If you’re a hitter, it can make that bat in your hands feel as if it weighs 10 pounds. It can cause you to contort your body into a pretzel while you wait for a tantalizing curveball to finally reach the plate. It can cause you to play so many mind games with the pitcher that you wind up striking out by swinging at a pitch that wasn’t there.
Suddenly, Toi Cook knows the feeling.
Cook, who has to be considered among the most versatile and talented athletes the Valley has produced, figured to face only one pressure situation: How much to sign for when a seemingly inevitable pro career arrived.
Football or baseball? It didn’t seem like he could make a bad choice.
An All-CIF football player as a wide receiver in his sophomore and junior seasons and as a defensive back his senior year, Cook also was an MVP of the Alpha League. One season he led his team in tackles and scoring. He also punted and returned punts and kickoffs.
In the spring, he took off his helmet, picked up a bat and became an All-CIF outfielder for Montclair Prep. His senior year, he hit .437. That was the lowest average of his high school career. He had hit .450 and .476 in two previous seasons.
Big deal, cynics said. He’s doing it all against 1-A Division competition. Try the 4-A and let’s see what happens.
Cook tried them one better. He took on the Pacific 10.
Players from small high schools such as Montclair Prep often have trouble getting to big schools at the collegiate level, but not Cook. He wound up at Stanford University on a football scholarship, was a freshman cornerback for the Cardinal and a starter his sophomore year. As a junior last fall he was honorable mention in the Pac 10.
His baseball career seemed to keep pace. He hit .348 as a freshman, then dropped to .284 last season. But even then, he hit .327 in conference last season and had a nine-game streak in which he batted .410 with 8 runs batted in, 5 doubles and 14 runs scored. He also stole 19 bases last year.
People talked about a major-league future. He was so near. Yet so far.
Cook was hitting .277 at the start of this weekend’s scheduled three-game series between the Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins in Westwood. And he’s not happy about it.
“I’m thinking too much,” he said. “I’m too anxious. I’m swinging at curveballs in the dirt. I read an article about Mike Davis, the Oakland outfielder. He had 14 home runs last year, and he went for almost a month before he could get his 15th. He was too anxious. That’s my problem also.”
Cook has discussed his problems with Mark Davis, of all people, a fellow Stanford outfielder and brother of Mike.
“The night before a game, I’ll talk to Mark or just sit down and talk to myself,” Cook said. “I’m telling myself to relax, to have better pitch selection. Mark will point out to me if I’m getting my head out in front too much or lifting my shoulders or getting any other bad habits.”
While Cook’s average has dropped a bit, he certainly hasn’t dropped in the estimation of his coach, Mark Marquess.
“He’s a pro prospect,” Marquess maintains. “He can run, he can steal, he has a great arm in the outfield, and he’s starting to hit with some power. He’s just starting to come into his own.
“He’s a little unique because he has the combination of skills to be a success in two sports. He has the bulk for football.”
Marquess tends to shrug off any mention of Cook’s difficulties.
“You’ve got to remember,” he said, “this is a guy who hasn’t played baseball that much because so much of his time is taken up with football. But he’s a good spray hitter, he can hit any type of pitch thrown him and he’s strong enough, so you know he’ll hit for more power. All he really needs is more playing time and more at-bats, and he will get that.”
Maybe the problem is simply a refusal to recognize reality. It’s nice to always hit over .400 as Cook did in high school. That’s easy to get used to. Compared to that, .270 or .280 doesn’t look so impressive.
“Oh, I think Toi’s not satisfied,” Marquess said. “He wants to get better. And that’s fine, too. That’s positive. A lot of good athletes are like that.”
The praise is nice. And Cook, 6-0, 185 pounds, can jog over to the football field at Stanford and hear more nice things about himself any time he wants. But that doesn’t assuage his doubts--about either sport.
“It’s not like I’m a Bo Jackson or a John Elway who knows he can make it in football,” he said. “I just want to finish this year up good in baseball, have a good senior year and it should be close between the two sports. Then, I’ll just pick the one that will better further my career.”
If that happens, there will be some pressure in making the right choice. That’s the kind of pressure Cook would love to face.
‘I’m telling myself to relax, to have better pitch selection.’