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Even The Best Fall Down

Ask Major League Baseball’s most ardent followers to name the greatest player of the past decade, and without hesitation they will provide one irrefutable answer: Mike Trout.

Watching the Los Angeles Angels’ center fielder today is comparable to what it must have been like watching Willie Mays 60 years ago. Trout is the consummate five-tool player, a generational talent whose name could be mentioned in every greatest-ever conversation once his Hall of Fame career ends.

Yet Trout’s universally acknowledged excellence and undisputed status as the game’s best player do not make him immune to adversity.

Baseball has an indiscriminate way of reminding us how much it resembles real life. Just as unfortunate circumstances can derail the most stable and secure lives among us, hardship awaits every baseball player who steps on a diamond. There are no exemptions, even for a superstar like Mike Trout.

On May 29, Trout’s Angels played a 4-hour, 13-minute marathon against the Toronto Blue Jays. The game featured six lead changes, 25 hits, five home runs, 13 pitchers, and nine players with multiple-hit games. 

Despite  the hard-hit balls ricocheting all around Angel Stadium, Trout contributed nothing to the offensive fireworks, going 0-for-5. In the Angels’ next game two days later, Trout was 0-for-4. The following day, Trout played both games of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium and was 0-for-6. Trout then went hitless over a three-game stretch in Philadelphia

Over a 7-game span, Trout had the longest slump of his career: 0-for-26. His batting average, which had been among the league’s best, plummeted from .320 to .274. Nine  of his 26 outs were  strikeouts, one of which came against a pitcher making only his 13th major league appearance (the Yankees’ Clarke Schmidt).

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How could one of the best players to ever wear spikes go 0-for-26? This is baseball at its unforgiving core. It can make an uber-talent look ordinary, delivering a hefty dose of humility like a brushback pitch with bad intentions. If Trout is the sport’s Superman, then there is still no shortage of Kryptonite to weaken his superpowers.

Failure is an all-too-familiar outcome for MLB players. This season alone, the overall MLB batting average is .242 (the lowest since 1968) – meaning the average player fails to get a hit 75.8 percent of the time. At the same time, nearly 76 percent of all at-bats have ended with a strikeout.

Setbacks are inevitable in baseball, as they are in life. And whether you strike out with the bases loaded or lose your job, failure always demands a response to the same question:

What are you going to do about it?
It’s what happens next that matters the most. There are two choices:

  • Will you sulk, cower, erupt, withdraw, blame, or even quit? 
  • Or will you stand up, stay positive, be accountable, learn, adapt, improve, and persevere?

Unfortunately, the Phillies’ Alec Bohm gave an example of the first response. Playing against Trout and the Angels on June 4, Bohm came to bat while mired in a 1-for-27 slump. After striking out, he promptly returned to the dugout and started bashing the bat rack with his bat. On the final blow, however, the bat bounced back and hit his chin, causing him to bleed. 

“I was in the pit, man,” Bohm told reporters after the game. “Everybody goes through it. Look over there (at the Angels’ dugout)? The best player on the planet. Right? Struggling … You look over there. You see him. He’s not doing that.” 

Bohm was right. Over on the Angels’ side, there were no water-cooler beatdowns, thrown bats, smashed helmets, or profanity-laced outbursts coming from Trout, the three-time American League MVP. 

When adversity strikes, some people take out their frustration in unhealthy ways, wallowing in their personal “pit.” Others temper their emotions and focus on climbing out. Trout was doing the latter. 

“I’m in it right now,” Trout told reporters. “I’ve just got to figure [out] a way to get out of it.”

Hitting requires such precise synchronicity between the body and mind. Even the tiniest flaw – whether it’s timing, mechanics, pitch selection or something else -- can cause enough of a disruption to send a hitter into a prolonged slump. Sometimes, though, it’s just bad luck. 

Now in his 12th major league season, Trout has endured previous slumps.  He had an 0-for-21 stretch in 2018, but that didn’t stop him from finishing second in the AL MVP voting after the season.

Whether our slumps are personal or professional, experience teaches us a more effective process moving forward:

  • Assessing the situation
  • Learning from our mistakes
  • Exercising patience
  • Seeking wise counsel
  • Never losing confidence
  • Making the necessary adjustments
  • Believing the results eventually will change in our favor.

History is replete with examples of noteworthy people who applied a similar tack and used their failures to propel them forward rather than hold them back. 

Thomas Edison was fired from his first two jobs for being “unproductive” and failed in his first 1,000 attempts to invent the light bulb. 

Walt Disney was told he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

Steven Spielberg applied to the University of Southern California’s film school three times and was rejected each time.

It would be a vast understatement to say Edison, Disney and Spielberg enjoyed success after their initial setbacks. The same could be said for Trout. Over the next seven games, Trout finally broke out of his slump and went 10-for-22 with five home runs, two doubles and 10 RBIs.

As Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed told The Athletic: “The great ones are great for a reason.” Look at Derek Jeter in 2004. Bryce Harper in 2018. The best players will always emerge from a slump and return to form.

“The great ones” see failures as learning opportunities that will stimulate growth and maturity more than their successes ever will. They become more resilient and more capable of overcoming any future challenges. 

As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That is true in baseball and in life. Trout’s ability to overcome an 0-for-26 slump could lead to a fourth MVP award. As for the rest of us, how we handle our next setback could lead to our sweetest victory -- and the best version of ourselves.

 

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