The last time major-league baseball limped out of a protracted strike and into a season, it declared its motto to be: “Physician, heal thyself.”
That was in 1982, in the wake of the 50-day strike in 1981, and baseball was able to follow the prescription to success with record attendance, four great division races and several larger-than-life efforts, such as Steve Carlton’s Cy Young Award-winning 23 victories and 39 home runs by that ex-Yankee, Reggie, Reggie, Reggie.
This season, though, when Hippocrates himself should have been on call, the physician is off duty on too many teams in too many cities.
Yes, the lineups of the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies continue to surge. Yes, Cincinnati features an incredible oneman gang named Gant. And yes, Randy Johnson (6-0) and Greg Maddux (5-1) are just about untouchable.
Still, it’s clear that there is a larger melancholy reaching deep into the game, one that transcends the host of well-publicized injuries and nonexistent division races. It’s even gripping some of the players that the game surely counted upon to regenerate interest.
Paul Molitor, the heart of the world champion Toronto Blue Jays of 1993, is struggling along in the .240s. Bob Hamelin, the rookie of the year just one season back, performed so poorly for the Kansas City Royals that he now calls the minor leagues home.
Then there’s Jeff Bagwell, the young first baseman of the Houston Astros who last season was Jack Armstrong and Frank Merriwell rolled into one.
Bagwell, 27, a bright-eyed Bostonian blessed with irrepressible talent, led the National League in five categories last season - runs scored (104), runs batted in (116), total bases (300), extra-base hits (73) and slugging percentage (.750). That he compiled such numbers in only 110 games made his accomplishments all the more exceptional.
He also ended up second in batting, with his .368 trailing only Tony Gwynn’s .394. And he was second in home runs with 39, four behind Matt Williams. Though the task of catching Gwynn seemed impossible, it was fun to think of the possibility of a triple crown winner in a league that hasn’t crowned one since Joe Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals won the honor in 1937.
Fun, that is, until August, when baseball impaled itself on its labor troubles.
Unfortunately for Bagwell, the National League’s most valuable player, the fun has been missing through the early part of this season.
Thus it is that Bagwell, he of the intricately constructed unorthodox batting stance, has seen out-of-sync mechanics cause him to depart a three-game series against the Mets batting just .247.
“No one likes to struggle,” Bagwell said before the series started. “Unfortunately I just picked a bad time to do it - at the beginning of the year, when there are no numbers and everybody can look at it and say, ‘Aargh!”’
For Bagwell, the good news that used to come in bunches during hot streaks a year ago is starting to flow a bit. He had the gamewinning hit in the 16-inning victory over the Mets on Friday night, two hits in another victory on Saturday and two doubles Sunday. Because the season is still young, Bagwell can still lift his average considerably with a couple of good days. And since May 16, Bagwell has added nearly 100 points to his average.
Still, no one need tell Bagwell that .247 looks out of place next to his name.
“You get to the point when you’re in a slump where you’re just trying to find answers,” said Bagwell, who entered the season with a career average of .309. “You go back and look at tapes where you’ve done well, and you try to get back to that. I’ve done all that - and more. The situation, now, is that I have to get comfortable in the batter’s box.”
Some people may believe, of course, that the four-year, $27.5 million contract that Bagwell signed in the off-season also makes it harder to get comfortable. But, says Bagwell, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’ve said a thousand times, I’m my own toughest critic and I have certain expectations of myself, and when I’m not living up to that, that bothers me,” Bagwell said. “That has nothing to do with the contract, or an MVP or anything like that. I expect myself to do well.”
To do that, Bagwell has applied a formula as old as the game itself: Stay back, don’t pull off the ball. They are things he has always done well, things he needs to rediscover.
“There’s no reason for me to change, I don’t think,” he said. “I can still do the same things I did last year. I just haven’t done it, yet.”
As the Astros and Bagwell wait, so does a game desperate for Herculean performances to stoke the embers of a sport that once held captive the imagination of the public. A hot streak by Bagwell would be tonic, indeed.