Building Character in 3.7 Seconds: Baseball’s Suicide Squeeze

The very best part of coaching at any sport at any level, is watching individual players grow as young men and young women through both success and failure on the athletic fields.  The best coaches know that every player is unique and each brings with him or her a wide range of athletic skills, emotional maturity, parental support (which ranges all the way from neglect to the “Attila the Hun” parenting model), self-confidence, reputation, risk aversion/acceptance, willingness to learn, respect for the team and the coaches, self-respect, and much more.  Humans are complicated and as soon as we try to force them into the rigid “good kid-bad kid” boxes, we are not only unfairly limiting them, we are denying ourselves as coaches, the most intriguing part of our job.

Think of it as a comparison between checkers and chess.  If, as coaches, we view our players as pieces on a checkerboard, all we can really do is push them around until they either make it to other side or get jumped by the competition.  If we see our players as pieces on a chessboard, however, we understand they all have different abilities and that through coordinated development, even a pawn can grow up to be a queen one day.

On the baseball field, I coach a very team-oriented offensive style.   Not too many players at the high school level can hit home runs, so scoring runs takes the efforts of multiple players.  Some people call it “small ball” or “station-to-station” ball, but I think of it as “team baseball.    We try to move runners up on the bases through steals, bunts, fake bunts, whatever the defense will allow as we set the table for some hitter to drive in some runs.  Each player, of course, has different abilities on the bases and at the plate and “team baseball” requires that our offense takes advantage of each player’s strengths while we try to minimize the costs his weaknesses might bring.

The most valuable cog in our offensive machine is the player who can bunt in almost any situation.  There’s something truly valiant about bunting.  Even the adjectives that describe certain bunts like “sacrifice” and “suicide squeeze” reflect the unselfish nature of the player who can successfully execute them.  As a coach, I’m asking a player to intentionally make an out for the good of the team.   Either we’re going to move a runner or runners up a base, or we’re going to try to squeeze a run in.  In each case the hitter is likely going to be thrown out.  This isn’t the stuff that shows up on ESPN very often, but it’s an essential part of every winning team…especially at levels where home runs are very rare.

When the situation calls for it, I love to call for a suicide squeeze.  If you already know how this play works, skip this paragraph.   The play is called when the score is tight, there’s a runner on third, and there are less than two outs.  It doesn’t have to be late in the game, but you often see teams try to tie the game or take the lead with this play.   The runner from third breaks toward the plate at full speed as if he’s trying to steal home.  The hitter’s job is to bunt the ball away from the pitcher and catcher far enough that by the time the ball is fielded, the runner from third is home.  The defense then throws the ball to first to retire the batter and thereby conceding the run.

Timing is critical for this play to work right.  So much can go wrong.  Especially with a right-handed pitcher, a runner tipping the squeeze can be picked off.  If he’s not picked off, tipping the pitcher will allow the pitch to be thrown out of the reach of the hitter and the runner is a dead duck coming into home.   Leaving too late gives the defense time to field the ball and throw home to nail the tardy runner.

There’s also big challenges for the hitter.   He can’t tip the fact that he’s bunting or the pitcher will either throw one right at the ear hole in his helmet or pitch the ball so far outside it can’t be bunted.  And then there’s the matter of where the ball is bunted.  Popping it up is an automatic double play.  Missing the bunt leaves the base runner hanging out to dry.  Bunting the ball too hard directly at the pitcher will more often than not allow the defense to get the ball to the catcher to tag the runner.

In short, a lot can go wrong in this play. If either player misses the sign, disaster is waiting. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play and when it’s called, you need two courageous players to do their part.   If one does it perfectly and the other doesn’t, the play will not work.   I can recall in the summer of 1985 when the Tigers were coming off their amazing 1984 World Series Championship.  The Tigers were in a battle for first place and in a tight game against the White Sox, Sparky Anderson called for a squeeze.  The ball was popped up and a double play ended the rally.  The Tigers never really recovered from the consequences of that play and I remember Anderson saying later in the season that is was the play that knocked them out of contention.  Now Sparky was prone to hyperbole, but I know what he means.  When you take a huge risk and it backfires, it takes a lot of wind out of a team’s sails.

On the other hand when it works, it really fires up the team that scored the run and can demoralize the defense because they are helpless to prevent an important run from scoring.  Everyone can see what’s happening, but no one can stop it.

Not only does the situation have to be right to call this play, you have to have the right player at third and the right hitter at the plate.  I have always thought of the suicide squeeze as not only a great way to turn the momentum in a game, but I have always thought about it as building character in 3.7 seconds (about the time it takes to execute the play.)   If you have a runner on third without the confidence to take off knowing the ball might be waiting for him when he gets home, you can’t run the play.  If you have a hitter who doesn’t have the self-confidence to bunt the ball knowing that if he fails, he’ll cost his team a chance to score or worse, you can’t run the play.

Putting players in a position to succeed is a key to good coaching.  Challenging them out of their comfort zone is a key to character building.

Over the years I have run the play many times successfully…and there have been a few flops.

Each time it has worked, and each time it failed, it always told me something about the character of the players involved.  I learned if I had guys I could count on in other tight situations and I learned who I knew would need to grow up before I could challenge them in this way again.

Whenever I talk about the squeeze I have to show this picture to players.  This was one of these perfect photographic opportunities where the guy with the camera was in the right place at exactly the right time.   That’s me in the coach’s box with my then famous mustache.   The player running down the line is the photographer’s son and the batter is my son.   I had called the squeeze because both players were really good at accepting risk and making it work for the team.  As you can see, the pitch was way down and outside the strike zone.  Because my son knew that his job was to get the bat on the ball, he leapt across the plate and made contact with the ball.   The squeeze worked and it demonstrated to me what real determination and responsibility to the team all players could potentially have.   And it all happened in less than 4 seconds.

keenan squeeze (2)

My most memorable unsuccessful squeeze plays also taught me a lot about the players involved…and each required a different response from me.

In the first incident, we were in a very tight game with an arch-rival.   The score was tied in the last inning and we got a runner to third with one out.  My best bunter was at the plate.  (Yes, sometimes there’s luck involved.  If I had a guy who I knew couldn’t get a bunt down, I would never have even considered a squeeze here.)   I gave the sign to the hitter and the verbal signal to the runner.  I set up to watch the pitcher and I hear “No.”  Without turning, I ask “What?”  I hear “No.”  I follow this with “No, what?”   He answers “I’m not running.”    I stand up and call time out.  (We’re pretty much killing the element of surprise here anyway.)

I asked him what was going on and he explained that he wasn’t going to go because he didn’t think he could make it. There was genuine fear in his eyes and I could tell this was the wrong time to push him.  I called off the squeeze and we went on to win in extra innings anyway, but I’m sure this player was going to need some help after the game.  In our conversation he reminded me that I have always said that players had to make the ultimate decision on the base paths and that if they didn’t think they could make it, they shouldn’t go just because a coach told him to.  I reassured him that he did the right thing, but also challenged him to work on this.  His speed was an asset only if he was willing to use it.

I had to laugh later in the season when he got over to third and said to me. “I’m ready.”  It took me a minute to realize what he was talking about, but clearly this player had found a way to work through his fear.   The situation really didn’t call for it, but I gave the signal to the hitter for a squeeze anyway.    (It seems to me that if you’re ready to jump out of the plane, it’s best not to wait until the next flight to give it a try.)  He was very tentative off the base, but broke right on time and scored easily.   I knew at that point I had a player I could count on the next time I really needed him.

The second incident had a much less happy ending.   Again, in a tight game I called upon one of our best bunters to squeeze.  He was a switch hitter who was more comfortable bunting from the left side, but he happened to be batting from the right side this day.   I gave the sign and the verbal to the runner who I knew really loved using his speed.    The pitcher came set, the runner took off, and the hitter simply let the pitch go by and our runner was tagged out.   I was stunned to say the least.   When I asked “Didn’t you see the sign?! (ok there probably should be more exclamation points there, but you get the idea.)  He acknowledged getting the sign but said “I don’t like bunting from the right side.”

Here was a case of a player who didn’t understand at all his role on the team.  For some reason he was comfortable killing a rally, costing us a run, and hanging a teammate out to dry because of some personal preference.   To this day whenever I see this kid around town, I can’t erase the image of one of the most selfish players I ever coached.

Character building isn’t for everyone, whether it’s in 3.7 seconds or not.  For those players who have come to realize that to truly grow as a man you must push yourself outside of your comfort zone, the squeeze play is step in that growth.   For others, it remains a challenge they would rather not face and they choose to pass on a chance to grow.   And since we never know the next time the score will be right, the situation will call for it, and the right guy is on base, our next test of character might not come until the stakes are much higher.

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