Sveum tries to make bunting fun for Cubs

Precision bunting is the goal as Dale Sveum turns the art into a contest. Doug Padilla

MESA, Ariz. -- March Madness is coming to the Cubs' spring-training facility in the desert, complete with a field of 64.

Instead of dunks, three-pointers and buzzer beaters, though, Cubs pitchers and position players will square off to see who is the most fundamentally sound bunter in the organization. That's right ... bunter.

Sure a bunt contest might sound akin to a bake-off or a tricycle race, but with an entire group of competitive athletes going head to head for bragging rights at something, things are bound to get both interesting and intense.

"It's fun and the guys really get into it," manager Dale Sveum said. "It just makes them focus a little more and it's kind of a, ‘I don't want to lose to my teammate [situation].' They bear down a lot more and work on their mechanics leading up to the tournament."

A 32-man pitchers' bracket will fight it out opposite of a 32-man hitter's bracket with the winners of each bracket meeting in what Sveum called a "championship match-play bunting tournament."

The coaching staff won't just have a feel for who is the most fundamentally sound bunter in the organization, the point system they have devised will let them know who can lay one down with precision.

The rules of the game are simple. The Cubs' grounds crew painted a grid on a practice field. Up and down each foul line are squares that are worth 10, 20, 30 and 40 points. There is even a triangle out in front of the plate worth five points. Lay a bunt down inside the square and receive that point total.

There are even 100-point circles on each side of the pitcher's mound.

"You can't just bunt a [terrible] bunt and end up in the bull's eye and get 100 points for it," Sveum said. "You have to call that, kind of like H-O-R-S-E."

Sveum admits that even a bunting tournament setting can't simulate somebody trying to lay one down in the late innings against a 93-mph sinker, but the benefits are clear.

"You have to get them to understand they have to be able to bunt the average fastball, the average slider with a two-strike count when they're going to get a slider to bunt, those kind of things," he said. "But we're really stressing the mechanics of it and the confidence to get bunts down and understanding the ramifications of not getting the bunt down."

Upping the ante could be the practice of guys backing up their own confidence with a little cash, or even laying some cash down on a teammate.

"There might be even a Calcutta game with guys having odds put on them," Sveum joked, referring to the practice at the country club of bidding on a foursome that has the best chance of winning the golf tournament.

The expectation is for the entire bunt contest to be conducted over a two-week stretch.

Since golf was mentioned, Sveum was asked if a long-drive contest was also in the works.

"Well a lot of guys won't have an absolute chance in that," he said. "At least in bunting, you have your good bunters and your bad bunters, but in this game anybody can surprise you from a day-to-day basis."