Four weeks ago, Jim Traber was a minor-leaguer trapped in the slow lane. When you’re in line behind Eddie Murray, you could wait a while. Maybe forever.
Traber didn’t have the pure power of Jose Canseco or Pete Incaviglia, or the sweet stroke of Wally Joyner or Mike Pagliarulo. Hardly the silver spoon prospect of his generation, Traber was a 24-year-old first baseman with a pot tummy, a double chin and a hitch in his lefty swing.
So what if he’d sung the national anthem before his major league debut and had been an academic all-America in college? So what if he had Ivy League-quality SAT scores and a chatty, cocky personality? So what if he’d started at quarterback for Oklahoma State against mighty Oklahoma? So what if Baltimore coaches Terry Crowley and Frank Robinson thought he was the headiest young Oriole hitter since Cal Ripken Jr.?
Tonsils, charm, moxie and brains are nice, but nobody was in any hurry to give chubby Traber a full chance. Not with Murray around.
That was three weeks ago. Before Traber became the hottest hitter and the flashiest phenom in baseball. That was before Earl Weaver said things like, “When Eddie Murray comes back, Traber’s got to stay in the lineup somewhere.”
The other day, a line of baseball fans stood in the rain on 17th Street to get Traber’s autograph. He would gladly have signed his bubblegum card for them. But he’s so green he doesn’t even have a bubblegum card yet.
Yes, four weeks ago, Jim and his fiancee, Joan Sampson, were in sleepy Rochester, where Traber was hitting .279 with nary a game-winning RBI all season. Joan was planning an October wedding and honeymoon. Life was slow but good. Traber was the kind of guy who got engaged on Valentine’s Day, complete with a love song he wrote and sang himself. “He does things right,” said Joan.
Now when Traber looks at his hectic schedule, he can barely find a day to get married. “October’s out because we might be in the World Series. Then there’s winter ball. And back to spring training. So, the wedding will be on Aug. 25 on an off day,” Traber said. “Sure hope we don’t get rained out the 24th and have to play a makeup game.”
“I’d really rather not get married, then drive him to batting practice,” said Joan Sampson. “Not too romantic.”
That’s the only thing in Traber’s life these days that’s not out of a storybook. Murray pulled a hamstring, Traber got a shot and had 22 RBIs with eight homers in his first 71 at-bats.
When Murray returned to first base from the disabled list the other night, Weaver benched Jim Dwyer (who had hit a grand slam the night before and had 15 RBIs in seven games), just so Traber could be the designated hitter.
Texas gave Traber an intentional walk, used a Ted Williams shift on him and even knocked him down. Traber went 4-for-4. He had hits to all three fields on every kind of pitch, even after falling behind 0-2 to a wild sidearming southpaw. The kid’s on fire.
These days, the same question is on every tongue. Can Traber be for real?
The Boston Globe has sent a writer to do a study of this person from Columbia, Md., who has taken it upon himself to spoil the summer fun of so many fine old New England families. “Everybody up there thought they had to worry about the Damn Yankees,” says the Globe’s John Powers. “Then one day they look up and somebody named Traber is trying to steal the pennant from them.”
Orioles fans can be forgiven if, twice burned, they’re now thrice shy. After all, Floyd Rayford hit .306 last year and Mike Young had 28 homers. Both erupted, just like Traber. Yet both are back at Rochester.
The league figured ‘em out. They couldn’t adjust.
The league may have considerably more trouble with Traber. As he tells Joan when she complains that the sport is a total bore, “Honey, at this level, it’s all a mind game.”
“It takes ability to get here, but it takes smarts to stay. Traber’s got both,” said Crowley, who is Traber’s guru. “He’s going to be a real, real good one. He asks a thousand questions about everybody. And he takes what he’s learned into the batter’s box.”
One example explains everything.
The White Sox had jammed Traber all day. The bases were loaded. Traber and Crowley plotted. Traber backed an extra three inches off the plate and looked for heat in his kitchen.
Few rookies are so sophisticated.
Traber raked a loud foul into the seats. At that point, most rookies would smite their brow and think, “What now? I’ve shown my hole card.”
Many veterans adjust from series to series, some from game to game, a few from at-bat to at-bat. Only the best, like Ripken and Murray, can do it from pitch to pitch and not get paralyzed. Anybody can talk hitting theory. Few can execute it under pressure.
Traber stepped out, tapped his spikes and went back to his old stance, on top of the plate. The White Sox figured, “Better not go back inside. That’s where’s he’s looking.”
Traber looked for a fastball away, got it, and hit a grand slam to the opposite field.
Many players will not have an at-bat like that in a whole career.
“I don’t mind ‘em comin’ inside on me,” explained Traber. “If they hit that corner all night, I may go oh for four. I’ll tip my hat to them. But they better not miss by two or three inches, because a good hitter’s weakness is often right next to his strength.”
To Traber, success and failure are one inch apart. Last week, he argued a called third strike, then went back to watch a replay on TV. In his next at bat, he told the home plate umpire, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Usually, rookies listen. But when the Orioles face any pitcher Traber has seen, Robinson, a Hall of Famer, and Crowley, one of the greatest pinch-hitters, are off in a corner picking Traber’s brain to relay to the team.
Maybe having the stage presence of a professional singer and the poise of a big-time college quarterback helps Traber feel at home in the batter’s box. Maybe knowing that he has the same genes as his brother the doctor and his sister the lawyer gives him confidence. Court room, operating room, home plate--what’s the difference? You take your education into pressure and perform.
Maybe Jim Traber will prove that what he’s got from the neck up is more important than the extra chin he has under it.