There might not have been anyone more anxious to put 2020 in the rearview mirror more than Willie Calhoun.
When Calhoun addressed the media on Thursday morning, there were no shortage of smiles and laughs. After everything he went through the year before, it was a sight for sore eyes.
"Obviously, last year was a weird year for everyone," Calhoun said. "I think for this year, when I'm having fun out there, that's when I'm at my best. So I'm gonna just go back to doing that, always smiling and stuff, because is is that's where I feel like I'm at my best."
We're coming up on the one-year anniversary since Calhoun was struck in the jaw by a 95-mph fastball from Dodgers southpaw Julio Urías. A surgically-repaired jaw would typically ruin just about any person's year, or at least put a serious damper on it.
"I don't try to think too much about it," Calhoun said. "I just leave it in my past and not really try to think about that."
Calhoun's broken jaw was just the first in a chain of events that would challenge him as both a baseball player and human being.
Just days after his injury, the baseball world shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc throughout the world. A couple months later, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests and riots throughout the country, with Willie getting tossed into the center of attention as one of just a few African Americans in the Rangers clubhouse.
When baseball finally returned in July, it only piled onto Calhoun's bad year. He never found comfort at the plate against left-handed pitching, and a hamstring injury ended his season prematurely, limiting him to only 29 games. The mental hurdles translated to the stat sheet as Calhoun slashed .190/.231/.260, posting career-low numbers across the board.
Calhoun opened up about more of his struggles in a moving story by Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News, which paint a dark picture of just how bad 2020 was for him, at the young age of 26 to boot.
Calhoun's career as a Texas Ranger has seen its fair share of ups and even more downs. He's been challenged on and off the field, and has earned praise from his manager and coaches on how far he's come in his time with the Rangers.
"It's definitely been a journey," Calhoun said. "Honestly, it feels like almost got drafted by the Rangers. ... I've done all my growing pains with the organization. And I mean, I feel like I've came a long way because I used to be really immature when I first got traded over. I did like a lot of my growing up in the last four years. It's a good feeling, because I feel like there's a lot of stuff that I've learned."
Part of coming off such a challenging season is getting back to normal at the plate. Calhoun's bat is what made him an attractive prospect when the Rangers acquired him in the Yu Darvish trade in 2017.
The biggest challenge Calhoun faces is getting back to normal against left-handed pitching, and not bailing out and "feeling jumpy" like he would last year. So far this spring, he's been on base twice in three plate appearances against opposing southpaws with a hit and a walk.
"I'll be honest, I feel completely normal again," Calhoun said. "I feel I don't really have that. I even told the staff, 'I think I'm back to normal against lefties.' I'm not really having that thought in the back of my head anymore."
"The at-bats he's having against lefties right now, it's incredible," said Joey Gallo, Calhoun's teammate and spring roommate. "To get hit in the face and come back a year later to face lefties the way he is, he's not getting enough credit for that. I'm really proud of him."
For the Rangers, his teammates, the fans, and especially for Willie, it's good to see him smiling, laughing, and having fun again.
"It's encouraging for me," Calhoun said. "I'm in a good place right now."
Promo photo: Kelly Gavin / Courtesy of the Texas Rangers
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