Now the Angels approach September, still on the fringes of the wild-card race, still looking for the stability on offense that Manager Mike Scioscia has so often said would come, still waiting for a breakthrough from Tim Salmon in what has been a season of dog days for their franchise leader in home runs, Mr. Consistency in right field.
With 32 games to play, still hopeful of one final surge that would help carry the Angels into October and give Salmon something to build on for 2002, Mr. Consistency’s 2001 consistency--cruel as it is--has basically consisted of almost five months of checked swings and hitless games, or in baseball lexicon, Salmon’s lexicon, “so many 0-fers that I hate to even think about it.”
A .291 career hitter who has averaged 29 homers and 95 runs batted in for his eight full seasons, Salmon can’t help but think about it. He is batting .221 with 13 homers and 37 RBIs for a team that has outscored only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the American League.
Salmon, 33, forced a smile and said: “We’re all ultimately compared by our numbers, and mine are an embarrassment. I feel like I’ve played three seasons in one. It’s been a grind, a trial. I’ve never gone through a season like this, including Little League.”
The “Baseball Register” catalogs the story. Even the best players, and Salmon has been one, have down years occasionally. It’s just that Salmon has fallen to the depths of the .200 Mendoza Line after a typical season in which he batted .290 with 34 homers and 97 RBIs. It’s just that now he carries the weight of a four-year, $40-million contract extension that begins next year and the Angels--who won’t say it, of course--have to be wondering if they’ve invested in some fading Internet stock.
In fact, Salmon himself drew a Wall Street analogy, saying he has had a bad year, just like the stock market, but is confident he’ll be back at levels expected of him. Confidence, however, is the key, a mysterious intangible for all hitters, and Salmon admitted his has taken a beating and that the contract has weighed heavily on him at times.
“Look, we all have motivating factors, we’re all here for a reason, and some are expected to produce more than others,” Salmon said. “I’ve played my whole career with that kind of expectation, and I don’t have a problem being the guy expected to carry the team.
“I mean, it’s kind of ironic. In my mind, for the team to win and be in position to win, I’ve always felt that Tim Salmon has to be a big part of it. Now we’re in position to win and Tim Salmon is not even on the same page, and I think that’s an encouraging sign for the team and a consolation of sorts in that what I’m going through personally would be much worse if we weren’t in contention. I also think there’s a lesson to be learned. We all set our goals and expectations, but it’s not all about you, not about just one person, and I think there’s a healthy perspective in that realization.”
Salmon is not alone in his struggle. In a lineup without Mo Vaughn, Darin Erstad’s average is off almost 90 points, Troy Glaus has driven in 81 runs but is batting less than .240, and the Angels--until recently, at least--had operated a revolving door at first base and designated hitter.
In Salmon’s case, there is a litany of excuses, if he cared to use them, or as Scioscia said: “The ingredients were there to suggest he might have a tough go this year.”
* Salmon had off-season surgery on his right foot and left shoulder, and was unable to do his normal weight work. He also suffered an abdominal strain late in spring training and, Scioscia said, “While fine physically when the season started, he wasn’t really in baseball shape.” That compounded his tendency to start slowly.
* Salmon, Erstad and others tried to “step up and do more than they were capable of doing,” Scioscia said, because they felt a “sense of urgency” with Vaughn sidelined, compounding again “Tim’s other problems.”
* The contract extension increased the expectation and pressure.
“Well,” said Salmon, “we could sit here all day and come up with a long list of excuses, but I hate to be in the position of making excuses. I’m still out there battling, still able to swing. No one is ever 100%, and I’ve always prided myself on playing every day, and I couldn’t envision doing it any differently. I couldn’t envision being in spring training and saying, ‘Hey, I had a couple surgeries, let’s hold off another month.’ Sure, maybe in the off-season I can reflect and say I wasn’t as strong as I normally am because of the surgeries, but that’s an excuse and I’m not interested in excuses.”
Perhaps, but batting coach Mickey Hatcher said that as a “lead arm swinger” Salmon has definitely had trouble “getting the bat through the hitting zone” because of the weakened left shoulder. “Any time there’s an injury,” Hatcher added, “you also tend to make up for it by using other parts of the body,” creating bad mechanics.
The Angels put Salmon on the 15-day disabled list in early July, ostensibly to ease the shoulder aggravation, but Salmon laughed and said it was more a mental hiatus in a season in which “it just hasn’t happened for me” and “I can’t even get the bloop hit that can snap you out of it.”
The Angels have batted him everywhere from second to seventh, and Salmon no longer puts in the three or four hours of pregame work that he and others think had become counterproductive in the first half. He is trying to have fun, and the Angels believe he is swinging better since coming off the disabled list, but success remains fleeting. He began the weekend batting .282 in August but went only two for 17 as the Angels lost three of four games to the Boston Red Sox.
The Angels are hopeful about September but are also thinking about next April because, as Scioscia said: “Sometimes it’s difficult to shed the ghost of a poor season, and that’s why it’s important for Tim to finish strong and take that into the off-season.”
Said Hatcher: “This is not about what kind of season he’s had. He’s accepted the fact that the numbers aren’t going to be there like they usually are. Confidence is the key and he’s been beat down mentally, but as I tell him every day, ‘We can’t look back at all the things you’ve battled through. We have to look at the future.’ ”
Salmon keeps hoping that’s now.
“I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be the key ingredient down the stretch, the guy who seals the deal [in getting the Angels into the playoffs]. That’s the hope, the thing that keeps me motivated instead of folding my tent. If we’re standing there victorious at the end of the year, nobody is going to remember how much I struggled. Well, they might remember, but it won’t hold as much weight.”
He is not without perspective as he searches for the key to becoming that key ingredient. He was beaned twice in the minors and wasn’t sure he could keep playing. He was there for his wife as she overcame cancer. Now, in what he calls the biggest trial of his baseball career, as he receives encouragement in and out of the clubhouse and calls on his faith, Salmon said his ultimate hope is that people will be able to say he “maintained his character and carried himself the way he always has.”
Salmon doesn’t have to worry about that. It’s an area where he remains Mr. Consistency.