Punto raised in baseball family

Punto raised in baseball family

MINNEAPOLIS -- Lou Punto knew early. He knew when he saw the pock marks on the wall-blackened spheres on the other side of the room from the crib. But Lou definitely knew when he saw little Nicholas wind up and heave the bottle himself.

Lou wasn't angry. He was ecstatic. He shook Nancy's arm.

"Look! Look at Nick! Look at this! He's got a great arm!"

To which Nick's mother replied: "If you start now, I'm going to shoot you."

Lou Punto had a ballplayer.

One could forgive him for the excitement. As a former Draft pick of the Red Sox and avid baseball fan, Lou could see the potential. Even from the crib.

Nick Punto grew up in a baseball world. And while Lou never made the big leagues, he became a successful baseball coach in California, coaching future Major Leaguers Eric Chavez and Eric Munson, as well as his son.

The lessons Lou, 58, taught his son helped Nick reach the Major Leagues, in 2001 with the Phillies but for the last five years as a third baseman with the Twins. They were also tenets that transcended the diamond and helped mold his life. They are the lessons Nick, a new father, hopes to teach his daughter someday. Attitude equals success. Work hard.

"As a father, he was everything and more that I could ever ask for," Nick said. "He was my mentor, my role model. He was an unbelievable human being. I hope I can be the father that he was to me."

When told this, Lou asks for a minute. The sound on the other end of the telephone is muffled. When he returns, he says his heart is filled.

"Nick is a better athlete than his dad is, and my guess is that he's going to be an even better dad than I was," Lou said, his voice shaking. "I know he is. I am just very proud of my son and my daughter-in-law. They are both wonderful people."

Nick's wife, Natalie, gave birth to the couple's first child, Nicole, on May 30. Nicole and Natalie were released from the hospital three days later. During that time, Punto was at the hospital in all his free time that he wasn't at the park.

"I think every relationship is different, but I'm definitely going to try and instill a lot of the things my father did with me," Punto said. "I think it starts with love. That's pretty generic, but I'm just going to try to love her and guide her. You can try to protect her, but sometimes you just have to sit back, cross your fingers, and hope she makes the right decisions."

Nick uses many words to describe his father: Charismatic. High energy. Wordsmith. Inspirational. Teacher. Great human being.

"To know him is to love him, he's one of those guys," Nick said.

Lou works at high schools in the Puntos' hometown of Mission Viejo, Calif., teaching the mechanics of the game. He says it is what he loves.

Lou was driven to give Nick a strong work ethic because the older Punto failed in his dream to become a major league player. But he wasn't merciless. The work was spurred by Nick.

Lou would tell his son: "You tell me when you don't want it anymore, bub, because when you don't want it anymore, Dad will just relax. Because Dad will love you if you're a trash man."

Today, Nick Punto is not a trash man.

Lou missed on a Major League career because of, as he says, "the '60s and rock and roll." He took a break from the game and played music. When he was drafted to go to Vietnam, it ensured that he wouldn't return to a career in baseball. Lou was honest with Nick about his vices and the reason he didn't make it. It drove the youngster.

"I didn't want to make that mistake, so I worked real hard in high school and college," Nick said. "When I got drafted, I remember getting a huge hug, and it was like, 'We did it.' We still have a long way to go, but we did it. We got drafted."

The use of "we" is telling. Nick hadn't made it. They both had. Years of work had culminated in a collective dream. It was realized in 2001, when Punto made the Majors with the Phillies at the age of 23. Lou still remembers the chair he was sitting in at a friend's house in San Clemente when he got the call.

"Dad, I'm going to the show," Nick said, simply.

Nick said the two worked all the time. Weekends, weekdays, days, nights. But Lou knew when to back off. Nick told his father he was quitting baseball in high school. Lou knew it was a mistake, but he didn't say anything. Nick spent the summer hanging out with friends at the beach. The next year, Nick came back with a passion. He missed the game.

With Nicole's birth, Lou is a first-time grandfather. He has no doubts about Nick's ability to juggle pro ball with his duties as a husband and father.

"He puts his wife first, which means he will put his child first," Lou said. "Family will come first to him."

Nick said he knew his life had a different purpose the first time he held Nicole. He will be thinking of her on Father's Day, when the team is in Milwaukee. And the boy who used to wake his father by jumping up and down in the crib and launching his bottle across the room will think of the man that pushed him to become what he has.

"My father means the world to me," Nick said. "I hope my daughter feels the same way about me that I feel about my father."

Thor Nystrom is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.