The Nick Punto Factor
If I ever started a Facebook group, I would entitle it “If We All Gave Half as Much Effort as Nick Punto, We Wouldn’t Be In This Mess”. In fact, I’m all for lobbying that “to Punto” should be added to the dictionary, meaning to give an extraordinary effort to achieve a goal, as in “Wow, what a great presentation! He really Punto’ed that one!” or “Oh, my! You sure Punto’ed pulling that party together at the last minute – it was spectacular!”
And I mean this in all seriousness.
For those of you who may not know who Nick Punto is, let me introduce you. Nick Punto is a utility infielder for the Minnesota Twins. (He can also play outfield, in a pinch, and I think he’s been a catcher, too.) If you glance at Nick’s stats, he seems pretty ordinary. Ordinary stature (some say “diminutive” at 5’9” and 170 pounds), ordinary (even on the low side) batting average, ordinary career. But let me tell you, Nick Punto is NOT an ordinary baseball player. He is, my friends, a piranha.
Nick Punto is one of those players who not only gives 110% every time he enters the field of play, but puts his heart and soul into every game. EVERY game. He’s the type of player whose defensive brilliance constantly – and I mean constantly – elicits exclamations of “man, did you see THAT?” and “how did he DO that???” I have seen him, many times, field balls and then relay the throw to first or second base while airborne and fully parallel to the effin’ ground! Never mind that there’s no good way to cushion that blow when he hits the ground, he’s gonna get that runner out. I have seen him dive for balls and come up with a spot-on throw, from his feet, from his knees, I’ve even seen him relay throw while laying flat on his back – whatever it takes to make the play. I’ve seen him catch and relay barehanded while leaving his feet so many times it almost seems casual – but for Nick Punto, it’s not. He’s focused. He’s involved. He’s ON.
And he never gives up on the ball, defensively, or offensively. Even if his hit is a sure-out, he’s going to run full out to first base, just in case the unthinkable happens and he has the slightest chance of making it in safe. He’s known for his ill-advised head-first slides into first base (to the derision of baseball elitists and the chagrin of his manager, since a head-first slide is very dangerous for the base runner), ignoring common sense and safety for that extra fraction of a second that can be the difference between “Safe!” and “You’re out!”. He gives no thought to the bodily punishment that will come from his flat out, no holds barred style of play, thinking only of how to best benefit the club in that all important Win column.
And he does all this without any self-promotion. Any post-game interview will have him talking about the team, not himself. It’s not that he’s humble, it’s that the concept of teamwork and team play is fully integrated into who he is.
So why is Nick Punto not a household name? One word: power. Or actually, lack of offensive power. In this day and age where hitting home runs is more valued than acumen or overall ability, if you can’t consistently smack the ball over the fence, then many “fans” consider you worthless and the media simply doesn’t care about you. And Nick Punto definitely does not have the offensive numbers to overcome this prejudice. In the nine seasons that Nick has played in the Majors, he has a respectable if not flashy .248 batting average, but only 12 home runs. He finds other ways of getting on base: bunts, walks, beating out grounders (he does have a .322 lifetime OBP, after all). In fact, White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen was including Punto when he made his famous “piranha” comment: “All those piranhas — blooper here, blooper here, beat out a ground ball, hit a home run, they’re up by four. They get up by four with that bullpen? See you at the national anthem tomorrow [… ] People worry about the catcher, what’s his name, Mauer? Fine, yeah, a good hitter, but worry about the little [guys], they’re on base all the time.”
So what exactly is a piranha? Just a little tiny fish that can rip a much larger and stronger creature to shreds through sheer ferocity and very, very sharp teeth.
His teammates call him “The Human Highlight Reel”. Ron Gardenhire, the Twins manager, said, “”If everybody else does their job in the lineup, Nick Punto is fantastic. When other people start struggling … then people starting saying, maybe he can’t hit. Nicky can do it. He can hit. He’s hit .280 in this league. Too much emphasis gets put on his offense; his defense, you can’t replace that.” Sid Hartman, veteran sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune calls him “one of the great leaders on the team”. Yet to many “fans” he’s not a piranha, he’s a pariah. He’s reviled in blogs and internet chat rooms. In some of the most crass wordings imaginable, “fans” giggle over the “real” reason why Gardenhire keeps Nick Punto around. Still others point to rows of lifeless stats, as if success can be confined to percentages and decimal points.
Luckily, Ron Gardenhire and Bill Smith (the Twins general manager) understand that a baseball organization is the sum of all its parts, not just the “upper echelons”. And this is true of not just baseball, but any organization – executives only excel if they have hard working managers and dedicated support staff. The receptionist who diffuses tension and makes everyone feel welcome holds an integral part of the firm. The stage manager that keeps the theatre production moving crisply and is able to anticipate problems, as well as solve crises without the audience even knowing they have happened is as valuable as the stars on the stage. But these people rarely make the news.
Nick Punto may not have the offensive chops that would make him a superstar player, but he does have an exceptional defensive skill and the drive to do his best every day. He can play “small ball” – bunting, stealing, deflecting, doing the fundamentals consistently and expertly – which is what the Twins have made their calling card. He isn’t greedy, he’s not self-promoting… he’s not expensive. Considering that the Twins are in a small market and don’t have a huge payroll, considering that their entire game plan is not based on power but on skill, and considering that ultimately, a strong team is more entertaining than a group of superstars, Nick Punto is a definite asset.
Would that each of us would put the kind of effort into the work we do as Nick Punto puts out every time he steps on the baseball field. If our society would put aside our individual narcissism, our fixation on image, our personal ambitions and our culture of greed, and instead give our best for the betterment of our team, our fans and the game itself, we certainly would not be in this desperate mess that we are in right now.
I love watching Nick Punto play. I have a picture of him tacked up on the wall of my office. He’s throwing a runner out while suspended four feet off the ground, stretched out sideways, parallel to the ground. It reminds me to always, always do my best – to do more than what people assume is possible. It allows me to have the confidence that I can put out the effort needed to excel. That I can overcome obstacles. That I can honestly say that I’ve done my very best. And if I’m lucky enough, if I try hard enough, that I might just be able to say, “Hey, I Punto’ed that one, didn’t I?” Yeah. That would be cool.
Thanks, Nick. You’re the best.
(This essay was posted on February 12, 2010, dubbed “Nick Punto Day” by various Twins fansites. On this day, folks were urged “to let loose your varying opinions on Punto, whether via your own blog, or as a comment on any one of the dozens of Twins blogs on the interwebs.” I felt compelled to participate, to honor an athlete I greatly admire.)