Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.
Kareem’s skyhook. Rickey Henderson stealing second. Randy Moss on a fly route. These unguardable plays terrified and frustrated scores of helpless opponents. Each was mercilessly inevitable, yet none could hold a candle to the most coldblooded move of all of sports: the kickball bunt.
Why is the kickball bunt so incredibly effective? Kickball is played by precisely two demographics: young children who are slowly developing their complex motor skills and young professionals who, through heavy drinking, are quickly degrading them. Neither group can be expected to enjoy anything more complex than a game of catch or more athletically demanding than jaywalking, and kickball, which combines those two things and tosses in the spasmodic rhythm of baseball to ensure that no one has to run for more than 10 seconds at a time, perfectly caters to both blocs.
What children and drunk yuppies also have in common beyond kickball is the tendency to conflate relative physical prowess with self-worth. I long shared this misconception, which is why I long refused to bunt. I thought I was too good an athlete to bunt, or that bunting would be weak or laughable or contrary to the spirit of the game. I was wrong. I should’ve bunted every time up.
It’s quite simple. Teams that bunt win, and teams that don’t lose. It’s the skeleton key that unlocks victory, but, like a Homeric parable, it is only available to players who can overcome hubris and ignore the temptation of personal glory.
Kickball, thanks to the depressed bladder around which the game revolves, favors the humble. Those who can hoof a soccer ball 60 yards likely presume themselves capable of belting a kickball far beyond the reach of even the deepest outfielders. But a kickball shares its aerodynamics with a bagpipe, and so this almost never works as planned. A mighty wallop of the ball will, more often than not, sail harmlessly along its easily plotted parabola into the waiting arms of an opponent.
A bunt, meanwhile, sows chaos. A chorus of “You get it!” rings out as defenders stay planted to the ground. When someone finally trods over to fetch the ball, they have to heave the partially deflated rubber carcass from the third base line all the way to first—which, of course, will be totally abandoned because the first baseman has since lurched toward the bunted ball themselves. The ball splats its way into foul territory as the runner, more often than not, takes second. Two bases, thanks to a kick that went two yards.
The maneuver is perfectly legal according to the World Adult Kickball Association, and it is so effective that whoever wrote the organization’s official rulebook felt compelled to include some advice for how to combat it. “Bunting is allowed,” the Kickball.com guidelines read, “so get a good catcher on your team.”
Of course, due to the trudging boredom of the position, no team ever has a good kickball catcher. Acting as the backstop during a game in which everyone makes contact is enough to lull even the most competitive athlete to a stupor. And so the catcher is typically the least athletic, least engaged, or most drunk player on the entire team. If someone bunts, the catcher will likely be the last to know about it. Instead, infielders are forced to scramble and scoop up the bunted ball, which is no easy feat considering they are playing kickball and likely hadn’t intended to run in the first place.
Bunting has many devilish charms, but its accessibility is what makes it truly special, especially for kids. If you’re a kid reading this, you already know your athletic limitations. If you’re the kind of hopeless nonathlete who dreads compulsory kickball in gym, bunting is your low-effort, high-reward, deliciously subversive solution. It’s the most ruthlessly effective move in all of sports and a real-life cheat code. Just tap down.
Jerks may mock you, the revolutionary bunter, as weak or cowardly. But you know who also bunted? Jonas Salk. When other scientists were trying to hit home runs and find a cure for polio, he bunted and came up with the vaccine. I don’t think Jonas Salk is a coward, do you?
If anything, bunting separates the freethinkers from the chumps who, incapable of resisting the urge to show off, give their mightiest kick every time up.
Does bunting have its limitations? Sure. If you become known as the player who always bunts, the defending infielders will soon creep in on every pitch. But thanks to the kickball’s soggy ineffectiveness as a projectile, there is no such thing as a routine throw to first, and so even a prepared opponent will give up a hit on most bunted balls. Nevertheless, if infield creep becomes a problem, nip it in the bud once every six at-bats or so with a surprise full-strength kick to the kisser of some unlucky shortstop.