What it feels like to have a breakthrough season . . .
Most young players want to hit home runs. Gary Matthews Jr. wanted to hit singles. With the help of hitting coach Terry Crowley, Matthews finally got his chance with the Orioles. He batted a nifty .276 in 2002 (a full 38 points above his lifetime average) and became a cornerstone of the Orioles’ attack. Some say it was no coincidence that after Matthews went down with a wrist injury in late August the Orioles lost 32 of their last 36 games. Here, he explains how he got into the groove and how helpless he felt watching the team’s free-fall from the sidelines.
I think it was a combination of things. I finally got a chance to play every day. That’s key for a young player. The other thing was changing my approach to hitting. I never saw myself as a power hitter—when I was in the minor leagues, I didn’t hit for tremendous power. But my first season in the big leagues, I hit 15 home runs. Suddenly, everyone was saying, “He hit 15, we want him to try and hit 30.” And you start to believe it. The problem is, when you try to hit home runs, you start to pull everything. And that’s not good.
When I got traded from the Mets to Baltimore, it was a blessing in disguise. I got matched up with hitting coach Terry Crowley which was huge. His approach is he gets to know his players and their swings on a personal basis. He doesn’t apply the same philosophy to every player. It’s a lot of work to do it the way Terry does it. The hitting coach is part dad, part psychologist and Terry does a tremendous job.
What he taught me is, I can do so many things well. I don’t need to go and try to hit the ball out of the park. I need to utilize the different aspects of the game. Put the ball in play. Hit line drives. Use my speed. You’ve got to learn to be a hitter before you can be a power hitter.
There were two series where it really clicked for me. The first was in L.A. I hadn’t been playing every day yet. In fact, I hadn’t played in a week. I was talking to Elrod Hendricks. He said, “be patient.”
I said, “But man, I feel great. I feel locked in.”
I didn’t start that day. But I came in and I pinch hit and I hit a double off of [Greg] Gagne—the closer from L.A.
And that next series, in San Francisco, I started playing every day. Hitting third. I guess not trying to swing for the fences gave me comfort. Also, realizing when I can let it go. You have to learn to read the game situation. I have a better knowledge of the game now. I know what kind of pitch to expect in what kind of situation. I’ve learned how to be patient. I was taught these things when I was young. You just don’t trust it when you are young.
Of course, they have these guys called advance scouts now. They sit in the stands and all they do is watch your tendencies: Find out what you do in different counts, with different pitches. So I guess I’ll have to make more adjustments. That’s baseball.
When I got hurt, yeah, it was disappointing. It was right when the team hit that skid. To not be out there with my teammates when you know that they’re struggling, you feel anxious. You feel bad. You feel sorry for yourself. Why now? Why you? I can’t say my injury was the reason the team started losing. No one player makes or breaks a team. But it’s a new season. My wrist is better. And I’m ready to go.
What it feels like to tear your ACL in the first game of spring training . . .
After working out all off-season, John Parrish was in the best shape of his life and ready to earn a spot in the O’s rotation. In what has to be the mother of all bummers, his quest was cut short when he tore his ACL in the first game of spring training. He spent all of last season in rehab.
We were in Ft. Myers, playing the Twins. I had fielded a ground ball up the middle. I caught a guy in a rundown, just like I’m supposed to. I went to throw and my cleat stuck in the ground and I twisted my knee. Yes, it popped. I heard it. I think Jerry [Hairston] might’ve heard it, too. It wasn’t that painful, to be honest. I thought it was minor. I tried to get up. I wobbled. It started to swell right away. The team doctor took one look at it and said, “ACL tear.” I was stubborn. I said, “No, it isn’t.” But we got back home and the MRI confirmed it. I wasn’t scared to have the surgery. I wanted to get it done with. But yeah, it was a big downer. I had worked so hard in the offseason. I had stayed in Baltimore just to work out with the strength and conditioning coaches. After the surgery, they put my leg in a splint. I started going to physical therapy. The worst part was, I really missed playing the game. I didn’t pick up a ball for six months. And I missed out on the experience of being with the team on the road. They would talk about what they did and I would say, “Yeah. I saw it . . . on TV.” I was bored. I was in the house by myself most of the time. I played video games—Max Payne, Grand Theft Auto, John Madden. I played the games until I had them beat. Then that got boring, too. So I watched movies. I thought maybe I could come back at the end of the season, but I was kidding myself. These things really take time. You have to be careful. If you push yourself, you could do permanent damage. I thought I was Superman. I ain’t close!
What it feels like to steal a base . . .
Speedy second baseman Jerry Hairston led the team last season with 21 stolen bases. Here, he talks about being a marked man—and loving it.
You definitely steal on the pitcher, not the catcher. It’s all about timing. If a pitcher is 1.5 seconds to the plate—that is, from the time he picks up his front leg to when he gets the ball to the catcher—that gives a quick runner enough time. But if a pitcher is in the 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 range, you have no chance. If he uses a slide step, as opposed to picking up his leg, that makes it that much harder. We have guys in the dugout with a stopwatch timing pitchers. They stop the clock as soon as he touches the plate. It’s not precise, of course. All you need is a gauge.
Stealing is an art. You not only have to be fast. You have to read the pitcher. A pitcher will sometimes give it away when he’s going to the plate. Some pitchers rock back with their shoulders before they lift up their leg. I look at their shoulders. And you have to get a good jump. It’s all about the jump. Sometimes if you don’t get a good jump, you can make up ground with your acceleration speed. But with someone like Pudge [Rodriguez] or Charles Johnson behind the plate, everything has to go right.
My lead is around 15 to 16 feet. As long as I can get back in a step and a lunge, that’s a good size lead.
It’s a bad feeling—getting picked off. But Ricky Henderson once told me, “Never be afraid to be picked off.” If you’re going to be a really good base stealer, you can’t have that fear. To get something you may have to give up something. Yeah, you might get picked off from time to time. But in order to be the best, you have to push the envelope.
If you’ve ever wondered why runners stop in the middle of the steal, predominantly it’s because they didn’t get a good jump. Or they see a slide step. I don’t care how fast you are. If you don’t get a good jump and the pitcher has a slide step—Pedro Martinez uses one a lot—you’re not going to steal.
When you know you’ve got a good jump you feel your momentum going forward. After that, you’re off to the races, you just take off. It is almost like you stole something. You got to get to that location as fast as possible.
I’m known as a base stealer. I’m not going to sneak attack anybody. Everybody knows I’m trying to steal: the pitcher, the catcher, the fans. And when you still steal the base, that’s very gratifying.
What it feels like to finally make the bigs after nine years in the minors . . .
Travis Driskill was beginning to feel a bit like Crash Davis, that Kevin Costner character from Bull Durham: A career minor leaguer, he was just talented enough to stay in the pros, but long past the age where he was considered an exciting prospect. Driskill finally got his chance last year with the Orioles and—by winning his first five games—he made one heck of a first impression.
I wouldn’t say I ever had doubts. I guess I wondered if my opportunity would ever come around. It was a little frustrating because there were guys who were bypassing me from Double A. I had sort of had my moment when I was the up-and-coming guy in the Indians organization. But I wasn’t ready at that time. I just hoped I would get another chance.
My family was incredibly supportive. That was key. They didn’t put a timeline on my making it to the majors. There was no pressure.
I got the call on an off day in Rochester. I was with my family in the car. My coach said, “Pack your bags. You’re going to Baltimore!”
My wife immediately got on the cell phone. She started calling everyone—her mom, her dad, her uncle. We were calling people we didn’t even know!
When I got to Camden Yards, it was the first time I had ever been on a major league field. It’s true what they say: It was the greenest thing you’ve ever seen. [Equipment manager] Jim Tyler said to me, “What do you need?” I was like, “I don’t know.” He said, “An undershirt? A jacket?” I said, “Uh, sure!” It was like Christmas!
My first game was a day later in Kansas City. Elrod told me to warm up. I was more nervous in the bullpen than I’ve ever been. I was afraid I was going to throw the ball into the stands! I was thinking, “Just don’t make a fool of yourself in front of 40,000 people.”
I kept saying to myself, “Don’t make a bigger deal out of this than it is. 10,000 other guys have made their major league debut. You can do it, too.”
Michael Tucker was the first guy I faced. He got a hit. The next guy got a hit, too. I gave up 3 hits to the first three batters. It felt like seven or eight! Mark Wiley came to the mound and told me to settle down. I wouldn’t say that panic had set in, but I was thinking, “What do I have to do to get these guys out?”
The next two and a third innings, I didn’t give up any runs. Everything settled down. Afterwards, everything went so fast. I’m sure I gave interviews. But I couldn’t tell you who I talked to or what I said. It was just a big blur.
Power hitter Jay Gibbons—he of the Popeye forearms—describes those rare and blissful times when the tiny white projectile really does seem as big as a beach ball.
My first home run was in tee ball. I was six. I remember it because my sister had five home runs that year and I didn’t have any. I hit a ball into left field and the left fielder fell down. I ran around the bases and then ran back to first because I didn’t know what to do. I don’t think I hit any more for the next few years.
I was kind of small in high school. My senior year in high school was when I started to fill out a little bit. But not until I got into pro ball did I start seeing myself as a power hitter.
I don’t try to hit home runs. My swing has a lot of backspin in it and a lot of loft. If I hit the ball squarely, it’s going to go in the air. It just happens that way.
My first big league home run? That was interesting. It was against Tampa Bay—Ryan Rupe. I hit a ball down the line. Fair by 15 feet. The first base umpire called it foul. I went nuts. My first home run and it was being taken away from me! Eddie Murray was out there, pleading my case. Finally, the home plate umpire signaled home run. It was a great feeling.
Sometimes you know it’s a home run the minute it leaves your bat. The best way to describe it is, you almost don’t feel yourself hit the ball. It’s just a pure feel. Other times, you don’t know. You get on top, or you get under it. In some ways, that’s even more satisfying. Hitting a home run is about the greatest feeling I can think of in the world.
Yes, there are times when the ball seems bigger. Not very often. Your eyes light up. It’s a feeling you get once a month. It can last one or two games or a week. You have to just take advantage of that time. Once you start thinking about it, you swing at a pitch over your head and it’s over.
My favorite home run? My rookie year. A pinch hit home run off of Greg Maddux to tie the game.
It was the 7th inning. We were down 5 to 2. I never thought I’d get into the game against such a crafty veteran as Maddux. Hargrove told me to get a bat. I didn’t know how many outs there were. That’s how much I thought I was going to hit.
Second pitch he threw me a high fastball, up and away. It snuck over the left field wall. I didn’t have time to think it was Greg Maddux.
After that, I kind of got real comfortable. That gave me confidence. I can hit anybody if I hit Maddux.
I don’t really have a home run trot. I’m just trying to concentrate hard as I can until it’s over the fence. I run around the bases pretty quickly. I don’t really think about it. I’m in a daze. I’m on cloud nine.
I’ll never showboat. Barry Bonds—he’s earned the right to do that. When I hit it, I’m going to run.
Do chicks dig the long ball? I hope so! But not as much as I’d like.
What it feels like to be traded . . .
How would you like it if your boss came into your office unexpectedly and said, “Pack your bags. We’re shipping you to the Detroit office.” No warning, no explanation, no questions asked. That’s what it’s like to get traded. Here, Jeff Conine talks about the deal that brought him from Kansas City to Baltimore.
Every year around trade deadline, people want you to comment on trade rumors. To be honest, trade rumors don’t effect me at all. I’ve been around long enough to know that it usually happens when you least expect it. That certainly was the case in Kansas, when I was traded to the Orioles. It was the last day of Spring Training. I was getting ready to do my usual batting practice before the game. My group was one away from hitting in the cage. The manager walked toward us slowly. He was looking right at me. I said, “See ya later, boys.” I just knew. The manager said, “I hate to break the news to you like this.” Then we exchanged pleasantries: It was nice working with you, blah, blah, blah. You feel like an outcast after that. You turn in your uniform, say goodbye to the guys. Then I called my wife and my agent and started making the plans to come to Baltimore. When I got to the Orioles clubhouse, I started looking around. I didn’t know any of these guys. It usually takes at least a month to bond with the new teammates. There are so many different nationalities, so many different moods in a clubhouse. Right now, I’m very happy in Baltimore. I have a great relationship with the fans, the team, there’s a comfort zone. At the same time, I hate losing. I can’t stand it. I mean, it’s just so much more fun when you’re winning. If I didn’t have one of these [his 1997 Florida Marlins World Series ring] I’d be champing at the bit to get with a contender. As it is, it’s not pressing. The competitive side of me would love to go to a guaranteed winning situation. The family side of me says: You’ve done this. Help this organization that you’re with right now. I would rather win with Baltimore than with any other team. I would just really love to see a playoff atmosphere at Camden Yards.
The gentlemanly Mike Hargrove is certainly no Earl Weaver. But he has had his moments of “rage,” as he likes to put it.
I won’t argue a call unless I’m absolutely sure they missed it. Or to protect the player. In that case, I’m trying to get the umpire’s attention on me, not the player. If I’m yelling when I leave the dugout—then you know it’s serious. You never rush out of the dugout. You trot. There are times when I’ve left the dugout knowing I’m gone. Other times, I didn’t expect it. Yeah, there are words you can’t use. Anything ending in “er” is a problem. Sometimes it accumulates throughout the course of the game. That’s more the homeplate umpire—balls and strikes. If there’s been a string of close, contestable calls, it can build up. The homeplate ump can always hear you hollering from the bench. They hear every word you say. I remember when I was a player, I argued a call with the late, great umpire Durwood Merrill. I slid into second. I was going to be out, but the shortstop picked his glove up. I was safe! I was furious. We went back and forth, and as I was heading back into the dugout, Merrill said, “Mike, you’re right. You were safe.” I respect that. Guys who admit they’re wrong. I really respect the umpires who agree to discuss it in a group. They’re trying to get it right. After they’ve huddled, you’ve got no argument. You may as well bite your lip. There’s nothing you can do. Once you get kicked out of the game, it’s tough to leave the bench. You want to let off more steam. But you have to remember, the umpires always get the last say! If I’m really incensed, it will take me a couple of hours to come down from an argument. What does my wife say when I get home? She knows well enough to leave me alone!