Fear the beard: Charlie Blackmon off to red-hot start for Rockies
DENVER--The best hitter in baseball hasn't unpacked his Jeep. He loaded the thing full of all he owns before spring training this winter, drove it across the desert to Arizona and then hauled you-know-what up to Colorado when he realized he'd made the team.
The best hitter in baseball has this beard. It's puffy and brown, like a mess of those tumbleweeds that scatter across the highways leading into Denver. It looks a lot like the beard that spawned the Andrew-Luck-is-Amish jokes during this past NFL season, except no one knows enough about Charlie Blackmon or his beard for it to go viral. For now, it's just a celebrity at Coors Field, where a band of teenage girls roamed Sunday with faux facial hair strapped to their faces in its honor.
So there's a Jeep and there's a beard. There's a .542 batting average. Charlie Blackmon is baseball's unknown darling and, for now at least, its best hitter.
It's a necessary qualification. The baseball season is barely four percent complete, and besides, this is a game of streaks. Blackmon, an unknown 27-year-old outfielder who barely made the Rockies out of spring training, is riding his early. After going a perfectly respectable 3-for-10 on Colorado's season-opening road trip in Miami, he exploded in Denver last weekend, going 6-for-6 in the Rockies' home opener on Friday. He followed that performance with a 3-for-4 night on Saturday, giving him a batting average of .600 through the team's first six games, and on Sunday, he logged one hit in four at bats. For the Charlie Blackmon of a week ago, 1-for-4 would have been just fine. For the new Charlie Blackmon, though, it looked a little bit like a disappointment.
The accolades are flying in Denver. Look how smart Rockies manager Walt Weiss was to keep him! The outfielder of the future! Forget Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki -- this guy can power the offense! The attention is big, and there's Blackmon, shrinking back a bit, trying to shush it as best he can.
You see, when your Jeep is still jammed full of belongings, you look at the world a little differently. When you're 27 and have played in just 158 major league games, you know this is tenuous, and you know not to get caught up in it. This is baseball, after all, a sport where too often, the body follows the brain, which has far too much idle time over the course of a three-hour game.
"You spend so much time away from action in baseball, right?" Blackmon said. "You catch two to three balls per game, and you get four or five at bats. So you have five minutes of focused time in three and a half hours. Obviously, when you're playing the game in the rest of those three and a half hours, you're thinking about something. Your mind's always going, always turning."
For Blackmon, who's had just a taste of success at baseball's highest level, mentally dealing with prosperity has been harder than contending with a slump. When he's struggling, he watches tape of every pitch, of every missed swing, of every strike he could have sworn in that split second was a ball. That's easier, almost. There's a recipe for improvement, a routine. But maintaining the impossible to maintain -- there's no formula for that, and in baseball, when there's no formula, superstition and mental gymnastics reign supreme.
"Sometimes you can be 3-for-3, and you can go up there and almost talk yourself out of getting another hit," veteran first baseman Justin Morneau, who has a .277 career batting average, said. "It's so hard to get four hits. You start thinking about the result instead of what came before. When you start thinking about results, you get in trouble."
And then, of course, there's the sample size. A season is really one six-month-long math problem, and this early on, the math is the problem. Instead of seeing a lineup dotted with .200s and .300s, there are .500s and .100s. A hot streak makes an average. A slow start kills it. A smart player -- and Blackmon is one of those -- knows that it's impossible to put any stock in the first week of the year, or even in the first month.
In 2013, the top two hitters after baseball's first week, in terms of average, were Boston's Jose Iglesias and Baltimore's Adam Jones. Iglesias finished the season batting .330, but in just 215 at bats, not nearly enough to mean much. Jones' year ended with a perfectly pedestrian .285 average.
In other words, one week isn't enough for Blackmon to get cocky. It's not even enough for him to get confident, and he's certainly not going to -- not yet, at least. After becoming just the 66th player in baseball history to go 6-for-6 last Friday -- there's a certain ring to that, no? -- the outfielder refused to watch tape of his hits. The only moment he played back after Friday's game was when he was thrown out at third base, attempting to steal. That's what he needs to remember, not the six times ball hit bat and landed just so. Even he knows how tenuous it all was. One of his four doubles, down the leftfield line, bounced just inches fair. Inches.
That wasn't even Blackmon's smallest margin of the weekend. His lone hit on Sunday was initially ruled an out. Blackmon hit a ground ball to Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and dove in an effort to beat the throw to the bag. At first, umpires ruled that pitcher Wade Miley's foot beat Blackmon's hand. It took just over two minutes of replay, but eventually, the decision was reversed. Hand beat foot, in a sequence Weiss conceded was simply too close for real time to measure.
See? Without those inches on Friday, without that millisecond on Sunday, .542 could be .458, and 6-for-6 might never have happened, and Blackmon never would have gotten a scuffed-up baseball enshrined in a clear, plastic case on Friday evening with a label that reads: "Charlie Blackmon, Opening Day 4-4-2014, 6-for-6, 5 RBIs, 5-for-5 Defense." Carlos Gonzalez, he of two All-Star berths and one National League batting title, sat nearby, laughing at the attention. Gonzalez has never gone 6-for-6, and he was more than happy to say so, to egg on the celebration of an obscure stat borne of a thrilling game.
Welcome to baseball's first week, when the stars become bystanders, when the bystanders become stars, when baseballs land in plastic cases and batting averages dip and dive.
Charlie Blackmon will excuse himself now. He has to go lift weights. He has to trim his beard, or maybe pull a fresh pair of jeans out of his Jeep. He has to stop talking about this. He has to make sure the tape of those six hits is somewhere nearby. He's going to need it someday.
"It won't be long," he said, "but if I'm feeling really bad one day, I'll go in there and watch and be like, 'Man, I used to be pretty good.'"