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April is the Cruelest Month
Tim Crothers
March 30, 1998
A lot of ballplayers, like Boston's John Valentin, get off to such lousy starts each year that not even a séance can awaken their dead wood
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March 30, 1998

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 séance can awaken their dead wood

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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

SLOW-STARTING PITCHERS

PLAYER, TEAM

APRIL AVG.

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 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

MoisesAlou, 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

FAST-STARTING PITCHERS

PLAYER, TEAM

APRIL AVG.

REST OF SEASON

DIFFERENCE

Scott Bailes, Rangers

3.43

5.13

1.70

AndyAshby, 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

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 center-field 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."

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