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Nick Punto was a pint-sized 5-year-old when his father noticed the competitive fire that would later blaze a trail to the major leagues.
Punto, the Oakland A’s new infielder, would tag along to his Dad’s softball games, slip on a Wilson A2000 glove that dwarfed his left arm and start shagging flies.
“He was catching these long fly balls,” Lou Punto remembers, “and he would fall over just because of the weight of the ball. It was funny to watch.”
Punto, now 36, is still undersized at 5-foot-9. And he’s still playing with a reckless abandon that’s been the hallmark of his 13-year big league career. He signed a one-year $3 million contract over the winter to be the A’s jack-of-all-trades infielder. Punto has logged more major league seniority than anyone on Oakland’s roster and he brings with him a World Series ring, won with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.
He’ll be a clubhouse leader and, likely, an emotional spark plug with the way he attacks the game. You’ve seen players dive into first base occasionally, but never with the frequency or fervor that Punto does. While he was with the Minnesota Twins, team officials tried fining Punto every time he dove head-first into first base because it’s dangerous.
“I’ve pulled a hamstring running through the base (too),” Punto said.
He’s been nicknamed “The Shredder” for yanking off teammates’ jerseys in celebration after a victory, a practice that should play well in the A’s walk-off repertoire.
But as he was growing up in Southern California, it seemed Punto’s size might work against him. When he was 12, he played alongside former A’s Gold Glover Eric Chavez on a traveling team that Lou Punto coached, and Nick “was so tiny he looked like the bat boy,” in his father’s words.
Punto said he learned to play with a chip on his shoulder thanks to his father. Lou, just 5-foot-8 himself, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox as an infielder. Though his baseball career never panned out, he later played on an elite-level slow-pitch traveling softball team, and it was then that Nick says his own hard-nosed style of play was first engrained.
“His athletic ability, diving, getting up and throwing guys out, turning double plays,” Nick remembers of his father’s softball days. “The game is so much faster, the bases are so short. And the guys were all huge, and he was the smallest guy on the field by far.”
Punto was a 21st-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1998. He’s also logged major league time with the Twins, Cardinals, Red Sox and Dodgers, carving his reputation as an excellent defender at second base, shortstop and third base.
A switch hitter, Punto owns just a .248 career average with 17 home runs. But he hit .309 from the right side last season, and he appears slated for potential platoon duty at second base with the left-handed hitting Eric Sogard. Punto’s size, length of career, defensive ability and offensive numbers closely resemble those of another A’s infielder – Mike Gallego, who happens to be Punto’s new infield coach. Gallego likes what he’s seen early on from the veteran.
“He’s looking forward to working with me as I am with him,” Gallego said. “He has a passion and takes pride in his defense. When you get that kind of person it’s always exciting to get an opportunity to work with somebody with those similarities.”
As for the first-base dives, Punto developed the habit back in high school and it’s stuck with him. He became an Internet sensation for one hilarious moment last September, when he dove into first base without any knowledge that his single made it safely into center field.
“Bottom line, I get to hit the ball, run as hard as I want, and I don’t ever have to chop my steps,” Punto said. “I don’t have to worry about where the bag is. I can put my head down and run as hard as I can.”
Though A’s manager Bob Melvin would probably like his other players to adopt some of Punto’s practices, the head-first dive won’t be one of them. Punto tries to discourage kids from adopting it as well.
“I’ve done plenty of baseball seminars where I tell kids not to do it,” he said. “It’s dangerous if you don’t do it right, and honestly I’ve never seen someone do it right.”