The problem with mountaintops is that you have to come down sooner or later.
Look no further than Tiger Stadium this weekend. Here is Bret Saberhagen, the Royals’ Kid Everything from last season — Cy Young winner, Series MVP, king of the baseball hill. And now he’s banging his glove in the midst of an awful season.
Across the field is Alan Trammell, a Kid Everything from the year before
— team hero, Series MVP, a hundred reporters around his locker. Yet did any Tiger suffer a more frustrating follow-up than his 1985 campaign?
Is it pressure? Expectations? Yes. It’s all that. And bad luck, and small injuries. But mostly it’s the unforgiving glare of spotlight that makes a hero think and think about what he has become. Trammell, after a year and a half, has finally reached a peaceful standoff with his shadow. Saberhagen is still wrestling.
“Everybody is looking at me,” said the Royals pitcher on Friday. “Every time I go out there people are looking to see what the Cy Young winner will do, what the Series MVP will do. It’s completely different. It’s hard to ignore. Last year I just went out and pitched.”
“And this year?” someone asked.
“This year I have to think about everything,” he said. Thinking. So much thinking. And what happens? Here are some numbers.
Trammell in 1984: a .314 average, and 10 errors. Trammell in 1985: .258, 15 errors.
Saberhagen in 1985: a 20-6 record, 2.87 ERA. Saberhagen so far in 1986: 5-10, 4.30 ERA.
How ever many times you review those numbers, Trammell and Saberhagen have reviewed them more. A thousand times more.
So much thinking.
“For me,” said Trammell, sitting in the Tigers’ dugout Friday, “the problem began with having arm surgery right after the 1984 season. I guess I felt pressure to get back to where I had been. To live up to the expectations. When it didn’t happen, I got frustrated. I probably didn’t handle it as well as I should have.
“It’s so easy when you’re on the top. All the questions are positive. But last year things started going bad and every time I did an interview the first question was, ‘How’s the arm? How’s the arm?’ I don’t know. It bothered me. I know I’m defensive about it. But that was really sensitive.”
He tapped his knee and looked out toward the infield.
“I started thinking about it all the time. Why wasn’t I as good as I was the year before? What was the matter? I thought too much. I was my own worst enemy. It took a long time before I could say, ‘Hey, I’m trying. It won’t do me any good to agonize over it.’ “
Trammell shrugged. The Tigers’ shortstop is yet to climb back to the 1984 numbers, even this season (he is hitting .247). But there is an easiness in his voice that was not there last year. A dimmer fire in his eyes. It is no longer torture. What will be will be.
“Can you sympathize with what Saberhagen’s going through now?” he was asked.
“Oh, certainly,” Trammell said. “I’m sure he’s playing those same mind games.”
“What if he asked you how to handle the pressure of this year?”
Trammell thought for a second. And then he smiled.
“I’d try to change the subject,” he said. “That would be the best thing for him.” W hich would be OK by Saberhagen. But not too many people are changing the subject these days. The Royals, defending world champions, are struggling. And Saberhagen is a big part of that.
“Let’s face it,” the young pitcher said Friday, while dressing in the visitor’s clubhouse. “If I were 10-10 last year and not an award winner, I’d just be another average ball player right now.”
“Actually, I’d probably be down in Triple-A.”
What is it? Why does it happen? Saberhagen looks the same — the stringy hair, the peach-fuzz mustache, like a farm boy on his first night in the city. But that is more facade than fact now. He spent his winter on a sea of dinners, autographs, golf tournaments and commercials.
“I didn’t say no to too many people,” he admitted.
And some say that was part of the problem. Outside distractions. Others aren’t so sure. Like Trammell the year before, Saberhagen has had some injury trouble. And like Trammell, the team around Saberhagen is not performing as well as it did in its World Series year.
“Everything is different this year,” Saberhagen said with a sigh. “Now when I go out there I know that people will always be watching me because of the awards. There’s a lot of pressure.
“And when you’re not going good, you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I do what I did last year?’ You start to change everything around. You start messing with your motion. It’s too much. Maybe all that needed changing was something really small.”
He slapped at his glove. Not too long ago, there was talk of taking Saberhagen out of the rotation. The Cy Young winner — in the bullpen? Then again, there was talk last year of trading Trammell, benching Trammell, examining his arm 1,000 times.
The shadow of the mountaintop.
“You can’t go off the deep end worrying,” Saberhagen said. “That’s what I’m trying not to do. I know I should stop worrying about other people’s expectations. I should just go out there and be myself. I know that.”
“Did you ever imagine you’d have to remind yourself to be yourself?” he was asked.
“No,” he said, “Before last year, I never did.” S o success, success, what have you wrought? Neither Trammell nor Saberhagen figured that the year after glory would be so different, so dark. Both say the pressure to repeat the performance is like a steady rainstorm. Both admit moments when it overwhelmed them. But for all that, neither World Series MVP would trade it back for some of the old anonymity.
“You know,” Trammell said, “whenever they’d introduce the coaches here a few years ago, Gates Brown always got the biggest hand. And you know why? Because he was a hero of that 1968 Series. And they never forgot it.
“When people see me, they remember I was part of that great 1984 season. No matter what happens. They can’t take that away.”
A warm wind blew. The game was drawing closer. Trammell got up and headed into the clubhouse. Across the way, Saberhagen was coming onto the field. Neither man is where he wants to be right now. But each has seen a mountaintop, however brief, however confusing.
“Do you realize you guys are pretty similar?” someone asked Saberhagen.
“Yeah,” he said, “I guess in certain ways we are.”
He looked into his glove, and finding no answers there, looked up with a half-grin.
“How’s Alan doing this year?” he asked. “Let’s see what I have to look forward to.” CUTLINES