Gregg Jefferies has momentarily turned from New York Mets phenom to wonder boy. He wonders, how long can a bad thing last?
He is trying to remain confident, poised and relaxed, but his 21-year-old body and mind will not let him. He is ill at ease, and the only escape is to break out at the plate.
He has taken several steps to try to elevate his .161 batting average: extra batting practice, regular batting practice, no batting practice. He has stayed in the clubhouse, pitched from the mound, joked with his teammates and sat quietly at his locker. Nineteen games into the season, the projected National League Rookie of the Year is just another struggling rookie.
The Mets and their fans figured what they saw late last season was what they would get at the start of this season. Jefferies broke in Aug. 27 and tore apart opposing pitching, hitting .321 with six home runs and 17 RBI in 29 games. He was one of the few Mets to hit well in their playoff series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, batting .333.
That instant success seemed hard to believe, especially because he was hitting .153 for Tidewater on May 14. Then he started a club-record 24-game hitting streak and had a .282 average when he was recalled by the Mets.
On Wednesday, Manager Davey Johnson announced that Jefferies had fallen into a platoon situation at second base with Tim Teufel. About 20 reporters besieged Jefferies for his response.
"It's brutal," Jefferies said. "I would have much rather have come up when no one knew me."
Jefferies himself made that impossible. He was just about the best player at every minor-league level at which he played, beginning in 1985 at Kingsport (Rookie League), where he hit .343 in his first 47 professional games.
He had almost as many awards as hits and passed his scream test in the minors, where hundreds of fans would line up and yell for his autograph. He was a highly sought-after commodity during the past off-season and could have made a fortune at baseball card shows.
Jefferies' confidence has been shaken, but his resolve remains strong. "Hopefully," he said with emphasis, "it will turn around. . . . This could turn out to be a maturing stage for me. The good thing is, we're starting to win. The bad thing is, I'm not helping the team too much."
Seth Levinson, Jefferies' attorney, said the player takes his work very seriously. "Without a question Gregg has gone through a very difficult period," Levinson said. "If you go to his house you find bats in every room. He is checking and re-checking his swing. He cleans his bats with alcohol to check the point of the bat where the ball hit. He brings home broken bats to analyze them."
Yet, Levinson said, Jefferies is not ready for the lead in "Psycho IV." "He's just another 21-year-old," he said. "While he's consumed with success, he still goes to the mall, still listens to his Elvis tapes non-stop, which is sickening, and when he plays video games he beats the hell out of everybody.
"Last year's experience in Tidewater really helped him. He had this uncanny gift at being successful at everything he attempted and then he more or less failed. He worked until his hands were bleeding, until he couldn't sleep anymore. Every now and then he needs to tell himself he will have 500 more at-bats this year and 140 games."
Johnson says Jefferies is not overmatched, just overanxious. Joe Torre used to explain it by saying a player was trying to hit a grand slam with no one on base. "I want to get him right as quick as I can," Johnson said. "I don't want him to press psychologically. I don't want him to feel too much pressure on his shoulders. He just wants it real bad. He's fighting frustration more than the pitcher."
Johnson said Jefferies would sit against left-handed pitching, which the Mets see quite often as teams try to neutralize Darryl Strawberry. Teufel, who is hitting .333, will play at second against lefties. There are two sides to the story on how long the platoon will last.
"Davey told me it won't be a permanent thing," Jefferies said, figuring that if and when he gets hot, Johnson will play him every day. Teufel has a different version, saying, "He (Johnson) told me I was going to play against left-handed pitching all the time. Gregg is a great talent, but I deserve to play, too."
Johnson was noncommittal on Jefferies' situation. "This gives him an opportunity to rest," he said. "It also gives him an opportunity to be in there."