Dealing with the bummers of summer

June 25, 2009

My first interview with a baseball Hall of Famer came in no less of a venue than the World Series clubhouse of the 1978 New York Yankees.

I asked Reggie Jackson in my squeakiest, cub reporter's voice how a rookie like the Dodgers' Bobby Welch could strike him out with Game 2 on the line.

He sure didn't miss that rookie offering. Mr. October suddenly turned into Mr. Obscenity.

I couldn't have heard more F-bombs if I'd gone into a sailor's brig to ask why Navy's football team got its butt kicked so easily by Army.

But the fact is that no baseball batter ever succeeds more than he fails. Even Ted Williams couldn't get over that hump, and he holds the record for career on-base percentage at .482.

Jackson hit a lot of bombs in his career. His 563 home runs rank 11th all-time. But he's also No. 1 in strikeouts with 2,597, which means he launched a heck of a lot of F-bombs, too.

Author Mortimer Feinberg never risked the wrath of Reggie in an interview, but he did know how to draw the fine line between success and failure in our national pastime:

"The difference between a .350 hitter and a .250 hitter," Feinberg once wrote, "is only a quarter-inch up or down the bat."

And that's enough to push even the biggest gamers - real pros such as UCSB alumni Chris Malec and Chris Valaika - right over the edge.

"The thing those two guys really have in common is their competitiveness," Gauchos coach Bob Brontsema said.

It got the best of Malec, an infielder with the Yankees' Double-A farm club at Trenton, when he hit a ground ball straight at the first baseman during last Thursday's game against the Connecticut Defenders.

He was clearly out - for the 34th time in 41 at-bats, dropping his once lofty batting average to .267 - and he sure didn't feel like running down to congratulate Connecticut's first baseman. And so he didn't run at all.

Trenton's manager also made a knee-jerk decision, pulling Malec out of the game.

Malec wouldn't let anything - testicular cancer included - keep him from playing baseball at UCSB. He shocked Brontsema four years ago when he returned only 22 days after surgery, defying the nausea of his chemotherapy as though it were a mere brushback pitch, to hit a game-winning grand slam at Long Beach State.

But overcoming the frustration of a slump proved to be a little more gut wrenching.

"Malec was as hard on himself as any player we've ever hard," Brontsema said. "We always had to tell him that it wasn't the end of the world when he made an out - that everyone is going to make one every now and then."

Trenton manager Tony Franklin knew the score with Malec when he benched him.

"I saw something that wasn't conducive to what Mal generally does, and we needed to take care of that," Franklin said. "He's fine with it. He needed to look at some things.

"He'll be OK, and I'm going to let it go at that, because Mal's a heck of a guy and he's a heck of a player. Has been for two years here.

"Mal will be back in there tomorrow, and he will be ready to play, and I guarantee you Mal will give you everything that Mal has always given you."

Malec responded to the benching with few words - "I recognize why I got taken out," he said simply - and a lot of hits.

His batting average is up to .282 after a 7-for-17 tear, which has included a home run and four walks. That's an on-base percentage of .524, which even Ted Williams couldn't shake a stick at.

Valaika, a shortstop for Cincinnati's Triple-A farm club in Louisville, used to turn double plays with Malec at UCSB. He can also toss and turn just as fretfully over a batting slump.

He missed a pitch while making an out against Rochester on May 7, but he didn't miss the water cooler with his next swing. The punch broke Valaika's hand, and his self-inflicted benching lasted all the way until last Thursday.

"Maybe we should all think about putting a punching bag in our locker rooms," Brontsema mused. "It is a tough game and it can really wear on you, especially when you've had a lot of success.

"When you have those times when it's just beating you up - when you're lining out and nothing's going your way - it can really test your nerves."

The last five weeks have been the toughest test of all for Valaika.

"I lost my head for a minute," he said. "I guess that's the way you get punished for things.

"It's been punishment the past five weeks sitting around and having to explain myself, having to watch games. I thank the Reds a lot for hanging with me."

That's what it felt like for Louisville manager Rick Sweet, who had reached the end of his rope with his defense. He tried five different shortstops since Valaika went on the disabled list while watching his team's fielding percentage drop to .971 - worst in the International League.

But Valaika handled every play flawlessly during last Thursday's return, securing a 3-1 win over Norfolk with a dazzling double play during the pivotal seventh inning.

"He is a legitimate shortstop," Sweet said. "That's the one thing we have really lacked. We've put a lot of other people there, but they are not everyday guys."

But after all, that is the real test in the game of baseball - to stick with it every day, no matter what's thrown your way.

Even when it's coming from a bunch of rookies.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.