April Is The Cruelest Month A lot of ballplayers, like Boston's John Valentin, get off to such lousy starts each year that not even a seance can awaken their dead wood

March 30, 1998

How to put this delicately?

A slumpbuster, in underground baseball parlance, is someone who
is summoned when a player is going as bad as expired milk. That
certain someone is supposed to be a spectacularly unattractive
female stranger with whom the player may engage in another
popular national pastime--for purely therapeutic purposes.

O.K.? So, on June 3, 1996, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Dave Burba
and his wife, Starlene, were having dinner a few hours after the
righthander had lost his seventh straight decision since the
beginning of the season. Dave was so desperate, he threw
caution--and basic connubial survival instinct--to the winds.
"What I need," he said to Starlene, "is a slumpbuster."

Being an inordinately supportive spouse, Starlene replied,
"Don't worry, I'll take care of it."

A few days later the Reds embarked on a road trip to Los
Angeles, where Burba, relaxing at the team hotel, heard a knock
on his door. He opened it to find a portly dame with big hair,
goofy bifocals and a huge mole on her cheek--a slumpbuster if
ever Burba had seen one. "Sweeeeet!" he said. The next afternoon
against the Dodgers, Burba allowed just one run and three hits
in six innings. Slump busted! Burba finished the season with 11
victories in his last 16 decisions and a 3.44 ERA in his final
21 starts. (Note to Dave's in-laws: Put away the shotgun. The
slumpbuster was Starlene in disguise.)

The point is, ballplayers will try anything to shake a slow
start, especially the poor saps who stumble out of the blocks
every April, the guys for whom every day of that month feels
like the 15th. The Baltimore Orioles' B.J. Surhoff explains the
public's fascination with slow starters such as himself by
dusting off a theory called the Primacy Effect, something he
picked up in an introduction to psychology class at North
Carolina. The Primacy Effect refers to the fact that when
several bits of information are received for the purpose of
forming an impression of a person, the impression is based
primarily on the first bit of information received. In other
words, baseball fans never forget when a guy stinks it up in
April.

A certified slow starter (chart, page 65), Surhoff is still
haunted by the day in May 1992 when, as a member of the
Milwaukee Brewers, he saw his .143 batting average flashed on
the scoreboard in centerfield at Yankee Stadium. "I hated that
walk to the plate with those numbers three stories high staring
down at me," Surhoff recalls. "During one at bat with the bases
loaded, I became so preoccupied that I struck out looking at a
fastball right down the middle."

When slow starters are pushed to diagnose their affliction, most
stare back blankly as if they've been asked for the square root
of pi. Their batting coaches spew excuses about how some hitters
labor longer each spring to rediscover the proper plane in their
swing. Pitching coaches spout nebulous disclaimers about how
some pitchers experience a prolonged dead-arm syndrome that
drags into the early weeks of the regular season.

But Boston Red Sox third baseman John Valentin, a notorious slow
starter, subscribes to the notion that it's hard to wake up in
the morning at the beginning of the season--sluggish behavior
that is only too accurately reflected in his hitting. A critical
component of his Hibernation Theory is the frigid early spring
climate in Boston. "You're wearing five layers of clothes in
10-degree weather to hit against somebody like Randy Johnson,"
Valentin says. "Every ball you hit feels like a rock. Naturally
you struggle. It can get scary. You start to think, Have I lost
it?"

Valentin is one of several slow starters who blame the cold
weather, apparently oblivious to the fact that their teammates
are shivering through the same adverse conditions yet having no
trouble hitting their weight. "Slow starters tend to invent a
million crazy reasons why we stink, instead of just looking in
the mirror," says Philadelphia Phillies righthander Mark
Portugal, who has a 10-17 career record in April. "Every year I
go into April thinking, This is the year I'm making the All-Star
team. By the end of the month I'm scheduling another three-day
family vacation in July."

As if these folks don't suffer enough, they can also count on
the heartfelt "support" of understanding teammates. Phillies
outfielder Gregg Jefferies grimaces as he recalls the dozens of
rolled-up wet newspapers--not to mention rakes, shovels and
garden hoses--he has found in his locker in past Aprils, all of
which, it was suggested, might serve him better than the
traditional Louisville Slugger. One time Jefferies received a
bottle of champagne with a note that read, CONGRATULATIONS ON
HITTING .200, YOUR BEST APRIL EVER!

"Slow starters are like miserable fraternity brothers who begin
each season standing together on the deck of the Titanic,"
Jefferies says. "Ryne Sandberg is our patron saint. He's the guy
we all look up to because he'd hit .170 in April, but at the end
of the season his numbers were always great."

A 10-time All-Star second baseman with the Chicago Cubs who
retired after last season, Sandberg began his first big league
April in '82 with a 1-for-32 slump and had a lifetime average of
.230 in the cruelest month. But he was a patient man who
averaged .293 from May through September and thus left the game
with a .285 career mark.

"All of us slow starters know that if you start pressing, you'll
dig a hole so deep you can never crawl out," oft-injured St.
Louis Cardinals rightfielder Brian Jordan says. "I have to keep
reminding myself not to panic, because I've still got 400 more
at bats, and it only takes a hot week or two to catch up to the
pack."

Indeed, the good news is that these guys are only considered
slow starters because they are such fast finishers. Ballplayers
who start slow and finish slow are working at State Farm.
Therefore, slow starters prefer to dwell on the Primacy Effect's
obverse concept, the Recency Effect, which posits that you're
only as good as your ERA after Labor Day. "We're all searching
for a silver lining," Minnesota Twins closer Rick Aguilera says.
"We like to believe it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
I know I'd rather be Mr. September than Mr. April."

In spring training last year outfielder Dave Martinez listened
glumly to pep talks from White Sox batting coach Bill Buckner,
who kept insisting that if Martinez could just hit .260 in April
he might challenge for a batting title. Alas, Martinez hit .197
his first 16 games and contemplated sacrificing a chicken or
hanging a turkey leg in his locker to break the spell.
Meanwhile, halfway across the country, San Diego Padres catcher
John Flaherty, off to a 9-for-49 start, noticed Martinez's
sickly numbers in the newspaper. Flaherty began tracking the box
scores of this player he had never met, believing that if a
hitter of Martinez's ability could struggle early on and still
hit .300, then all was not lost. Each day Flaherty watched
Martinez's batting average inch upward. Sure enough, Flaherty's
numbers eventually climbed as well--Martinez and Flaherty
finishing the season hitting .286 and .273, respectively.
"Misery loves company, and when your confidence is low, it's
good to know you're not alone," says Flaherty, who is now
Martinez's teammate on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "The first
thing I said to Dave when I met him this spring was, 'Thank you.'"

While it is generally agreed that Grapefruit League stats have
no correlation to the regular season, Martinez, who was hitting
.250 at week's end, has a new scheme: pretend that March is
April. Then, perhaps, he might enjoy his typically torrid May in
April. Martinez has no idea that his scheme is merely a
variation on the Cluck Method. In spring training of '93, after
watching Portugal flounder through three forgettable Aprils in
Houston, Astros' pitching coach Bob Cluck tacked a calendar
turned to June inside Portugal's locker. Portugal still lost two
of his first three decisions in what turned out to be a career
year, which he finished 18-4.

Three years later Portugal wound up on the same Reds staff with
Burba. In late May, when both pitchers were still winless after
20 combined starts, the pair made a pact that they would shave
their heads if neither earned a victory in his next start. This
drastic appeal to vanity provided the impetus for Portugal's
first W of the season. Surhoff has tried to exorcise his demons
by consulting a sports psychologist, and Oakland Athletics
outfielder-DH Shane Mack calls his mother for comfort. Valentin
was always first in line whenever former teammate Mike Greenwell
piled the bats of slumping players on the clubhouse floor and
performed seances to awaken the dead wood. Former Seattle
Mariners third baseman Mike Blowers began the '95 season 4 for
39, which prompted manager Lou Piniella to stroll up to him in
the on-deck circle one night and offer to buy him a steak
dinner--if he could just get a hit.

These April fools might wish to consult a former fellow
sufferer, Tino Martinez. Until he was kicked out of the
fraternity last season for hitting .327 with nine homers and a
major league-record 34 RBIs, the New York Yankees first baseman
had a career .240 average in April. "I have great sympathy for
all slow starters, but I'm afraid there is no miracle cure," he
says. "I hit three home runs in the second game of last season,
and that removed any negative thoughts. I recommend that."

Valentin isn't interested in any psychobabble. But he was mildly
encouraged last week to learn that Boston's newly acquired
catcher, Jim Leyritz, who bats 80 points higher in April than he
does during the rest of the season, will dress just eight feet
away--a potentially stormy convergence of warm and cold fronts
inside the Red Sox locker room. "As soon as the season starts,
I'm going to be Leyritz's best friend," Valentin said last week,
peeking at his teammate over his cold shoulder. "I'll use his
bats. I'll live in his house. Whatever is necessary to get a few
knocks."

Said Leyritz, "Stay away from my bats, Frosty."

Could be time for a slumpbuster.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE [Drawing of John Valentin kneeling before sorcerer, who is gesticulating over pile of baseball bats] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE A portly dame with big hair, a big mole and bifocals? A slumpbuster if ever Burba had seen one. [Drawing of Starlene Burba dressed as slumpbuster] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE [Drawing of Dave Martinez slaying chicken] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE Saint Sandberg "would hit .170 in April," says Jefferies, "but at the end his numbers were always great." [Drawing of Ryne Sandberg with halo surrounded by baseball players]

STAGGERED STARTS

April fool's is no laughing matter for the 10 slowest-starting
hitters and pitchers in camp this spring, including Dave
Martinez (right), but their fast-starting counterparts are all
smiles. (Minimum: 200 at bats or 100 innings pitched in April.)

SLOW-STARTING HITTERS

PLAYER, TEAM APRIL AVG. REST OF SEASON DIFFERENCE

John Valentin, Red Sox .226 .306 .080
Mike Blowers, Athletics .196 .274 .078
Ron Gant, Cardinals .207 .265 .058
Gregg Jefferies, Phillies .240 .298 .058
Dave Martinez, Devil Rays .225 .283 .058
B.J. Surhoff, Orioles .228 .283 .055
Shane Mack, Athletics .252 .305 .053
Billy Ripken, Tigers .204 .253 .049
Luis Alicea, Rangers .214 .262 .048
Brian Jordan, Cardinals .244 .292 .048

FAST-STARTING HITTERS

PLAYER, TEAM APRIL AVG. REST OF SEASON DIFFERENCE

Jim Leyritz, Red Sox .340 .260 .080
Mark Grudzielanek, Expos .345 .271 .074
Henry Rodriguez, Cubs .313 .243 .070
Scott Cooper, Rangers .324 .258 .066
Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays .300 .243 .057
Moises Alou, Astros .335 .285 .050
Paul O'Neill, Yankees .326 .281 .045
Mark Lewis, Phillies .307 .264 .043
Ed Sprague, Blue Jays .283 .240 .043
Rich Amaral, Mariners .311 .270 .041

SLOW-STARTING PITCHERS

PLAYER, TEAM APRIL ERA REST OF SEASON DIFFERENCE

Rick Aguilera, Twins 4.92 3.32 1.60
Dave Burba, Reds 5.27 4.08 1.19
Rheal Cormier, Indians 5.17 4.01 1.16
Mark Portugal, Phillies 4.80 3.68 1.12
Mark Clark, Cubs 4.92 3.94 0.98
Kevin Tapani, Cubs 5.00 4.03 0.97
Jaime Navarro, White Sox 5.09 4.20 0.89
Bruce Ruffin, Rockies 4.89 4.10 0.79
David Cone, Yankees 3.80 3.03 0.77
Jack McDowell, Angels 4.41 3.65 0.76

FAST-STARTING PITCHERS

PLAYER, TEAM APRIL ERA REST OF SEASON DIFFERENCE

Scott Bailes, Rangers 3.43 5.13 1.70
Andy Ashby, Padres 3.17 4.39 1.22
Lee Smith, Royals 2.02 3.19 1.17
Pete Smith, Padres 3.48 4.64 1.16
Omar Olivares, Angels 3.56 4.59 1.03
Wilson Alvarez, Devil Rays 2.94 3.96 1.02
Mark Leiter, Phillies 3.84 4.82 0.98
John Franco, Mets 1.73 2.69 0.96
Bill Swift, Mariners 2.94 3.89 0.95
Roger Clemens, Blue Jays 2.21 3.10 0.89

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)