Every player must decide when it is time to retire. However, the gravity of some retirements outweighs others. Dan Ennis tells us of the day he heard about Nick Punto’s announcement.
I was sitting in my car, parked by the entrance to a nature preserve, talking on my phone, but a bad connection fragmented a conversation with an old friend — that modern slicing of phrases we’ve come to expect in a wireless world:
“Did you hear -ick Punto was [silence] —east.”
My friend didn’t say “eased,” but a shorter half-word; it sounded like “east.” I glanced at my phone. I was down to one bar and a flickering second bar, roaming.
“East?” I asked, raising my voice as we do when we have a poor connection, as if volume could push our words further across space. “Did you say Punto?”
I was greeted with the hiss of a dropped call. Now my phone was down to one tiny bar. More of a nub, really. That first bar on the cell screen is always the smallest, kept undersized so we can feel the thrill of the ramp-up to full coverage. Far from my home, on the perimeter of the cellular world, I didn’t call back.
We’d already run through the important subjects — family, careers, health, the weather — and were in the tail end of one of our infrequent conversations, settled on the commonality of our youth: The Red Sox. He thought Pablo Sandoval might be a little less disgusting this year. He observed that the bullpen would be much improved. He believed new Red Sox pitcher David Price would win twenty games.
The parking lot I was sitting in must have been on the very edge of the range of whatever tower kept me tethered to my friend, so the exchanges had grown increasingly choppy:
He said, “Price is going to dom- [silence] -ate.”
Dominate, my brain hopped to it, inserting the missing syllable.
“Could be,” I replied, but in my heart I was afraid David Price would annoy David Ortiz.
“Price had better stay away from Papi in the locker room,” I warned. Price, formerly with Tampa, had a bad reputation for throwing at batters’ heads. He’d plunked Ortiz a few times. Words had been exchanged. Now they were teammates.
As our conversation progressed the gaps increased, and my friend’s last utterance before the call failed entirely had more gaps than words:
“Did you hear -ick Punto was [silence] —east.”
The “N” of Nick Punto’s first name had been erased before it reached my ears. I heard “-ick.” My brain, still in the game, inserted the “N” in “Nick.” There was no “Rick Punto “ or “Dick Punto.” Had to be “Nick.” Good brain. The prefix of the last word was lost in the atmosphere. Something like “east.”
I got out of the car.
“East?” I wondered. It was not worth it to call back, shouting through a faulty connection, asking my friend to finish his thought about Nick Punto. We’ve learned to live with dropped calls, and there’s always a calculation. When a call from the hospital emergency room is dropped, you do all things possible to reconnect. I’d look for a pocket of better coverage. But my friend and I had been passing the time on the phone. He’d understand that the call was dropped. Physics had decided we’d said enough.
There could be nothing urgent about Nick Punto, nothing worth a call back. He’d played a few dozen games for the Red Sox, years ago. Still, I checked the phone obsessively for the next few minutes, even as I was walking from the parking lot to the park gates, resolved that if I could get three solid bars I’d look up all the news on Nick Punto and complete my friend’s sentence for him.
It was as if the universe had hung up on me. On the one hand, it chafed, how my old friend was in the know on Nick Punto, and I was left wondering. On the other, the phone failing had saved me from having to admit I was not au courant on Nick Punto. My friend would have rushed to fill the gap, using the tone of a teacher dealing with a beloved student of limited intellect. I confess that in those moments, I sometimes bluffed, so even though I did not know the current status of Nick Punto, I would have acted as if I had indeed heard the latest, but let my friend fill in the details with me adding the occasional “uh huh,” and “yeah.”
I’m not a dishonest person, but I don’t think pretending to know about small things like Nick Punto’s current circumstances puts my soul in any serious danger. Had my cell coverage held out for another three minutes I might have faked my way through a complete Nick Punto exchange and acted, wearily, as if I had already heard all about Nick Punto’s latest travails. Honestly, I might even have put a careful amount of edge in my voice to indicate that not only had I already heard the Nick Punto news, but that pretty much everyone knew about what had happened to Nick Punto. I was now a little fonder of my cheap phone and its janky connectivity. That was one venal sin avoided, bluffing my way through a Nick Punto exchange so my friend would not feel superior.
It was too bright. I went back to the car for sunglasses.
There was a pattern to our conversations — big things first, children healthy, marriages humming along, work is work, the sun finally came out… down, down, down until we’re taking about a baseball season that won’t start for months. When my friend brought up Nick Punto he was scraping bottom, and he deserved to be lied to. If he’d been listening at all he would have noticed that the connection was bad. I could barely hear him when he was still talking about David Price, and instead of winding things up he’d strung them out, all the way to Nick Punto, who didn’t even play for Boston any more. I would have lied easily and automatically to save face in the Nick Punto situation. I never lied about the big things — family, marriage, job, the weather — but as the stakes got lower my capacity for dishonesty grew.
I checked my phone again, squinting at the screen in the sunlight. No dice. The place was beautiful: leafy, breezy, calm, with running water nearby. It seemed to be the last place in America with no cell coverage. I was supposed to take in the fresh air and winter sunshine, maybe disconnect for a few hours. But looking around, I saw other people with phones out — people, I thought sourly, with better cell contracts than I. Those blockheads had the latest Nick Punto news at their fingertips.
Nick Punto had probably been released. The way my friend said it, there had been something before the “east” part. Re-leased. Released.
Or de-ceased? Deceased.
Had Nick Punto died? Perhaps in a gruesome fashion? I didn’t think so. Who talks like that? “Did you hear Nick Punto was deceased?” No, a normal person would have asked, “Did you hear Nick Punto died?”
Wait. My friend sometimes spoke in that comic-heroic style about sports, like that fellow from NFL films used to — big words, dramatic pronouncements. It would be just like him to invest the expiration of a utility infielder with some dignity: “Nick Punto was deceased.” It’s fun, talking about trivial things with language better suited for old-timey declarations. An extra-innings game was “epic.” Papi was “tremendous.” David Price was “malevolent” in Tampa, now he’s to be “magnificent” in Boston.
The “was” in “Nick Punto was deceased” would have been a jab at me, since I was unlikely to be up-to-date on Nick Punto. He had been dead for days — weeks! — and I didn’t know. That’s self-absorption for you, my friend would imply. I suspect my friend knew I had no idea how old his kids were, and I wasn’t exactly sure what he did in his job. It would be typical of me to be unaware that Nick Punto had died in, say, the San Bernardino shooting, another victim of California.
Walking along the shore, I tried to picture my world without Nick Punto. It felt like my world with Nick Punto. He’d been traded away from the Red Sox during the cheerless 2012 season. The trade had been a big deal: The Red Sox sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez — three stars — to Los Angeles along with Punto. I imagine the trade was also a big deal to Nick Punto and his family, having to leave Boston to play in California, in the National League of all places. Strictly speaking, though, Nick Punto was an afterthought in that big trade, thrown in for some obscure baseball reason. Once he left the Red Sox, he left my limited field of vision.
As I walked I reflected upon Nick Punto, potential martyr. In his life, he’d always been willing to take one for the team. He’d been a backup, a journeyman, a marginal but versatile player. The kind of player they called “scrappy” and “heady.” Think Eddie Stanky without the personality, David Eckstein without the press — a no-hit, good-field, little fellow who made the most of his abilities. Sportswriters love guys like him; he should have been a fan favorite in Boston. I hoped his was a feisty death, one in which he’d proven unexpectedly resourceful right up until the end, not some random car wreck.
No. Surely my friend had said “released,” not “deceased.” Released as as in cut, no longer on the team. Had Nick Punto stayed with the Dodgers? Or maybe gone to Oakland or San Francisco? And now he had been released? My phone had no bars, just a sad “X” indicating no coverage at all. I could not look anything up. I racked my brain for a few Nick Punto facts. Punto had won a championship with the St. Louis Cardinals before coming to Boston. They called him “Shredder.”
I was desperate to know how old Nick Punto was. He’d been a veteran when he came to the Red Sox in 2012, in his early thirties I’d guess. Four years later, he would be pretty old for a ballplayer. He’d never been great. Slow down a bit when you’re an undersized infielder with no power and you’re no longer worth a roster spot. Near me, on a wooden bridge, a couple lounged against the rail. The girl took a selfie. I wanted to grab her phone and look up Nick Punto.
Nick Punto must be dead. My friend would not have thought it worthwhile to share a mere tidbit of transactional news about a player so tertiary to Red Sox fandom. My friend and I rarely spoke — sometimes a year would pass between phone calls. He had better things to do than draw out our talk with the news that an obscure bench player had lost his job somewhere on the west coast. The death of Nick Punto? That would have been worth a mention.
The afternoon wore on. I went to the restroom and poked at my phone in the dim of the stall, replaying the conversation in my mind.
Admittedly, I’d been a little snarky about David Price. I was with Papi all the way, absurdly fond of a man I’d never met and whose distinguishing characteristics were that he could hit a ball a long way and he had a nice smile. When I saw Papi on TV I wanted to hug him. I have issues. Because I am a Papi Man and my friend was fired up about David Price, Papi’s nemesis, who it should be noted had not yet thrown one pitch for the team, I had defended Papi’s honor. Being excited about David Price was like being excited about your new stepfather.
Stung, my friend had dug deep and drawn forth Nick Punto. He knew I didn’t follow baseball outside the Red Sox. My friend had always been a more complete baseball fan than me. He paid attention to other teams. He even watched National League games during the regular season, surely an atrocious waste of time. He’d probably seen Nick Punto on TV, plugging away for the Dodgers. My friend knew I was provincial, not a baseball fan so much as a Red Sox fan, and he was trying to slip in a little unsaid barb: Some people study The Game and others root for The Laundry. Catching me unaware of Nick Punto’s death was my friend’s way of reminding me how trivial I was.
No, come on, he must have said released. I was a little angry. Who the hell cares if Nick Punto was released? Of course, he was released. He was not good on the Red Sox and he wasn’t likely to improve. Light-hitting, hard working, a battler… got his uniform dirty, but he was fungible. Jed Lowrie had been released. Psycho Steve Lyons had been released. Someday Brock Holt will be released, no matter how much he is loved. A utility infielder being handed his walking papers is not pressing news.
Finally, finally, the sun was low on the edge of the world and I could leave this black hole of electronic silence. I said brisk goodbyes, got into my car, and drove away, my phone in my lap. Within a minute the device sprung to life. One bar, then quickly up to two. I was driving too fast, eager to penetrate the penumbra of the signal. Give me three, four goddamn bars.
I kept one hand on the wheel and with the other I tried to punch “Nick Punto” into the search field on my phone. My fingers were cold and the buttons were small, and I was failing to stay in my lane. I mis-typed. My car swerved and I heard a horn wailing over my left shoulder. I hate it when people text and drive. I read a whole book about how deadly that is. I mashed the little microphone icon on my phone and shouted “Nick Punto!”
My phone asked me to repeat myself.
I had drifted into the left lane and I jerked the wheel back to the right. How puzzled the state trooper would be, discovering my charred body beside my overturned vehicle, to find my phone in the grass and learn that my last desperate message was not a text to my wife telling her I loved her, but the nonsensical phrase “bick punro.”
I pulled into the breakdown lane and braked to a stop. A log truck blew past me, horn still blaring. What was wrong with me? I was trying to look up information on Nick Punto at 70 miles per hour. I could have died, left my children fatherless. I could have died for Nick Punto.
I pulled myself together. I texted my wife and told her I loved her. I counted to twenty. The sun was behind me now, low over my right shoulder. I erased “bick punro” from the search bar and carefully picked out “n-i-c-k” and “p-u-n-t-o”
The list came back, a series of news stories filling the screen. Nick Punto had retired. Retired.
My friend, bless his heart, hadn’t even gotten that right.
Dan Ennis has written about prospect hype, an epic cage match, why the Red Sox win, sports media, and the original superfan.
Follow Dan on Twitter @DeanDanEnnis.