It was Day 44 of The Big Slump, and Chris Bando was hitting 130 points below his weight. With two men on in the July 8 game against Texas, Bando—then 1 for 26 at the plate since May 25—lined a shot to right center that dropped and dropped...into the glove of Ranger centerfielder Oddibe McDowell. And Bando swore. The profanity was an absolute first, say his teammates, so out of character for the mild-mannered catcher that they won't repeat it.
"It just shows I'm human," says Bando of the outburst. Actually, Bando has been demonstrating lately that he's all too human. He hit .291 in 1984 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs in 220 at bats, but this year he has contracted and cannot shake a case of Indianitis—in layman's terms, a slump that just won't quit. "Hey, it's hard to hit .060, it really is," says manager Pat Corrales. "I mean, some balls got to fall in there."
"It was good that he finally let it out," says Cleveland hitting instructor Bobby Bonds. "He hasn't been as down on himself since then. In my mind, every day is the day he's going to start hitting the ball the way he can."
Well, the day may have come last Friday. Bando went 2 for 3 and drove in Cleveland's only run in a 7-1 loss to Kansas City. He raised his average from an infinitesimal .065 to a staggering .082 with a single to left center and a single to left, sandwiching a groundout. There was no celebration, but Bonds said, "I was the happiest person in the ball park." Was Bonds happier than Chris? "Yeah, probably."
"No matter how I do," says Bando, "the number one priority is still winning." Unfortunately, Bando's numbers seem tied to the Indians', or vice versa. Cleveland is now 30½ games behind Toronto in the AL East and headed toward 111 losses and the worst record in its history. Bando's stats are just as depressing. As of Sunday, the switch-missing catcher was hitting .096 for the season: 11 for 114. Incredibly enough, Bando has two three-game hitting streaks: one in May and one last weekend. He actually went 0 for June during a drought (23 at bats) that finally ended with a line-drive double on July 6. What makes the slump even more mystifying is that he won the Southern League batting championship in 1980 with a .349 average.
Corrales thinks the world of Bando as a person and a player but hasn't found a cure for the problem. "I played him. I sat him down. I tried getting him extra work. Now I'm just playing him." Bando starts against lefthanded pitchers and when Neal Heaton pitches for the Indians; Jerry Willard catches at all other times.
Bando's stroke has been off since he strained a tendon in his right shoulder near the end of last season. He reinjured it in spring training and wound up with a glitch in his swing—a tendency to lean forward too early, get in front of every pitch and dribble balls off the end of his bat. "He was swinging like the mound is only 55 feet away," says Bonds.
Lately the mechanics have come together, but, says Bonds, "Now it's a mental problem. I think he started to wonder, Can I still hit? If a hitter asks himself that, he's defeated himself in his mind."
"You begin to say, 'Who's gonna catch this one,' " says Bando.
The fans have been tough, of course, but Bando has also gotten letters of encouragement. One fan in Baltimore taped Chris on his VCR and sent a 10-page typed letter, with diagrams, graphs and equations, offering solutions to his problems at the plate. "It was above my head, to tell you the truth," says Bando, who was grateful for the thought.
Bando says he's in control, and his defensive game has been fine—throwing, handling the pitchers, calling the games. "I'm not uptight or nervous. I'm definitely relaxed."
"Chris doesn't take baseball home with him," says his wife, Mary Beth. "I think I take it harder than he does."
Bando's older brother, Sal, the former A, once had a similar slump—hitting .190 between Opening Day and mid-August 1975. "You feel as if you have no friends," says Sal. "Because you're not contributing, you feel like an outsider."
During the All-Star break Chris, Mary Beth and their 1½-year-old son, Ben, moved from their condo in Cleveland to a house in Scottsdale, Ariz. He said the heavy work made him feel good, and Bonds hoped the break would clear his mind. But The Slump continued. In the first game back in Chicago, Bando, starting out at .071, went 0 for 2 and heard a helpful voice from the stands yell, "That's oh-68 now." (Actually, it was .069.)
"They've been shouting my average all year in Cleveland," said Bando. "I'd boo me too if I was hitting .068."
But now he's hitting almost three figures. The sky's the limit.