MESA, Ariz. — Who says you can't mix a little fun in with some serious work?
The Cubs' spring-training camp livened up Thursday with the kickoff of a bunting tournament, an event that has taken on a huge life of its own.
The tourney features 64 entrants — all players except for manager Dale Sveum and strength coach Tim Buss, to fill out the field — arranged in an NCAA basketball type of bracket.
How much fun is it? Players have been giving and getting the business about their respective bunting skills.
“Lot of nervous Nellies here,” said pitching coach Chris Bosio before the festivities.
How serious is it?
So serious that general manager Jed Hoyer and president Theo Epstein came out from their offices to watch the proceedings on the field.
Sixteen pitchers squared off in first-bracket matches Thursday. During three rounds of eight bunts each, batters had to put the ball into areas on the infield marked off by point values.
When one of the pitchers had a little trouble laying down a bunt, Sveum joked to one of the coaches: “You've got a project.”
When another had a tough go of it, a player yelled out: “Slow death.”
When the day was done, early-line favorites Casey Coleman and Rafael Dolis emerged from their first-round matches as did Jeff Beliveau, Lendy Castillo, Trey McNutt, Dae-Eun Rhee, Chris Rusin and Scott Maine.
The tourney will go on for several days, with a pitcher squaring off, or squaring away, against a position player in the finals.
For Sveum, it was a good way to end the first mini-phase of spring training. Position players officially reported for camp Thursday, and the full squad will work out formally for the first time Friday.
“Yeah, for the start of it, it went well,” said Sveum, who has a first-round match with Kerry Wood awaiting him. “Some guys will start getting into it when it gets down to the final 16, and that's when you start seeing guys really being scared of losing and that money starts getting a little bit closer to them.”
But seriously, there's a method to the merriment here.
The Cubs were a fundamentally poor team last year. Not that bunting is the be-all, end-all of baseball — sacrifice-bunting by anybody but pitchers is derided by many observers — but it is a skill that comes in handy now and then. The Cubs ranked 14th in the 16-team National League last year with 60 sacrifice bunts. The Marlins were first, with 89, and the world-champion Cardinals were third, with 84.
“That's part of the gig; we've had guys out here early in the morning practicing,” Sveum said. “So you get a lot of everybody doing a lot of things and making sure their technique is right and all that kind of stuff. So it adds a lot to the whole game.
“That's the process. It's nice to have the fun with it, too. That breaks things up a little bit, especially the starting pitchers that are going to be bunting. They start really grinding on it and understanding that the mechanics have to be right and all that to pull off some of these better bunts.”
Sveum's first-round opponent, Wood, termed the match a “layup” and that he should “get right though that one, no problem.”
“If I'm bunting, there's a good chance the game's out of hand,” Wood quipped. “Good or bad, either way, it's probably out of hand if I'm bunting. It's a good way to keep it lively. It gets very monotonous covering first (base) and all that stuff, so it's nice.”
As a reliever, Wood doesn't bunt or bat much anymore, but he said he understands the need for practice.
“With the competition, guys may take it a little more serious, and they may learn something,” he said. “We have six weeks to work on things, and that's one of the things that has a tendency to win or lose a ballgame on a regular basis. If you get it down, it may get you an extra run. If not ... it's cost us a lot of games in the past.”
Sveum did not directly address his impending square-off with Wood other than to say he'd show up.
“I'm ready,” the manager said. “I got a tough draw. I've got Woody the first draw. But I'm ready. I'll practice a few times.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.