Ben Davis, Curt Schilling, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Tenth Anniversary of an Unwritten Rule Violation People Still Delight in Referencing

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?”

– Jason

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Felix Hernandez, Julio Borbon

Bunt on King Felix? Preposterous!

It’s perpetually incredible that major league players can be unclear on the sport’s primary unwritten rules. Some claim complete ignorance, some apathy. Some are simply too green to have heard of them.

Occasionally, however, a player will think he knows the rules when in fact he’s a bit hazier on the topic than he’d care to admit.

Take Felix Hernandez, who, in the middle of a would be no-hitter against Texas on Friday, got up on his high horse about a Code violation that wasn’t really a violation at all.

Julio Borbon bunted.

We hear it frequently: Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter. Give a pitcher your best effort, because enduring mound performances deserve no less. The concept rose to prominence in 2001, when Padres catcher Ben Davis broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game with a bunt, and all hell broke loose from the Arizona clubhouse.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Hernandez said in the Everett Herald, about Borbon’s effort. “Sixth inning and a guy is throwing a no-hitter, it’s disrespect.”

It’s a decent rule, especially if it’s late in the game (as was the case with Davis) and the guy bunting doesn’t make ordinary practice of the tactic (as was also the case with Davis).

Borbon, however, has some speed. And the game was still in the middle innings.

More importantly, the Rangers trailed only 2-0 at the time. Borbon’s effort, had it been successful, would have brought the tying run to the plate, something the rest of his teammates had been unable to do to that point in the game.

In this case (and in that of Davis, who also bunted facing a 2-0 deficit), winning trumps all. Do what you must to win the game.

We’ve seen the tactic unsuccessfully attempted at least twice this year, by Gordon Beckham (against Chicago’s Ted Lilly, whose no-no was broken up later in the game) and Evan Longoria (in the middle of Dallas Braden’s perfect game).

The guy who had it absolutely correct: Borbon.

“What was I supposed to do, let him have it his way?” he said in an report. “I realize he was throwing a no-hitter, but I wasn’t getting out of my game. If the game was one-sided it might be different, but in a close game like that, it could be a difference-maker.

“I was trying to get it down and get something going. I wasn’t worried about the no-hitter. If we were down six, seven eight runs, I’m going to swing the bat. But down 2-0 in the sixth inning, I don’t think I was being disrespectful to him or the game or to anybody. I was trying to do something for the team.”

Just like he was supposed to.

– Jason

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Gordon Beckham, Ozzie Guillen, Ted Lilly

Bunt it Like Beckham; ChiSox Infielder Tries to Break up No-No with a Bunt

There was a chance for unprecedented greatness Sunday night at Wrigley Field, as White Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd no-hit the Cubs into the seventh inning, while Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly took a no-hitter of his own into the ninth.

The unwritten rules, however, were exploited in the eighth inning, when White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham tried to get his team’s first hit . . . with a bunt.

The precedent for this is well established—one does not bunt for his team’s first hit, unless the game’s close enough to merit a baserunner by any means possible.

This game was a pitchers’ duel with a pitchers’-duel score—the Cubs led, 1-0—affording Beckham the leeway to do whatever he could to reach base.

That wasn’t enough to satisfy the Wrigley Field crowd, which booed the play with vigor. The fact that Beckham didn’t even get the bunt down (it went foul), and eventually popped out, didn’t make a lick of difference.

The most interesting take on the situation came from Ozzie Guillen (no surprise), who chose to avoid walking the appropriate line (don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter except in close contests), the hard line (don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter ever) and the apathetic line (bunt whenever you want, under any circumstances).

Instead, he spouted an unwritten rule that he could well have made up on the spot.

“If you bunt in the ninth that’s not professional, but in the eighth . . . but Wrigley Field people, that’s the only thing they can do is boo,” Guillen said in the Peoria Journal Star. “They boo for every freaking thing here. That’s part of the game, but the ninth, that’s kind of a different thing.”

Guillen did have something of a point in that a recent example of such a play—Ben Zobrist breaking up the 2006 no-hit attempt of Seattle pitcher Jarrod Washburn with a sixth-inning bunt—drew condemnation from neither Washburn or his manager, Mike Hargrove, owing to the fact that it came in the game’s middle innings, with a 2-0 score.

There was a guy on the White Sox bench, however, who appeared to be cognizant of the actual Code. Juan Pierre broke up Lilly’s gem with a clean single in the ninth (watch it here), and admitted that he had ruled out bunting as an option.

”I wasn’t going to bunt there, and there was some pressure there because that was the first time I was involved in something that late in a game where a guy has a no-hitter against a team I’m playing for,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.

While it’s possible that Pierre was referencing something strategic, there’s a good chance he was simply being cognizant of the Code. (Inquiries have been lodged. Updates as new information becomes available.)

Heck, Pierre might have a better grasp of this than his manager.

– Jason

Dallas Braden, Dallas Braden, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Evan Longoria, No-Hitter Etiquette

Details Emerge from Braden’s Perfect Game; He Dropped the Ball

The A’s left town for a week an hour after Dallas Braden’s perfect game on Mother’s Day, leaving many questions about no-hitter etiquette to wait for their return.

I tracked Braden down this afternoon before the A’s hosted Seattle, to pick up some of the particulars. The most controversial play of the game was Evan Longoria’s fifth-inning bunt attempt that ultimately rolled foul. It would have been easy to condemn the strategy had it come later in the game or with a more lopsided score, but even Braden conceded that Longoria was well within his rights.

“It was early in the game, and he was trying to get some things going for his offense,” he said. “Later in the game, maybe with multiple outs, it might be a different story. But I respect what he did. That’s him understanding something has to happen right now, and it has to be sooner rather than later, and he didn’t want to wait around for someone else to get it going. It actually speaks to what kind of a leader he’s trying to become. He’s very savvy, a good player, and he wants to get something going. From a competitor’s standpoint, you have to respect that.”

Longoria’s bunt might have been the most prominent Code-related play, but it had already received considerable attention through the ensuing week. Much less discussed was the no-hitter etiquette observed in the A’s dugout.

Because Braden’s not chatty on days he pitches, especially during the game, it was hardly surprising to find out that his teammates didn’t come anywhere near him as the innings whiled by. (“I did notice that nobody was even looking at me,” he said. “I didn’t make eye contact with one person.”)

He did, however, drop the ball.

Before each inning, plate umpire Jim Wolf tossed a ball to Braden, who, as is his habit, caught it in front of the mound, removed his glove and rubbed it up as he ascended to the rubber.

Until the ninth inning, when he accidentally let it fall.

“(Reliever) Brad Ziegler told me in the shower that out in the bullpen, everybody went ‘Whooooooooa,’ ” Braden said. “He said, ‘I just want to let you know, I watched you drop the ball, and we all lost it out there.’ ”

“It was one of those weird things, because everything else he did that day was, well, perfect,” said reliever Michael Wuertz. “But obviously, thankfully, it didn’t have any effect.”

Even though members of the bullpen were physically separated from Braden, they maintained strict silence when it came to discussing what was happening on the field . . . until Ziegler nearly ruined it in the sixth inning, after Gabe Kapler’s epic 12-pitch at-bat.

Said Ziegler: “I looked down at (fellow reliever) Jerry Blevins and said, ‘Hey . . .’ And Blevins just started shaking his head, like he didn’t want to talk to me. Still, I said, ‘Was Kapler the guy who hit the ball that Dewayne Wise caught in the Buehrle perfect game (in 2009)?” (Kapler’s drive was indeed snared by Wise on the far side of the outfield fence, and returned to the field of play for a perfect-game-saving catch.)

Blevins didn’t respond. Luckily, he didn’t have to.

While nobody referenced the perfect game Braden was throwing, Ziegler received affirmation from the bullpen’s Killer B’s—Bailey, Blevins and Breslow—that it had indeed been Kapler who nearly ruined another perfect game.

The unwritten rule about referencing a no-hitter in progress is vague when it comes to referencing a no-hitter other than the one being thrown. Should someone want to point toward such a thing as a potential jinx, that’s their superstitious right.

In the Code vs. Brad Ziegler, however, the ruling is clearly in Ziegler’s favor.  No jinxing was done, so no fingers need be pointed.

– Jason

Dallas Braden, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Evan Longoria

Braden’s Perfecto Threatened By Bunt Attempt; Reaction Minimal

On Sunday, Dallas Braden proved that he’s equal opportunity when it comes to the unwritten rules.

Two weeks ago, he caught considerable heat (much of it from New Yorkers) when he called out Alex Rodriguez for running across the mound during a game in Oakland. Yesterday, another potential violation against him reared its head when Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria tried to wile his way aboard with a drag bunt in the fifth inning. The ball rolled foul, but had Longoria reached, he would have been the first—and, ultimately, only—baserunner Braden allowed on the day, a perfect game spoiled.

This piece of the Code is similar to the one prohibiting all forms of aggressive baserunning (including stolen bases and tagging up on fly balls)—it’s valid only in the later innings of blowout games.

In Longoria’s case, he was on the cusp of both, in seriously gray area. Paying attention to a no-hitter isn’t even a consideration through four innings; starting in the fifth, the feat takes on increasing importance with each frame.

Similarly, the four runs by which the A’s led at the time of the bunt attempt can hardly be considered insurmountable, although Braden’s superlative dominance must be considered when gauging the stoutness of their lead.

To help figure this out, let’s look at some examples.

On one hand: Ben Zobrist broke up Jarrod Washburn’s no-hit attempt in 2006 with a sixth-inning bunt—a tactic that, since it came relatively early in a two-run game, bothered neither Washburn nor his manager, Mike Hargrove.

“If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” Washburn told the Tacoma News Tribune. “But bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

On the other hand: Anaheim rookie Devon White tried to break up Danny Jackson’s 1986 no-hit attempt with a bunt single in the eighth inning. The fact that it was a 2-0 game hardly mattered to Jackson. The bunt went foul, and Jackson threw his next pitch chin-high, forcing White into a back-pedaling stumble.

“The first hit of a no-hitter is not a bunt,” said Jackson in the Orange County Register. “I don’t know how long he’s been around, but he’s got to go down.”

The most famous instance of this maneuver, of course, was Ben Davis’s bunt to break up Curt Schilling’s perfect game in 2001. In that case, Davis had several strikes against him:

  • He was the Padres’ backup catcher.
  • Bunting was not part of his repertoire.
  • He did it in the eighth inning.
  • He laid down a perfectly atrocious, but very lucky, bunt.
  • He did it against an iconic and outspoken pitcher, Curt Schilling; a knowledgeable and outspoken manager, Bob Brenly; and an Arizona team that would go on to with the World Series.

None of it mattered, of course. It was a 2-0 game, and Davis brought the tying run to the plate for the first time since the Diamondbacks scored their second run. As much as the members of Arizona’s clubhouse wanted to rip into Davis for his audacity, the defense for his action was unimpeachable.

Even Brenly, Davis’ most outspoken critic, eventually came around and admitted that much of his bluster was merely a message to Schilling that his manager had his back.

For Longoria, the case for bunting was clear.

“He had everybody off-balance,” he told the Tampa Tribune. “I figured I’d try to take the opportunity there, maybe it stays fair and we get a runner on. At that point, you’re really not thinking about the guy’s perfect game or no-hitter, you’re just trying to get back into the game. It was a manageable game. Get somebody on and try and score.”

“If you want to prohibit it, just play your third baseman in,” added Rays manager Joe Maddon. “Both sides have the ability to do whatever they want. I believe if you’re trying to beat the other team and that’s your best way to do it then you do it.”

Ultimately, of course, the only opinion that matters here is that of the guy at the business end of the potential violation. So what did Braden think?

No big deal, he told XM Radio after the game, echoing every sentiment above about close scores meriting all sorts of efforts on behalf of the offense.

Give him this much: the guy knows his Code book.

– Jason