Reporting from Tempe, Ariz.
Tim Salmon is among the main protagonists in the Angels’ record book.
He’s the franchise leader in home runs and walks. And he ranks second in 11 offensive categories, including games played, hits, runs scored and runs driven in.
But all that came thisclose to never happening, says Salmon, who nearly walked away from baseball after struggling through a difficult season at double A.
Looking back, he says learning to deal with those difficulties played a big part in his major league success. And that’s a lesson he’s trying to impart to infielder Brandon Wood, a minor league All-Star who has known nothing but frustration in the big leagues.
“When you have guys that have never really had a lot of failure in the minors and then the first time they experience it is in the big leagues, it’s pretty tough to try to figure it out,” Salmon said.
Which is exactly what has happened to Wood. After hitting .284 in seven minor league seasons, slugging 43 home runs one summer, he has slumped to .169 in 167 games in the majors, striking out 145 times.
“Last year’s a learning experience. That’s the bottom of the barrel for me,” said Wood, who has discussed success and failure with Salmon numerous times over the last year. Wood has looked lost and overmatched, often at the same time, against big league pitching. “He relates to me, for whatever reason. The things that he says are true and there’s a lot of things that he went through. Maybe not on the scale that I went through, but he’s been through some tough times.”
Salmon’s crucible came in his third professional season, at Midland of the Texas League. Although he hit 23 home runs, he struck out 166 times — more than twice the total from the year before — and batted only .245.
“I had many a night, just coming home and scratching my head, going, ‘Is this it? Is this the end?’ I definitely had a lot of those doubts,” Salmon said. “It’s a mental game. And I was fortunate to have the right person with me in triple A that could walk me through the mental side of it.”
That person was coach Lenn Sakata, a former big league infielder who played for four teams over 11 seasons. Salmon says it was Sakata who helped give him perspective and teach him how to approach his frustrations from a mental, not physical, point of view.
“That was a great proving ground for building a foundation of ‘what do I fall back on when I’m in trouble?’ ” said Salmon, who a year later hit 31 home runs, becoming the only Angel to be selected American League rookie of the year. “I had been there before and I fought through it, and I always knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”
Wood is trying to build a foundation in the hopes of saving his once-promising career. And though the early returns aren’t promising — he is hitting .167 this spring after going 0 for 4 Sunday, striking out on three pitches with the tying runs on base to end the game — Manager Mike Scioscia says it remains a work in progress.
“Sometimes experience is the only thing that’s going to teach you. And the experience he had last year was ugly,” Scioscia said. “He’s hopefully learned from it and can handle when things start to go not as well as you would like.”