By Jim Owczarski
It started with a few flips the first week of December.
The ball would hang for a moment, be gone in blink.
Flip, blink, flip.
If you feel it, you know it.
Gordon Beckham felt it. More importantly, he knew it.
The eighth overall pick of the 2008 Major League Baseball amateur draft made his debut 364 days later following a whirlwind minor league career that took him from Kannapolis to Charlotte in 52 games and from Charlotte to Chicago in just seven more. He hit .322 with 25 doubles and seven home runs in the minors, with an OPS of .894.
We just monitored him, said Jeff Manto, the White Sox minor league hitting coordinator at the time. He was in such a good place when we got him. He didnt need anything.
Beckham was sure, confident.
He had it.
The 22-year-old was fresh out of the University of Georgia where he finished up his junior season hitting over .400 with a school record for home runs and total bases. In three years with the Bulldogs, he had struck out just 120 times.
He burst onto the scene playing a new position with the White Sox -- third base -- and was a leading candidate for American League Rookie of the Year despite missing the first two months of the season. He finished his rookie campaign hitting .270 with 14 home runs and 28 doubles. The future was bright.
Somewhere along the line, however, he began to lose it.
The 2011 season ended with Beckham going hitless in eight of his final 12 games, finishing the last two months hitting .198 with 40 strikeouts.
He found himself behind in the count in 211 of his 499 at bats and struck out 111 times. He hit just .230 on the season with a .296 on base percentage and .633 OPS.
It was gone.
He packed up his things.
The Sox had missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, and it seemed as if the 24-year-old phenom, who was once deemed untouchable in trade talks, was now at a career crossroads.
I dont ever want to feel that way again, he said.
Fllp, blink, flip.
In December, Beckham rediscovered it.
He maintains his swing had never changed, that its too easy to just say hes going back to what worked for him at Georgia and in 2009. But somewhere between then and 2011, something broke down.
I had to be perfect, he said. Theres a million ways to describe that but I had to be perfect in my load and the way I hit and if it wasnt perfect, I didnt hit.
He placed no blame on former hitting coach Greg Walker. He put it all on his own shoulders, or more telling, his own head.
The reason I struggled last year was I swung at bad pitches, he said. What causes that? Well, thats caused from a little bit of uncertainty, a little bit of anxiety, trying to go up there and get a hit every time is not an easy thing to do.
Then the proverbial snowball began to roll.
I let it beat me down last year, Beckham said.
New Sox manager Robin Ventura could relate. He was a college star at Oklahoma State and spent just 129 games in the minor leagues before being called up in 1989. Only he collected just eight hits in his first 58 plate appearances. In 1990, he went 16 games without a hit at one point and didnt crack the Mendoza line for good until mid-June.
Kenny Williams knows where Beckham's coming from, too. The GM joked during Sox Fest his career was all downhill after his first major league plate appearance.
Hes a really talented kid, Ventura said of Beckham. I just want him to go play and not worry so much about whats expected of him and try to go to the plate and go 10-for-20 when all you can do is go to the plate, try and have a good at bat, and see what else happens.
Williams took it a step further, saying all he expected out of the now 25-year-old second baseman is to play to win, and to have fun. So much so he made the statement twice.
The success will be there at the end if he just lightens up a little bit on himself and it goes back to being a game, Williams said.
That positivity, along with Beckhams rediscovery taking mere flips in December, has helped him rediscover what was missing.
Legitimately, yes, he said. You dont usually think youre going to get something like that but yeah, absolutely (I found it). By the way the bat is coming through the zone, the way the bat is lagging. Obviously its just flips and were getting loose and stuff like that, its not 95 (miles per hour), but it will hold up. What Im doing now will hold up. It just feels like Im getting to the point where my bat is just flying through the zone in the right way.
Standing off stage following a seminar, Mantos eyes lit up when he heard of Beckhams renewed confidence, how he could just feel that it was right, that it was back.
Thats how I know Gordons minds right, said the new Sox hitting coach. Im a feel coach, Im a mental coach. Thats important to me and its important to the swing. I believe to get to the major league level, you have mechanics already. To hear Gordon think about the things we used to talk about in the minor leagues, its good that hes remembering those things.
Beckham exuded confidence at SoxFest, an air that reminded many but most importantly, himself of the player he was a few short years ago.
I lost a little confidence last year, but recently Ive really felt like myself, moreso than Ive ever felt like myself in the last two years, he said. I feel like Im back to being that confident guy that can really go out there and carry people sometimes when Im doing well. Im kind of back to that situation. I feel good about where Im at mentally. Physically I feel good. My swing is the thing its there.
You know it when you see it, and you can feel it and its there.
Beckham is confident again, mentally, and in his swing. Now, hes ready to show it.