In baseball, there is a word so dreaded that some players won't even utter its single syllable for fear the gods will hear. Though only five letters long, they won't say "it," not if you spotted them the "s-l-u-m" and told them the last letter came between "o" and "q" in the alphabet. Somewhere, there may be a player who can't spell "slump," but there's never been a man, not the best of them, who doesn't live in fear of its next dark visitation.
For example, when Derek Jeter enters the visitor's locker room in Oakland Tuesday night, he will wonder if The Slump is still there, waiting for the Yankees shortstop like a jungle cat sitting in his locker or some viper hanging from a ceiling pipe. Has "the thing" gone its way, seeking some new victim, or is Jeter, despite his glamour and greatness, still the object of the monster's affections? Is it safe for his parents to stop leaving games early to avoid watching him fail?
How can he know? Last Thursday, Jeter broke one of the longest hitless streaks that has ever befallen a future Hall of Famer -- a jaw-dropping, head-shaking, that-must-be-a-typo 0 for 32. When Alex Rodriguez went 0 for 16 in April against the Red Sox, the news brought gasps of commiseration or glee. But 0 for 32?
"A streak like that, you wouldn't want to wish on anyone, even other teams," said Jeter, who'd had his own personal equivalent of a 102/3 inning no-hitter pitched against him.
Few journeymen ever endure such a debacle. In fact, most pitchers (who still hit) can go an entire career without an 0 for 32. At his slump's nadir, Jeter struck out last week on three sliders that bounced in the other batter's box. His outs were dribblers, popups and lots of strikeouts. Bad luck had nothing to do with it. The book on the best way to get Jeter out was, "Throw him a baseball."
Yankees fans felt such sympathy that, though they booed him after each out, they then cheered each time he came up again. "They probably started feeling sorry for me," said an appreciative Jeter.
The Yankees' captain broke his drought with a home run off Oakland's Barry Zito on Thursday. As he ran toward first base, he said, "I thought a bird would hit it and someone would catch it. It's like a bad dream is over."
But is it? Slumps have ears. They'll tell you when they're "over," buddy.
Since the homer, Jeter has just four singles in 17 at-bats (.235), including an 0 for 4 on Sunday. After 25 games, he's batting .181, a mark so awful that only two regular players in the majors (minimum 60 at-bats) have lower averages, the worst being Jason Phillips (.153) of the cross-town Mets. How much damage can one month -- one big-time slump -- do? Jeter will need to hit .350 the rest of the season just to get back to his career average.
If you want to stay healthy, don't mention the word "slump," around several other suffering stars. The Yanks' Bernie Williams (.185) and Gary Sheffield (one homer in 88 at-bats) are still ice cold. The Angels' Tim Salmon (.188) or the Blue Jays' Vernon Wells (one homer in 107 at bats) are digging huge holes for themselves.
And then there's Tampa Bay's Jose Cruz Jr., who has managed to eclipse Jeter's futility with an 0-f0r-37 run that ended Saturday. He's hitting .203 through 22 games.
Statistically, it makes no difference when a slump attacks. But every player knows that's a lie. April and October are the months when slumps can cripple a whole season or damage a reputation for years.
As for those who stunk up the playoffs last fall, they still know who they are. The aroma lingers even though slumps seem to arrive by caprice not because of flaws of athletic character. The A's gave Eric Chavez a huge offseason contract, but he still has to dispel the stigma of his .045 (1-for-22) disaster against Boston. He and Miguel Tejada (.087) brought the A's down.
In Boston, they still talk about Ted Williams's one RBI in his only World Series in '46. But they talk a lot more now about Nomar Garciaparra's one RBI in two postseason series last year (49 at-bats).
October slumps follow players their whole lives, from Gil Hodges and Tony Perez to Dave Winfield. But some last long enough to reverse the mojo. In his first 97 postseason at bats, Barry Bonds had 1 homer, 6 RBI and batted .196. These days, when it seems conceivable that Bonds might bat .400 or slug .900, that seems impossible. But, until he hit seven homers in 45 at bats in the 2002 postseason, Bonds was greeted by Mr. Slump every October.
Whenever slumps arrive, they have one trait in common: mystery.
Everybody knows that baseball is the sport of slumps and streaks. But nobody knows why. Coaches and managers will talk about the delicacy of a batter's "timing" and all the glitches that can creep into a stance or swing. They'll talk about "confidence," both lost and found. They stress the damage done by "pressing," which soon turns into "feeling pressure," which is one short step from choking your brains out.
"See that trail of sawdust from the on-deck circle to the batter's box?" a coach will say. "Maybe he's squeezing the bat a little too tight."
They happen to pitchers, too. Tampa Bay's Damian Moss (16.88 ERA), Colorado's Scott Elarton (0-4, 9.88) and Seattle's Joel Pineiro (1-3, 8.42) are just a few who struggled through April.
Of course, the word "luck" will always arrive on schedule. Just give me a bloop or a bleeder and the curse will be broken, the evil spell reversed and line drives will land all over the outfield like a flock of beautiful birds.
Despite all this, the grotesque full-blown slump may be the sport's ultimate gruesome riveting enigma. Part technical, more psychological, but always deliciously awful, we can't stop watching. No other major sport sees its greatest stars routinely embarrassed, sometimes for months, in a ritual humiliation that bonds the $10-million-a-year star and the average fan in a mutual sense of vulnerability.
Great quarterbacks don't suddenly go scatter-armed for long periods. NBA stars simply "shoot their way out" of a cold streak -- usually within a couple of games. But that's not the way it works in baseball. Come back in midseason and you'll still find players, including excellent ones, who still aren't hitting their weight. Though their batting average may feel like it weighs a ton.
Cal Ripken Jr. once reached the last week in June batting .209 and was so desperate that he laid off his one and only lifelong hitting instructor -- his father! Who did Cal pick to replace dad? Why, he tabbed Frank Robinson, the man who'd taken his father's job when Senior was fired as Orioles manager. Blood may be thicker than water, but nothing's stronger than a slump.
The frustrations of pitchers and bad hitters simply serve as comic relief and trivia. How was catcher Bill Bergen allowed to play 11 seasons in the majors, bat 3,028 times and yet hit .170? Even shortstop Ray Oyler (career .175) wasn't that bad. The worst hitter who ever lived may have been Johnny Broaca, a '30s pitcher who hated hitting so much that he even refused to take batting practice. His first hit came when a pitch at his head accidentally hit his bat (still resting on his shoulder) and ricocheted into leftfield. Once, umpire George Moriarty told Broaca, as he walked back toward the dugout, "I'm sorry Johnny, that pitch was ball three, not strike three. You'll have to come back."
All of them have our sympathy, especially Mario Mendoza (career average .215) who was made famous by George Brett, who said, "The first thing I look for in the Sunday paper is to see who's below the Mendoza Line."
What fascinates us is when a slump to spectacular spring virulence suddenly grabs a superstar in its psychological undertow and drags him temporarily below the Mendoza Line.
The likes of Jeter, Salmon and Williams won't be in Mendoza's purgatory for long. But, while they are, we must be excused the guilty pleasure of watching with empathetic fascination. For once, they remind us of ourselves.