Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt
On the rough diamond,
the hand-cut field beneath the dog lot and the barn,
we rehearsed the strict technique
of bunting. I watched from the infield,
the mound, the backstop
as your left hand climbed the bat, your legs
and shoulders squared toward the pitcher.
You could drop it like a seed
down either base line. I admired your style,
but not enough to take my eyes off the bank
that served as our center-field fence.
Years passed, three leagues of organized ball,
no few lives. I could homer
into the garden beyond the bank,
into the left-field lot of Carmichael Motors,
and still you stressed the same technique,
the crouch and spring, the lead arm absorbing
just enough impact. That whole tiresome pitch
about basics never changing,
and I never learned what you were laying down.
Like the hand brushed across the bill of a cap,
let this be the sign
I'm getting a grip on the sacrifice.
David Bottoms, b. 1949
Life Lessons from Baseball:
A Reading of David Bottoms' "Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt"
Kevin Clark, who is both a life-long baseball fan and a university English professor, says it well enough: "Of course, very few good baseball poems are ultimately about the game itself." Thus a reader of David Bottoms' very fine baseball poem "Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt" should not be surprised that the poem is about far more than the technique of "laying down a bunt." As we reflect on the larger significance of the baseball terminology in the poem, we come to see that Bottoms is actually commenting on some lessons he has learned from life.
To begin with, Bottoms calls the poem "Sign for My Father." As every baseball fan knows, a "sign" is a private communication to a player on the field from the manager or one of the coaches. Such signs typically include touching various parts of the face, the arms, the uniform, or -- especially -- the cap, and it is through such signs that the manager conveys his instructions to his players. The poet says that the poem is a sign "like a hand brushed across the bill of a cap." In other words, the poet plainly tells us there's a private meaning for his father (and all the readers) to find in the sign.
Obviously the message has something to do with the speaker's youthful preference for home run hitting over the bunting technique his father tries so hard to teach him. Even though he "admired" his father's "style" and his skill at bunting, the young man's heart was with hitting homers "into the garden beyond the bank" and "into the left-field lot of Carmichael Motors." The speaker admits that he "never learned what" his father "was laying down." Literally, of course, he means that as a young player he never really learned to appreciate the bunt. He preferred the solitary and selfish glory of home run hitting to the complex skill of bunting his father was trying to teach.
What, then, is the symbolic or metaphorical significance of the bunt? Most importantly, the bunt is an act of sacrifice. The player who bunts is almost certain to be thrown or tagged out, but a successful bunt may allow another person to advance around the bases. The bunter sacrifices his own chance to score so that someone else may have a better chance to score. In metaphorical terms, the selfish and vain young man in search of glory has finally learned the the importance of sacrificing for the common good. The poem is a sign the young man wants his father to get. The son is letting the father know he finally "gets it." As Bottoms writes it: "Let this be a sign / I'm getting a grip on the sacrifice."
We don't know exactly what sacrifices the speaker has made or exactly what experiences have educated him to the importance of sacrificng for the common good. We know that David Bottoms is a devoted father and family man, and perhaps his mature understanding of the sacrifices necessary to family life are what he is talking about. The exact nature of his insight doesn't really matter. What does matter to him is that he gets the point across to his father.He needs to let his father know that he understands a little more about unselfishness.