial anger. He has since softened his stance, even going so far as to admit that much of his posturing was simply a matter of standing up for his pitcher, to make sure that “Curt Schilling knew that I was looking out for his interests.”
Still, years after the fact, he had a question for which he says he never received an adequate answer: “If it’s such a good fuckin’ play, why didn’t he do it every time?”