The heartbeat of the Twins

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July 20, 2009
By: Tanner Kent
Tanner Kent
He may no longer even have a consistent spot in the lineup, but if the Twins are still baseball’s paragon of efficient, fundamental and gutsy baseball, then slap-hitting, slick-fielding, suicide-squeezing Nick Punto is the heartbeat of the Twins.

Destiny is a funny thing. Once upon a time, destiny held that Nick Punto would be born the son of a ballplayer. That son would study and learn the game, watching his father, who was a respected coach and tutor. He soaked up his motions and mechanics until they became natural and instinctive. And eventually, that son would grow up, become even better than the father from whom he patterned his game, and attend college with a chance to play serious baseball.

Destiny further held that the Minnesota Twins would take a chance on that 5-foot-9-inch San Diego son of a ballplayer in the 1997 draft, only to be turned down by a fiery shortstop who returned to tiny Saddleback College for a chance to lead his Gauchos on another run at an Orange Empire Conference crown.

That shortstop was later drafted by the Phillies and spent years toiling in the minor leagues, stuck behind stars Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.
But what else beside destiny brought that same diminutive sparkplug of a player back to the Twins before the 2004 season when the organization’s brass were again seeking the services of sure-handed middle infielder?

What else linked the Minnesota Twins — long baseball’s paragon of efficient, fundamental and gutsy baseball — with Nick Punto, a player whose physical numbers lack height and weight, and statistical numbers lack power and patience, but whose hustle and desire are immeasurable?

Destiny is a funny thing and Punto’s is a funny story. A story that’s not told in the numbers, but in the moments that define them.

“I take pride in the little things,” he says, now fresh off the disabled list and moments away from taking an extra round of afternoon hitting work before a night game against the Pirates. “Getting bunts down, the hit-and-run. ... I’m just motivated on a day-in and day-out basis to be the best I can be.”

The moment is July 1, 2008 and the Tigers and Twins are in the third inning of a scoreless game. With runners on the corners and two outs, Placido Polanco — a player who Punto personally respects — raps a sharp hopper up the middle. Knowing that speedy Curtis Granderson is sprinting to second, Punto dives for the ball and, with one motion, rolls the ball out of his glove and across the Metrodome turf to a waiting Alexi Casilla for the inning-ending force out.

The moment is June 19, 2009 and the Twins are in the midst their most recent interleague swing, gasping for runs against Astros lunch pail ace Roy Oswalt. With the Batting Champ and the MVP stifled in the middle of the lineup, it was Punto’s expertly executed suicide squeeze that broke a 1-1 tie and sparked a victory.

The moment is anytime the situation calls for more than a statistic. And that’s where Punto shines.

Pretty much all his life, Nick Punto has been essentially the same player he is today: a slap-hitting, slick-fielding, grit-in-his-teeth ballplayer’s ballplayer. His skills are somehow vintage, or perhaps homage, to the finer points of the game. The hit-and-run, sacrifice bunt, and cutoff throw. Hustle and desire, the small things and something out of nothing.

Lou Punto was drafted by the Red Sox in 1967 and was, himself, a pretty salty infielder who taught his boy everything he knew about how to really play baseball, how to really live and die between the lines. To this day, Punto says his dad has been the single largest influence on his style of play.

And now, after remaining a core member of the Minnesota Twins clubhouse nucleus for going on six seasons, Punto’s style seems synonymous with Twins-brand baseball.

“I never take a pitch off,” Punto says after reminiscing a moment about the years he spent downloading every aspect of his father’s game from the bleachers. “I’m always thinking.”

But some would say it’s precisely that attitude, that willingness to bend and bleed and break for his team, that has taken Punto’s name out of the lineup.

Since his big-league call-up in 2001, Punto has suffered six visits to the disabled list and myriad injuries. More than a few of them due to his propensity for diving headfirst into first base.

A longheld baseball no-no, critics say the headfirst dive into first is among the most dangerous plays in baseball.

But Punto maintains that headfirst dive is the embodiment of who he is, how he plays.

Ninety feet and a cloud of dust, that’s Punto’s motto.

And even if the numbers don’t reflect the number of times an umpire loses sight of the bag in the confusion and gives Punto a favorable call, and even if the numbers don’t show the appreciation his teammates have for the kind of player who knows when to hit the dirt, don’t ask Punto to stop diving into first base.

That’s just who he is.

“Dad always said it wasn’t the right way and I would never teach it that way. But that’s just the stubborn in me.”

Punto pauses a second, almost sheepish knowing his next sentence will not help his standing with Little League coaches: “I’ve gotten my fair share of calls.”

Punto’s fielded his share of criticism, too.

After a career year in 2006, Punto followed with a dismal 2007 offensive campaign in which he finished with a .210 average and just 23 extra base hits in 150 games. And even with a strong return to form in 2008 — .284 average and 15 stolen bases in 99 games — he’s been lampooned by sportswriters and bloggers for being punchless and injury prone.

But for all those think that baseball and its intricacies can be boiled down into raw science through the mad derivations of slugging percentages, zone ratings and scouting reports, perhaps it can.

But for all those who still believe in something mythical about the game; something that can only be determined between the men in the moment, the will and the heart of those competing, then you have Nick Punto: a player who’s made a career outside the numbers.

“I had to learn all the infield and outfield positions just to get on the field,” said Punto, who has officially logged major league experience at every position except first base, catcher and pitcher. “And I made defense a No. 1 priority.”

Quite simply, Nick Punto doesn’t need numbers. A career .250 hitter with minimal power and low strikeout numbers, it’s a tenacity and passion that border on obsession that have kept Punto in the lineup for nine major league seasons.

Punto’s numbers are not what turn the 4-6-3 double play or shade the pull hitters. His numbers can’t slide across the turf at Yankee Stadium, body tucked in exquisite control and cradle a long foul pop mere inches from the ground.

There is no formula, no quantification for backhanding the two-hopper up the middle, planting the lead foot and lacing a throw cross-diamond and chest-high to the bag.

But baseball is defined by its fascination with numbers, the endless matchups and machinations of its repetitive and constant motions. Certain numbers even carry their own stories: Joe Dimaggio and 56, Jackie Robinson and 42, the endurance of winning 300, the hitting feat of .400.

But that fascination with numbers once prompted the venerable skipper Joe Torre to say “Never forget there is a heartbeat in this game.”

And if one thing is for certain, it’s that Nick Punto’s story is in the heartbeat.

“I want to be remembered as the ultimate competitor,” he says, “and a great teammate. A player with a never-say-die-attitude.”

No problem, No. 8.