THE FIRST thing about the headfirst slide into first base is that everyone agrees that it is a bad idea. Coaches from Little League to the majors are unified on this point, as is most scientific research. Such slides increase the risk of injury to the upper body, particularly the hands, and studies have shown that the technique is slower than simply running through the bag.
The second thing about the headfirst slide into first, though, is that it's hard to stay mad at a player who tries it. If it's a mistake, it's a mistake born of zeal and hustle, of a desperate lunge for safety. That's why it is hard to hold his affinity for it against Nick Punto, the veteran A's infielder who has made the headfirst dive into first his signature move.
"Originally I was like, 'Really?' " says Oakland manager Bob Melvin. "But he said, 'It's all I know how to do.' "
"I would never preach it," Punto rushes to say. "I don't even like seeing my teammates do it, because they don't do it right." That said, he adds, "I still to this day think it's faster when I do it." (Says teammate Brandon Moss, fondly, "He swears it's faster, but it's not. It is not true.")
Punto, 36, is a cult favorite among baseball fans, better known than a utility infielder with a career line of .246/.324/.322 and an average of 1.36 home runs over his 14 seasons should be. His elevated status is the result of several factors: his small size, his affable personality, his tendency to be found on good teams—no accident, according to managers past and present—and his visible, earnest determination to exchange every last drop of sweat for a win. With the Twins, for whom he played from 2004 to '10, he was a popular figure even among fans who rolled their eyes when manager Ron Gardenhire played him every day. "Everyone thought I was nuts," says Gardenhire, a gnomish, white-bearded baseball lifer whose eyes still light up at the mention of Punto's name. "But [in the field] he turned base hits into outs, and he does that everywhere you put him." In '11, Punto signed as a free agent with the Cardinals, with whom he won a World Series. The next year he played for the Red Sox. When Boston sent him to the Dodgers that August in a blockbuster trade headlined by Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett, the deal was jokingly referred to as "the Nick Punto trade."
Although he is not notably short for a civilian, Punto's 5'9" frame becomes very conspicuous when he's surrounded by A's teammates Jeff Samardzija (6'5"), Jason Hammel (6'6") and Nate Freiman (6'8"). "He was like the Little Engine That Could," says Anne Ursu, a children's book author who used to write for the popular (and now defunct) Twins blog Batgirl. "You could easily imagine him muttering, I think I can, I think I can, every time he went up to bat."
Punto (on the 15-day DL since Aug. 3 with a strained right hamstring) signed a one-year, $3 million deal last November with Oakland, which currently owns the second-best record in baseball (73--51). "We went after him early and tried to get him signed up before we had too much competition," says Melvin. "He can play any of the positions in the infield, he switch-hits, and he's one of those guys who gets better later in the game in pressure at bats. He's a great clubhouse influence, a resource for some of the guys to lean on."
Punto broke in with the Phillies in 2001, and says that while he doesn't think his own style of play has changed, the game has evolved around him. "When you were a young player 15 years ago, you were just that—a young player, who didn't see much playing time," he says. "Managers relied on veteran players more. And now it's flip-flopped a little bit. Where it's changed is you have to really make those young players feel comfortable, comfortable in their own skin, comfortable to where they can just let it go and not be walking on eggshells. Because this game is built on confidence."
For all of his leadership qualities in the clubhouse, it is the image of Punto rocketing through the air toward first base that is indelible. Last September, he did it in the first inning of a game in Arizona even though his chopper up the middle had bounced into the outfield untouched. The Minneapolis Star Tribune once called Punto's fondness for the first base slide "pathological," and indeed, he just can't help it. "If the game was ever in a pinch," he says, "if it was late in the game and we needed me to be safe, I did it every time."
Even Punto's father, his first and most influential coach, couldn't stop him. An undersized infielder like his son, Lou Punto, now an instructor at the Cal Knights Baseball Academy in Mission Viejo, Calif., never made it to the majors, but he taught Nick the skills that have allowed him to have a lengthy big league career, win a World Series ring and earn over $20 million playing a game he palpably adores.
And so Punto isn't letting himself contemplate retirement yet. "As long as I can compete at this level, I don't even want to think about later," he says. "Just keep your edge and live in the now." Especially on the way to first.