Humble ballplayers? It's not an oxymoron anymore.
"I think humble is the right word," Gwynn says. "You get away from the game for eight months and you realize how important the game is to your life. It does put it in perspective. As players, we have to do our part to take care of the game instead of assuming the game is going to take care of us."
The game is back in the hands of its worthiest caretakers, the best at the basics.
Having long since lost the advantage of surprise, Butler nevertheless continues to drop bunts fearlessly—and successfully. It matters not to him if the field is grass or artificial turf or if the third baseman is in his face. Butler could probably lay one down on the hardwood floor of a hotel lobby. Freshly waxed. With the bellboys playing in. He is so good at bunting, in fact, that none of the other players in any of SI's fundamental-skill categories was as overwhelming a choice of the voters as Butler was in his specialty.
Butler, who has moved to the Mets this season after four superlative years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, practices bunting at 8:30 every morning in spring training. He'll dump about 25 balls to third base and about 50 in that Bermuda triangle on the right side of the infield between the pitcher, the second baseman and the first baseman. During the season, whenever he feels his touch needs more work, he'll repair to the batting cage and empty one bucket of baseballs after another. "People ask, 'Why is he out there bunting if he's supposed to be the best hunter in baseball?' " Butler says. "Why? Because it's only by hard work."
In 1992 Butler bunted for a hit 42 times—accounting for virtually a quarter of his season-hit total—and led the National League with 24 sacrifices. Still, the 37-year-old Butler's title of master hunter is being challenged by 27-year-old Cleveland Indian speedster Kenny Lofton (page 96), even if Lofton did finish a distant second in the voting. While Butler slipped to 10 bunt hits in 27 tries last year, Lofton had 15 hits on bunts (tying Otis Nixon, who was with the Boston Red Sox, for the major league lead) in 23 attempts.
On each at bat, the typical major league hitter endeavors to hit the ball hard somewhere. Should a well-struck effort die comfortably in a fielder's glove, the hitter or one of his mourning teammates will eulogize, "Well, you can't steer the ball."
"Baloney," says Gwynn, whose .394 average last year earned him his fifth National League batting title. "I say you can. Especially last year—when I felt I was in total control—I felt I could do what I wanted with the ball."