Concentration is the key to hitting a baseball, but Chris Donnels of Loyola Marymount University has had enough distractions on and off the playing field this year to disrupt anyone's concentration.
In baseball, he has been a player in search of a position; in a more serious aspect of his life, he recently experienced the death of his mother after her long bout with cancer.
Donnels was the starting shortstop at South Torrance High School for three seasons and was named the Bay League Most Valuable Player as a senior in 1984, hitting .511 to lead the Spartans to the CIF 4-A championship.
At Loyola last year, he found himself mostly roving around in left field. But Coach Dave Snow experimented with him, using him at second base and less frequently at third, desperately looking for just the right spot for his star freshman.
Jockeying between positions, especially new ones, can adversely affect one's batting average. Just ask Pedro Guerrero of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who suffered through a horrible slump when he tried to adjust to playing third base after years in the outfield.
Donnels' hitting, however, didn't suffer. He hit .389 with 8 home runs and 59 runs batted in last year to earn honorable mention All-American honors from Baseball America. This year, Donnels is hitting .344 and leads the Lions (31-7 and ranked fourth in the nation by Collegiate Baseball) with 10 home runs, 48 RBI and a .618 slugging percentage.
"There was never a question about his hitting ability," Snow said. "The big question mark with him was what position he'd play defensively."
After his performance in the field last season, no one was standing in line to give him a Gold Glove. He committed 12 errors in his 53 games, leading the team in that category.
"I wasn't the greatest outfielder, but I could get by," said the 6-foot, 180-pound, 19-year-old. "I just tried to keep hitting and fielding separate."
Snow said he decided to move Donnels to third base this fall even though he played "a lot of positions very well last year."
'A Gut Feeling'
"I felt that third was the best position for him and for the team," Snow said. "It was kind of a gut feeling, but I felt that was the one position that he had the natural abilities to play."
While learning to play third base, Donnels has committed only four errors in 33 games, well below last season's pace.
Snow said Donnels' proficiency at the plate had the major league scouts entranced, but his fielding hurt that appeal. If he improves in the field, Snow said the scouts will be salivating again.
"If he keeps improving defensively, he's got a chance to become another George Brett or Wade Boggs," Snow said. "He's that good."
Snow said that at the plate, Donnels resembles Brett, the former El Segundo High star and now the third baseman for the world champion Kansas City Royals. He said Donnels, like Brett, sprays the ball to all parts of the field and hits for both power and average.
And Donnels' batting stance is Brett-like.
Donnels customarily landscapes the area around the left side of the batter's box with a few quick kicks before he assumes his stance. His left foot hugs the back chalk line, his left leg is bent slightly to support his weight, and his right leg, raised up on his toes, is angled toward the plate while he awaits the confrontation with the pitcher.
"And like Brett, Chris is a tough guy to get out," Snow said. "If a pitcher gets him out one time with one pitch, Chris will adjust and the pitcher won't be able to get him out the same way next time.
"He's just a very gifted young man with a bat in his hands. He's the guy you want up in a crucial situation."
Scores in the Clutch
In a game against UC Irvine last month, Donnels came up to bat in just one of those crucial spots. The score was tied 7-7 in the top of the 10th inning and Billy Bean was on first base with a walk.
Donnels, the No. 3 hitter in the Lions' lineup, calmly stepped into the batter's box and with his short, compact swing, hit a home run to win the game.
"That's what it's all about," Donnels said. "Coming up in a situation and being able to show your skills and what you're all about. You can't always get that clutch hit, but I've gotten lucky a few times."
His first stroke of luck came when he picked up a baseball bat for the first time. Donnels, who is right-handed, gripped the bat with his left hand on top of his right as though he was left-handed.
"It was just something he did when we'd go out in the backyard with a plastic bat and a whiffle ball," said his father, Dennis. "I've got pictures of him when he was about 2 years old just swinging away like a lefty.
Tried to Change Grip
Donnels said the grip "felt more comfortable" and although friends and coaches would later try to get him to place his hands on the bat as a right-hander, their efforts went for naught.
"People would try to get me to bat right-handed, but I'd leave my hands as a lefty," he said. "It got to the point where I just couldn't hit right-handed."
His father eventually resigned himself to the fact that his son would throw with his right and bat from the left side of the plate.
But the younger Donnels said that has helped him as a hitter. After all, the vast majority of pitchers are right-handers and, as a lefty, he said he can see the ball better than if batted from the right side.
Despite that advantage, Donnels said the death of his mother, Sally, affected his ability to concentrate on athletics.
Put Game in Perspective
"Every once in awhile, I catch myself thinking about her," he said, his eyes tearing up slightly and the words coming with more difficulty. "It put baseball in perspective for me.
"But my mom was real proud of the things I've accomplished in athletics and I want to keep making her proud. I know she keeps an eye on me."
Dennis Donnels said baseball has actually proved to be a positive distraction for his son.
"Before she died, my wife told Chris and our 16-year-old son, Brett, that they had to keep striving," he said. "And that's been a big driving force for both of them."
Donnels said although his mother was often in pain, she never complained. And not allowing pain to stop one's pursuit of life's pleasures is something he learned from her.
While running the bases in a game against St. Mary's last week, Donnels took a line drive off his right shin. The leg swelled up and his mobility was greatly reduced. Still, he wanted to play.
He sat out the first game of a double-header against St. Mary's the next day, but he told Snow he could be the designated hitter or pinch hit in the second game.
"I wanted to get into the game somehow," Donnels said. "Playing with pain is something you have to do and since I'm not any flash with wheels anyway, it didn't slow me up that much."
In the game, Donnels scored one of six runs in the decisive eighth inning as Loyola came from behind to win 12-7.
Of course, pain is nothing new to Donnels. Last season, a ground ball took a bad hop and struck him just under the right eye, breaking his cheekbone.
Eyes Black and Blue
"He stuck his head in the door and asked where his mother was," the senior Donnels recalled. "I said she was in the other room and he came in and took this rag off his head. I'd never seen a face like that before."
He said his son's eyes were black and blue and his face was puffy and beginning to display a rainbow of colors.
"He didn't want his mother to see him," Dennis Donnels said. "It would've really scared her."
But he returned to the Lions' lineup after missing only one game, refusing to let that injury distract him when he returned to the field. And he said the distractions this year won't stop him from continuing to strive and attempting to reach the major leagues.
"The distractions are really an incentive to work that much harder," he said.