Saturday, May 16, 2009

What Big Papi and All of Us Need to Remember as His Slump Continues

We all have our theories on why bad things happen to good people.

I'm no different. I've had my good stretches and more-challenging periods. Last summer fell into the latter and will go down in the Book of Todd as one of the more challenging times of my life.

I just felt out of whack. Not quite as sharp as I'd been the day before and it seemed that my internal karma was out of sync. Where one day I would bend down and find a dollar on the ground, the next I'd bend down and rip my drawers.

Rather than fold up and wither, I found the intestinal fortitude to gut it out and manage, until I slowly came out of my personal slump.

But I'm not a baseball player. My work is noticed by only a handful and isn't viewed by 35,676 per day.

No one pays to see me work and watches my every move. I'm not written up in the newspaper on a daily basis.

So Big Papi is in a slump. Can't hit his way out of a paper bag, and he knows it. To quote him after Thursday's 0-7 performance, "Just write that Papi stinks."

But just because Papi is in a slump doesn't mean he took performance enhancers, doesn't mean he's hurt, doesn't mean he is old and unable to regain his skills.

He's in a slump. Slumps happen in baseball as do streaks. And if you ask those who play the game, no one can really explain why.

I've been told by hitters that when things are going good, the ball seems to come in twice as big and everything they hit seems to find a hole. Conversely, when they are in the midst of a dip, it's the opposite.

Compounding things is the extra pressure people put on themselves when things are going sour. See Ortiz's three-foot, check-swing tapper with the bases loaded and two outs in the 12th vs. the Angels on Thursday as an example.

No one can convince me that Ortiz's feeble attempt was due to eliminating steroids or getting a year older.

The human psyche is fragile and there are several factors that may be affecting Ortiz:

  • It's the beginning of the season.
  • It's his first full year without Manny behind him in the lineup.
  • He is getting older.
  • All players are under much more scrutiny due to steroid allegations.

Ortiz slumped badly at the beginning of last season too, hitting .070 through his first 13 games. This slump is now three times longer. But Ortiz broke out last year and is likely to do the same this year.

Last year in a Boston Herald article by Jerry Crasnick, Ortiz explained his slump this way:

"I'm just trying to figure things out for a minute so I can go back to being Big Papi again. You see this in baseball, where a guy will have a hard time, go home, chill out, and come back with a fresh mind. It happens to everybody."

In 1970, at age 31, Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski hit .329 with 40 HR and 102 RBI. The 1970 season was the third in the four seasons in which Yaz topped .300, had at least 40 round-trippers, and drove in more than 100 runs.

In 1971 Yaz slumped to .254 with 15 HR and 70 RBI.

He dropped in every offensive category except triples. His slugging percentage fell over 200 points, and his on-base percentage dropped 70 points.

It was the first year I started watching baseball as a kid. I remember the sparse Fenway crowd booing the captain unmercifully. The more Yaz struggled, the more hostile the Fenway "Unfaithful" became.

Yaz spent every day from April to September making adjustments, taking extra batting practice, and talking to those who knew him best about changes he needed to make in his stance and swing.

Nothing worked.

Perhaps the most interesting stat is that Yaz's strikeouts actually decreased slightly, from 66 in 1970 to 60 in 1971. He was making contact, just bad contact.

His slump actually lasted through the next season, when he hit .264 with 12 home runs and 68 RBI. The following year, 1973, he rebounded to hit .296 with 19 HR and 95 RBI.

During a batting slump during the career of Red Sox left fielder Mike Greenwell, he was said to have grabbed all of his bats, put them in the center of a room, lit candles around them, and had a seance to get the evil spirits out of his lumber.

"It worked," explained Greenwell's teammate Ellis Burks. "The next day he came out and was raking hits."

Burks faced similar challenges several times during his career.

Through his first four seasons in the majors, Burks was establishing himself as a legitimate .300 hitter with 20 HR and 90 RBI annually.

In his fifth season, at age 27, Burks fell to the mid-.250s. His production dropped by over a third. Burks struggled the entire year and much of an injury-plagued following season before he rediscovered his stroke in 1993 for the White Sox.

When asked about what causes slumps, Burks said:

"Hell, if I knew that, I wouldn't go in them. Maybe it's just a matter of losing concentration for a split moment. In baseball, all it takes is a split second for you to do something different such as pull your head up a little bit. It's just weird."

Francona is prepared to sit Papi down for a few and let him relax. I personally don't advocate a trip to the disabled list or a trip down the batting order.

Maybe a good night's sleep, a change of luck, and a visit from the baseball Gods, and all will be well again.

The best thing that we, as fans of the Sox and admirers of Papi, can do is cut the man some slack and support him no matter how bad things get.

The memory of Ortiz's tap out on Thursday may well be replaced by the game-winning shot he hits tomorrow.

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