Nick Punto can’t tell you how or why or when he began perfecting his head-first dive into first base.
“I probably started it, my mom said, when I was four or five years old,” Punto said.
Now 34, Punto has ingrained the head-first dive into his brain, to the point of it becoming a reflex whenever there’s a close play at first. Conventional wisdom holds that diving head-first only slows down a runner. Sprinters don’t dive at the finish line of a race, right?
Yeah, Punto’s heard that one.
“And I say that’s because there’s a hard court, a track, at the end of that finish line,” he said.
OK, but why expose yourself to injury, flinging your body fingers-first into a hard canvas base while a first baseman attempts to catch a baseball at the same time, in the same place?
“I’ve been injured running through the base,” Punto counters. “I pulled a hamstring. You can roll an ankle. There’s lots of things you can hurt running through the base as well.”
Coaches have tried to get Punto to kick the habit, beginning at Trabuco Hills High School, continuing at Saddleback College, and well into his major-league career. When he was traded to the Minnesota Twins in 2004, manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan tried to break Punto by fining him every time he dove into first.
“I think they just gave into it because they knew I wasn’t hardheaded, or tough to coach, or a bad seed,” Punto said. “I feel like they finally just gave in. They knew that I would definitely not do that, in spite of them telling me not to do it. It’s just something that — something triggers and I just go down on the ground.”
By the time he was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, or the Boston Red Sox this year, Punto’s superiors knew better than to try to stop him. The Dodgers aren’t complaining.
“It’s fine,” first-base coach Davey Lopes said. “Some people are just comfortable doing it. I wouldn’t teach it.”
“I actually think the slide helps him be safe sometimes,” manager Don Mattingly said. “It causes any kind of havoc, anything that’s out of the ordinary, (umpires) will miss those calls one way or the other. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.”
Punto agrees that he’s benefited from some bad calls over the years. That has the potential to fire up his dugout — like it did Wednesday, Dodgers pitcher Aaron Harang said.
That’s nice, but it’s not the point.
“I definitely don’t think about that consciously,” Punto said. “It fires up your team to score runs. That’s my goal – to be safe and somehow come around and score a run. That fires a team up.”
Punto said he’s never been injured diving head-first into a bag, unlike Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon, who missed two months of action after fracturing his thumb on such a play in July. (Punto said Gordon needs to learn how to protect his thumbs.)
As to whether or not it slows him down, Punto said he’s never been timed from home plate to first base both ways — diving head first versus running through the bag — for comparison.
Not that it’s likely to change his behavior.
“He can’t help it. It just happens,” Mattingly said. “It’s his career. At the end of the day, some like guys like sliding head-first. It’s what they do.”