Lessons and More Lessons – Brandon Belt

First I have to tell you how happy I am to be back in San Francisco. I really didn’t think I’d be here until September call-ups. So Haylee and I were just about to give up our lease on our San Francisco apartment when I found out we’d need it immediately.

One thing I’ve learned from both Triple A and the big club: This game yanks you up and down with such frequency and force that you basically live with a perennial case of mental whiplash. One day you’re on top of the world, and the next day you’re sitting in front of your locker with your head in your hands.

That’s where I was today, in front of my locker with my head in my hands.

But before we get to that, this has been my whiplash week so far.

On Monday, I struck out four times in five at-bats for Triple A Fresno. Why did I strike out four times? I couldn’t even begin to explain it to you. I felt fine. My mechanics felt great. I just kept fouling off balls, getting behind in the count then striking out.

After the game, I just wanted to get away from the field as soon as possible. I was angry at myself and wondering, “What just happened?’’

On Tuesday, I was unexpectedly called up to San Francisco, and I wanted to show that Monday’s game was a fluke and that I still had confidence at the plate. And

I hit a home run and a double, helping to beat the Dodgers.

On Wednesday, with the Dodgers up 1-0, I struck out with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

What’s gnawing at me today is that I let the first two pitches go. They didn’t look like strikes to me. One looked low and one looked outside. The umpire had a different idea of where the strike zone was. He called both strikes. I guess I’m still learning how to adjust to each umpire’s zone. I need to learn how to cover more of the plate so, when you’re fighting for your life in the bottom of the ninth, I can at least put the ball in play.

It’s a frustrating thing, and something that comes with the territory, I guess, in the big leagues. And when a major-league pitcher knows an umpire is calling an outside strike or a low strike, he has the ability to keep hitting that spot. You don’t see that as much in the minors. So I’ll talk to our hitting coach, Bam-Bam Meulens. I have to figure this out as soon as possible or I’ll be left behind.

On a happier note from today, I stretched what should probably have been an infield out into a double. My mindset is to be aggressive. Period. If I see the outfielders not running after the ball as fast as they should because they don’t think I’m going to go, the chances are I’m going to go. The outfielder didn’t look like he was running full speed to the ball, so I just took advantage of it.

I can’t explain baseball sometimes.

-Brandon

 

 

 

 

Theories on Chemistry – Mark DeRosa

I was thinking the other day about last season and how each guy’s success fed the next guy’s. The inverse happens, too. No doubt about it.

Just like good hitting is contagious, so is bad hitting. I don’t know why it’s like that. Maybe if your big guys aren’t hitting, the guys below them have a tendency to think, “Well, if they’re not doing it, I’m not expected to do it.’’ Or maybe it’s the reverse: When the big guys aren’t hitting, the guys below them start pressing and try too hard.

Right now everyone’s scrapping. And you can spin out theories and explanations all day. Here’s another one I’m thinking about. If you’re a hitter, all you hear on radio and TV, and all you read in the papers, is how you’re letting down the pitchers, how awful you are with runners in scoring position. Our pitchers are so good that all they need are two or three runs, and the hitters keep failing to deliver. So you are constantly beaten over the head with this, and you start focusing on getting runs for the pitchers, for the guy in the stands reading stories about how bad you are with RISP. You’re thinking about getting a hit simply to restore a measure of respect for the beleaguered lineup. As a result, you stop just going out there and being a pro and getting good at-bats to win a ball game. You stop focusing on the narrow, straight-forward task of getting a hit off this particular pitcher at this particular moment.

It’s really pretty amazing that, given that our lineup is a shell of the one we broke camp with, that we’re hanging onto first place, or staying within striking distance. Buster goes down. Freddy goes down. You’re losing big pieces of the puzzle. You’re not just losing great hitters; you’re losing great teammates — guys who care about winning, who are not afraid to speak their mind.

And you’re asking other guys to take their places. It’s not easy to do. Guys are used to having certain roles with this team and– boom — everything changes. Whitey’s never been asked to catch every day. Nate’s not accustomed to playing every day. Brandon Crawford. Manny Burriss. A lot of guys are being asked to play not above their abilities but above what they were prepared for.

If we can find a way to grind through this, we’re going to be better team and a closer team. We have to figure out how to keep ourselves above water until we can get some guys back. As we found out last year, it’s doesn’t matter how you get into the playoffs. It doesn’t have to be pretty. We made it last year on the final day of the season. All that matters is getting in.

As for me, I’m graduating from the fungo bat and batting tee to real bats and real pitches. I’m trying different models of bats to figure out what might work best with my wrist. If I have learned anything during my long road of rehab, it’s patience. Not that I have a choice. It’s either learn patience or go home. And I’m not ready yet to go home. I wish someone could assure me there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re pretty  much in uncharted waters. No one has an answer. And the only other guy in the majors with the same injury, Jay Gibbons, is no longer in the majors. He was designated for assignment by the Dodgers two weeks ago.

 

Thanks for reading.

- Mark

Next time: taking fielding practice with Brandon Crawford.

 

 

 

Hurt — But Appreciating the Bigs: Brandon Belt

I have a cast on my wrist now to make sure the fractured bone doesn’t move. We’ll do a CT scan next week and hopefully go back to a splint for another week. Then I hope they give me the OK to get back on the field.

One thing all the veterans tell me is to be patient with an injury. The worst thing you can do is start playing again before you’re healed. Then you end up doing more damage and you have an injury that won’t go away.

In the meantime, it is so great to be back in the majors. Big difference between the majors and Triple A – which you really notice when you’ve been back and forth like I have.

In Triple A, we get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to catch a commercial flight for a road trip. It’s usually on a small plane, so when you’re as tall as I am, there’s no sleeping. And you have to be careful to keep your luggage under 50 pounds. Sometimes you go right to the park. Or you might have a few hours of down time at the hotel. But it seems you’re always tired when you’re on the road.

In Triple A, you get $25 a day for meal money. We eat a lot of burritos at Chipotle’s. In the majors, you get more than $100 (I can’t remember exactly how much), so you can eat wherever you want.

But here’s what I like most about the big leagues: the water pressure in the showers. The water pressure is outstanding. You get clean in half the time.

Haylee flew into St. Louis to meet me during that road trip. I’ve always wanted to go to St. Louis because it’s such a great baseball town. And I wanted my wife to go with me. The ballpark there is awesome. The whole atmosphere. And that team. They have so many great players that I grew up watching. Pujols. Berkman. Holliday. Then you add the guys we have on our team, and you’ve got a lot of stars on one field.

Back here in San Francisco, after the day game on Sunday, Haylee and I drove to San Jose to see my host mom, Stacy Hanel. I lived with her from April to July last year when I played Single A. She made us dinner then we watched the movie “The Town’’ (with Ben Affleck) and spent the night. She really is like a second mom. We formed such a bond that she came to our wedding in Texas late last year, and we always keep in touch. I was the first player she ever hosted. (I kid her that every player after me is at a disadvantage because I set the bar so high . . .)

 

Thanks for reading. Feel free to write me with questions!

-Brandon

 

 

Advice from a Dodger – Mark DeRosa

Sorry I haven’t posted in awhile.  I flew home to Georgia after seeing my surgeon in Cleveland. I spent six days with my family and got to take my daughter to the last day of second grade. I had time to relax a little and think about everything that’s happened in the last year and a half.

As you might have read, I’m not having surgery. My torn tendon will simply remain torn. (It basically rolled up into my arm like a snapped rubber band.) Because the tendon is gone, it can no longer cause me pain. So that was the good news. The bad news is that my days of being an every-day player are in serious jeopardy.

The last couple of days, I’ve picked the brain of Dodgers outfielder Jay Gibbons, the only guy in the big leagues who has played with the same injury. He said I’ll have to figure out for myself how to maximize the strength and stability in the wrist.

“I had to change bat models a bunch of times,’’ he said. “I had to make adjustments with my swing. You’re definitely not going to be what you remember being.’’

I’ll rehab for the next few weeks then I’ll see where I am. I want to be sure that when I come in as a pinch-hitter, I can get to a heater, that I can go to my backhand and not have my glove do something funny.

I rejoined the team in St. Louis in time to see Aubrey hit his three home runs. It’s always cool when you get a chance to see something like that.

I know he was feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders after scuffling for the first two months. I’m sure those home runs had to feel unbelievable for him. And we need him.

It’s been fun to have an infusion of new guys from the minors. They always bring a lot of energy into the clubhouse. They’re so excited to be here, and they’re so eager to pick your brain and talk to you.

In the dugout the other day, Darren Ford was talking about stealing bases and asked what I’m thinking when I get to first after a hit. I had to laugh. Stealing has never been a part of my game, so basically I’m thinking, “Nice hit. Take your lead and hope the next guy drives the ball into the gap.’’

He’s the complete opposite. He’s reading leg kicks and slide steps and studying the catcher and calculating times. The thing that’s impressive about him is that everyone in the entire park knows he’s going. And he still steals the base. There aren’t too many people in the world who can get around the bases like that. He runs with an attitude on him. He’s coming around third with a purpose. Once he figures out what works for him offensively, he is going to be unbelievable. I told him just to keep doing what he’s doing and it will all come together.

I’ve loved watching Brandon Crawford. You could tell in spring training that he was smooth. When I was back in Georgia, I watched every inning of every Giants games, and I jumped off the couch when he hit that grand slam.

That’s one of the nice things about Crawford and the other young guys being in big-league camp. When they’re called up, we know what kind of kids they are. We know what they’re about. It’s an easier transition than just shooting up here and no one’s ever met you.

But it’s weird to walk into the clubhouse and not see Buster. I texted him and told him I’m thinking about him and to call if he needed to vent. He just needs to take his time and heal completely. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way. We know as a team we can’t replace him. He’s a special talent. But we’re all competitors, so you move on. You have to. There is no other option. When Buster comes back next year, it will be a breath of fresh air. But until then, we have to find ways to win. And we are.

 

I like reading your comments and questions, so keep them coming.

-Mark

 

Bittersweet Return – Brandon Belt

This isn’t the way you want to get called back to the big leagues.

I was in bed when Bobby Evans called at around 12:30 last night to tell me a car would be picking up me and Chris Stewart around 6 a.m. to take us from Fresno to San Francisco. I had been following the Giants game on my iPad so I knew about Buster’s injury. But I didn’t realize how awful it was until I watched the video later that night. Buster is one of my good friends on the team, so it was painful to watch.

I drove to the Fresno ballpark to gather my baseball stuff – about a dozen bats, batting gloves and four fielding gloves (three first-baseman gloves and one outfielder’s glove). Then I went back home, packed my clothes and tried to get a couple hours’ sleep. The car that was supposed to pick us up broke down, so the Giants’ travel coordinator Mike Scardino hopped in his own car at about 3 in the morning and got to Fresno around 6:30. Then he turned around and drove back, delivering us to AT&T around 10.

The first people I see are Buster and his wife, Kristen. They had been in the clubhouse consulting with the Giants’ medical staff. I said hello but I’m not sure they even heard me. They seemed like they were in a fog, like they were still stunned by what happened. Buster will be missed in so many ways that it’s almost indescribable. He’s not just a great player but he’s a great person and has such a positive impact on everyone in the clubhouse. We’re all pretty confident he’ll back before the end of the season. Groesch, the Giants’ trainer, said he’s seen lots of athletes return to full speed after an injury like this. And Buster is as tough a guy as I know.

I was pretty much running on fumes when I got to the clubhouse and unpacked my stuff. I drank two Red Bulls, did some soft-toss in the batting cage and went to the field for some BP and fielding. I didn’t talk to Boch until right before the game. I stopped in his office to check in, and he told me to be ready for a double-switch type situation. He said to take both gloves because I could play either position. But he didn’t need me.

I’m really happy to be back, and I’m hoping I can contribute right away. It’s a huge blow to lose someone like Buster. But what I admire so much about this team is how much of a true team it is.  Everyone has a chance to make a difference.

The team bus is about to leave for the airport, so I’ve got to go. We’re flying to Milwaukee. I think I’ll sleep the whole way.

-Brandon

Hold the Obituary Please – Mark DeRosa

As I sit here today, icing my left wrist, I’m in two places.

On the one hand, I’m not willing to buy into stories that say this is a career-ending injury. On Wednesday, I’ll see the doctor in Cleveland who did the original surgery. When I talked to him on the phone, he seemed pretty optimistic. He said he’s seen this happen before with the kind of surgery I had. More surgery is not necessarily the answer. So I’m pretty encouraged.

And what people might not understand is that even though I’m 36, I was just a spot player for the first five years of my career. I had a total of maybe 500 to 600 at-bats, which is what most full-time players have in one season. So I have a lot of swings left in my arms and hands.

On the other hand, I’m a realist. I know now that my wrist was the reason I was 0-for-23 since coming off the DL. My left wrist and hand are the keys to my hitting. I’m not a top-hand guy who tries to pull everything. I try to swing through the ball and drive it up the middle. But I could feel my top hand totally taking over. Which is why I was rolling a lot of balls to third. And why I wasn’t getting around on fastballs, a problem I’ve never had.

The crazy-making part was that I had no pain. So I didn’t think it was the wrist. I walked into Bochy’s office two weeks ago and asked him to trust me and play me and give me a shot to prove myself. As the 0-fers mounted, I’d go home or the hotel and try to figure out what was wrong. . I hardly got the ball out of the infield. I had noticed something off in batting practice. I’d hit balls and it would feel the same as always but the balls were landing 20 feet in front of where they usually did.

Even after 23 at-bats without a hit, I continued to chalk it up to being rusty.

Until the burst of pain in Los Angeles last Wednesday.

So the big question for my doctor is: What are the chances that I’ll play again at the level I’m accustomed to playing?

If he says I could be a contributing player if I spent the next year rehabbing, I would do it, even though I know it would be emotionally tough to sit out another season. And I’m cognizant of the possibility that I could be doing long-term damage to my wrist if I keep playing. I don’t want to end up, down the road, unable to play catch with my son or golf with my friends.

But I love this game. I love being on this team with these guys. When I came off the DL earlier this season, the team was struggling a little bit. Someone said to me, “Glad you’re coming back. They really need you.’’

I laughed and shook my head.

“I need them,’’ I said, “way more than they need me.’’

Thanks for all the support and kind words.

-Mark

Setback – Mark DeRosa

There are few things worse for a professional athlete than being on the disabled list. You’re kind of in no man’s land. You’re a part of the team but you’re not. My wrist has been such a frustrating injury. I don’t want to equate it to Tommy John surgery because it’s not on that level. But the guys I talk to who have had Tommy John surgery say they went through the same thing I’m going through now: One day you wake up and feel great. The next day you wake up and you’re in terrible pain. And you don’t know why. That’s what I’ve been battling. I can’t wait for the day when I’m not talking about this anymore.

In the meantime, when you can’t contribute on the field, you have to figure out how to still be a good teammate. I watch the game closely from the dugout. I watch how the pitcher is attacking our hitters. So when guys come back from the plate, I can help them dissect their at-bats, talk about what the pitcher was trying to do. A lot of guys – Sanchez, Huff, Rowand, Burrell, Buster – they love to talk hitting. So I can be a sounding board.

And I’ve always been pretty good at reading people, so I feel pretty comfortable about figuring out who needs to be kicked in the butt, who needs to be patted on the back, when to say something, when to bite my tongue. The guys encouraged me to do this last season. They kind of built me up and asked me to stay on top of them, to keep the bench going. So I took that seriously and contributed however I could.

But I hate not playing. To be honest with you, last year was the worst season of my career. You bust your tail your whole life to get to the big leagues and win a World Series and the one time you get there, you have completely nothing to do with it. It was a tough pill to swallow.

But I used last season as a chance to step back and see the game from an unselfish point of view. When you’re playing, you’re so wrapped up in your particular job — your four at-bats, your ground balls — you feel like if you put in four good ABs and catch everything hit to you, then you’ve done your job and that’s that. But when you’re not playing, you see the game from a much broader perspective. I realize now how hard Boch’s job is, how many different personalities he has to manage.

I’m hoping my time on the DL will get my wrist back to 100 percent. If I took away anything from last season, it’s an even deeper desire to be healthy and contributing on the field. The most important thing to me as a ball player is to help my team win. Nothing else matters.

-Mark

On the Road – Brandon Belt

I’m in Colorado Springs with the Grizzlies, and it’s actually snowing. Not sure we’ll get the game in today.

It’s been about 10 days since the Giants sent me down to Triple A Fresno. It was kind of a blow at first because you dream about getting to the major leagues your whole life and you make the team and in less than a month you’re back in the minors.  The veteran guys – DeRosa, Aubrey, Aaron Rowand, Pat – were really encouraging. They told me that 95 percent of the players in the clubhouse had been sent down at some point.  They reminded me that so much of baseball is about failure and that you just have to see these setbacks as part of the process and make the appropriate adjustments.

“Find your swing and get ready to come back up,’’ they told me before I left.

I took two days off before I joined the Grizzlies. That was the best thing I could have done. I needed to clear my head and figure out how to move forward. I knew there was something wrong at the plate but couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. I talked to my dad a little bit and talked to Haylee. But mostly I just rolled things around in my head.

I realized I wasn’t comfortable in the batter’s box. I was physically uncomfortable and mentally uncomfortable. It started when I tried to stop yanking my front shoulder. I had been opening the front shoulder too much. To fix it, I overcompensated by over-rotating my upper body backward. As a consequence, I was straining my neck to look forward. My neck was hurting, and body felt out of sorts.

So I decided the key to getting my swing back was, first, to just be comfortable in the box. Keep my body relaxed. Stop thinking about my mechanics. Just feel comfortable.

As soon as I got comfortable in the box, the minor mechanical adjustments I had to make just came to me. When I was over-rotating, I couldn’t really fix the other mechanical problems. My body wouldn’t allow me to. So when I got physically comfortable I was able to make those other tweaks and everything started falling into place.

Since my first game with Fresno on April 23, I’ve hit .458 with 8 RBI and 2 homers. I’m 8-for-14 over the past four games.

When you get back on track, you get that feeling back of, “I’m out here having fun playing ball.’’ You get that confidence back. And you’re able to do things you’re not able to do when you have no confidence at all. It’s just a totally different mindset.

The confidence at the plate has helped in the field, too. I’ve been playing outfield here, a position I’ve never played regularly. I was a pitcher and part-time outfielder in high school. Didn’t play it at all in college. And played a dozen or so games in the outfield in the minors last year. I don’t feel too bad out there, though I’m not where I want to be yet. When you’re playing corner outfield positions, the ball slides away from you a lot and it’s hard for me to remember that sometimes. And I’m learning how to play the ball off the walls a little better. But you learn that stuff the longer you play the position.

While I’m in Colorado Springs, Haylee is in San Francisco picking up the rest of our stuff from the apartment we were renting. We had to scramble for an apartment in Fresno and found one we could share with another player on the Grizzlies. He has an extra bedroom. But a couple days ago someone broke into the car belonging to the wife of another player, who lives a floor below us. Then yesterday someone parked in Haylee’s parking spot at the Fresno apartment building – and that car was broken into, too. So I don’t feel comfortable with Haylee staying there when I’m out of town. Which means we are now looking for another apartment. That’s the part of baseball you don’t hear about much. It’s not a huge deal, and believe me I’m not complaining, but packing up and moving, then packing up and moving again, can be rough on spouses. You might just get settled in somewhere and suddenly you’re on the move again. We know now to whittle our belongings down to whatever fits in the car.

Thanks for reading. Hope it stops snowing so we can get out on the field.

-Brandon

The Big Picture – Mark DeRosa

I had a long talk with Brandon before he left for Fresno last week. We talked about how baseball is a constant work-in-progress. The route to becoming an established major-leaguer is rarely a straight line. He understands that going to Fresno is simply part of the process.

So I hope he doesn’t feel in any way that he failed. He didn’t fail at anything. Just two years ago, the guy was in college. Since then it’s been a whirlwind for him. In one year, he went from Single A, to Double A, Triple A, Arizona Fall League. You heard about this guy coming the whole time. The Giants have done a tremendous job bringing him along, but I think the expectations from the fans and the media were huge.

Then he comes to spring camp, and the media is following his every move.

Then you face big-league pitching. Guys he’s never faced before. He couldn’t make an out without people second-guessing him. It just seems like a lot for a young kid to take in.

And on top of that you’re following Buster, who I think is unequivocally the best young player I’ve ever see come up. You follow in those footsteps — that’s pretty tough to reproduce if that’s what people are expecting. And Brandon handled it well. He’s going to be just fine.  He’ll take a deep breath, process what happened and make the necessary adjustments to come back up. He knows he has some things he needs to work on. And I think he knows the next time up it will be different.

I went back and forth to the minors when I started with the Braves. I had the skills, but I wasn’t ready for the major leagues because I wasn’t confident enough. I was still in awe of it. I was in awe of the whole thing. Being a big league player was my dream as a kid. Then I get drafted by Braves and when I got called up the first time, I walked into the clubhouse more as a fan than as someone with a job to do. So it took me a little bit to get over the fact that these are my teammates now. That  I  belonged up there. But I think that’s good. There has to be that awe factor when you get to the big leagues. Otherwise what the heck are you playing for?

Next time: The particular challenges of staying ready when you don’t know when, where and if you’re playing on any given day. And: Patience as a virtue is over-rated: I am really, really ready to feel 100 percent again.

-Mark

Like a Dream – Brandon Belt

I don’t even know where to start. The past week has been unbelievable. I keep using that word over and over. It’s like I’m in a dream. I’ve watched baseball my entire life on television and finally I’m here seeing it in real life. It’s almost as if I’m having an out-of-body experience. I always imagined what it would be like to be up here and play in front of 50,000 but you can’t imagine it until you do it. It’s a lot louder. When you’re at the plate don’t notice people because you have your back to them. But you see them when you’re on the field. And when something happens and everybody starts screaming you realize, man, I’m here.

My wife, Haylee, has been with me since spring training and traveled to the games in Los Angeles and San Diego. My parents and younger brother flew in for the San Francisco home opener. It was the first time my dad has ever been on the plane. He’s afraid of heights – and he likes to be in control. When I was playing in Single A in San Jose last year, he and my mom drove from Texas to watch me. They drove to Arizona this year to visit me during spring training. But my dad couldn’t take the time off work to drive, so he got on the plane on Thursday. He’s not a huge drinker but he got some help on this one.

I appreciated my brother Cameron coming. He’s not a sports fan at all. He likes computers and science. He follows me but not baseball in general, and he doesn’t follow me all that well. My dad is a geometry teacher at Hudson High, where my brother and I went to school, and my mom is a hairdresser.

For the home opener on Friday, when I was standing there on the third-base line and they were introducing the players, my heart was just pounding. I was thinking about my mom and dad up in stands and how they’ve been waiting their whole lives to see me out there. All the games they sat through. That’s what made me the most emotional  — just happy they were there and Cameron and Haylee. I was thinking, too, about everybody watching back in my hometown. I feel like I’m doing this for a lot of people.

So I was waiting for my introduction and looking up in the stands to get a wave from my family, but I don’t know this park and didn’t know where they were. When the introductions got to me, the camera was right on me. I really don’t like everyone staring at me, though I know it’s part of baseball. I tried to act real cool, but it was nerve-wracking. I just waved real quick so the camera would move on.

After the game, I went out with my family and we were all saying that was the coolest thing we have ever seen in our entire lives. We just couldn’t stop talking about it. The flyover, the big flag out on centerfield. It was the best thing we ever witnessed in real life. I can’t imagine two better days than Friday and Saturday. The pre-game ceremonies, coupled with 45,000 fans, coupled with just making the big leagues, coupled with my family in the stands – you can’t get much better than that. I keep trying to figure out, is this really happening right now? Is somebody going to come and wake me up soon?

But I’m really aware of taking care of business, of being ready to play ball. It’s been a little more difficult to get all our work in, but I think now I’ll settle in. It was helpful to talk with my dad about my hitting. He was a football coach and doesn’t know baseball as well as he knows football. But he knows me. He knows how to pick me up. We talk things through and he gets me thinking and then I start to figure things out on my own. That’s why I pretty much call him all the time.

After Saturday’s ninth-inning win, my family and I ended up at Denny’s on Mission Street. There were a few Giants fans there and then more kept coming in. People were asking for autographs and photos. I’m not used to that. In my hometown people recognize me, but not in a city of a million people! It was fun, but I can see where it could become a burden on a family to deal with that everywhere. I’m going to have to figure out how to approach that part of being a ballplayer.

Look forward to seeing you at the park and beating the Dodgers!

-Brandon

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