Struggle and success

I vowed I would not touch the question with a ten-foot pole.

Just my second time in a minor league clubhouse, I was confronted by the same quandary faced by any other media personnel who ever set foot in the Lakewood (N.J.) Blueclaws’ locker room. The question that would send diversity ideologues and college professors across the country spinning—and probably my short-lived journalism career down the tubes as well.

Why are lunch and dinner segregated?

“This right here is the dividing line,” exclaims Anthony Hewitt, doing his best Cornel West impression, slapping the white column separating the long, rectangular table of white players from the smaller round table, which this year hosts Hewitt, Jon Singleton and Jiwan James.

The dichotomy is long part of Blueclaws folklore. Last season, Anthony Gose and Jeremy Hamilton spearheaded the infamous round table.

“We didn’t pick when we came here,” says Singleton. “They just put us over here and we were like, okay.”

“Its because we’re close to the food and the soda machine,” Hewitt contends. “And the exit door.”

Contrary to the Jesse Jackson in me, the Blueclaws’ clubhouse hardly harbors any racial divide. But Singleton and Hewitt have formed a personal rapport. While most of their teammates are staying with host families during the season, a combined $1.5 million in signing bonuses has bought the pair a hotel suite.

Singleton is odd-looking; there is no other way to say it. Thick and muscular, he bears a slight resemblance to Bubba from “Forrest Gump;” his wide-toothed smile is particularly noteworthy. Hewitt, in contrast, sports sharply chiseled features throughout, and is the more serious and inquisitive of the predominantly laid-back duo.

In certain respects, their stories are similar. Both caught the attention of ardent football coaches in high school, but Singleton stopped playing after his freshman year, and Hewitt played just two seasons at fullback. Baseball reigned supreme. Hewitt’s late grandfather, Bill Hewitt, who passed away when Hewitt was 11, pitched in Triple-A. He keeps his grandfather’s bat and glove as keepsakes. Singleton, meanwhile, saw older prospects from rival schools such as Travis D’Arnaud, Mike Carp, Zach Collier, Chris Parmelee and Gose get drafted while he was in high school, and he knew professional baseball was no pipe dream.

Thrown into similar circumstances, Singleton has thrived where Hewitt has floundered. Through Monday, Singleton, 18, has hit .314/.423/.536 in 291 plate appearances, second among South Atlantic League players in OPS (.959). Hewitt, 21, the 24th overall pick in the 2008 draft, is hitting .209/.255/.330 in 361 plate appearances, leading the league in strikeouts (122) while walking just 12 times.

Overcoming unfamiliar failure

Singleton’s ascension has hardly been as seamless as his success suggests. A projected first-round pick coming into his senior year of high school in 2009, he tried putting the team on his back, and his performance suffered, dropping him to the eighth round. He was committed to Long Beach State, but he signed with the Phillies a little over a month after the draft.

A difficult decision? “It was,” Singleton said. “It all came down to that I felt like I was ready to make that step. It’s the best decision I’ve made yet. I like school, but I love baseball more.”

After a promising debut in the Gulf Coast League that summer, Singleton arrived in spring training expecting to break camp with Lakewood. A lesson in humility was in store for the youngster. Lakewood manager Mark Parent and others felt his game was too unrefined for full-season ball. During scrimmages, he looked more like a bungling teenager in awe of his surroundings than a man equipped with killer baseball instincts.

“For somebody to tell him ‘You’re not going to be on this club’ for probably the first time his life, that don’t feel too good,” said Parent. “Then you want to prove them wrong and that’s what he’s done. It’s not a daycare. You’re not putting a guy on your shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do.’ It’s a grown man’s world. You need to get going.”

The experience lit a fire under Singleton. He was greeted each morning by buckets of ground balls. His conditioning improved. His newfound work ethic became the talk of camp. When Blueclaws first baseman Darin Ruf hit the snot off the ball, he was promoted to Clearwater on May 13, and Singleton joined Lakewood in Greenville, S.C., that same day. He wasted no time making his presence known, homering in his second at-bat in the third inning off Greenville right-hander Pedro Perez.

It all sounds terribly cliche, but Singleton has storybook-esque talent. He possesses excellent bat speed and tremendous strength; Lakewood hitting coach Greg Legg described his power as “effortless.” He has a remarkably short stroke, however, a la Jason Heyward. Singeton’s flirtation with a 1:1 BB/K ratio this entire season is undoubtedly a testament to his compact swing, but scouts and coaches also attribute his plate discipline to his remarkable vision. He picks up the ball differently from everyone else. One veteran scout compared it to watching Nomar Garciaparra in his prime.

Singleton also does a good job letting the ball get deep in his hitting zone, routinely going the other way with authority, and enabling him to hold his own against southpaws.

“He’s balanced at the plate,” Legg says. “Very simple approach. His lower half works very well. He never gets out of his box to hit. He’s almost always in it.”

“Hitting is so complex it can screw you up some times, but you have to make it simple,” Singleton says. “I try not to overthink things.”

Will success come at all?

Hewitt leans back his chair, sipping a Coke with his pre-game spread of chicken and rice. Overhead is a small TV tuned into Sportscenter, airing the previous night’s baseball highlights.

“It [minor league baseball] humbles you a lot,” he remarks. “Looking at what the big leaguers have compared to what we have. Struggles are tough. But it makes you a stronger person.”

For a man mired in a 3-for-35 slump, Hewitt is in good spirits, cracking jokes with James and Singleton. Three years ago, he decided to play professional baseball instead of attending Vanderbilt. Despite struggling mightily for a third consecutive season, he does not spend much time thinking about what could have been. “I can always go back to school,” he says. Asked if his $1.38 million dollar signing bonus factored in his decision, he looks down and grins with a look of guilt. “Yeah, that too.”

A cynically inclined observer may conclude Hewitt has resigned himself to failure, but while he may be his own worst enemy, it’s due to his work ethic. “I felt I’ve put too much pressure on myself,” he reflects. “A little bit too much instead of just going out there and learning day by and day and letting my talents take over.”

Hewitt crumpled under the pressure of his self-expectations, sparking an ugly cycle. Fear of failure became the driving force behind his development. He began forcing the issue at the plate; an already aggressive hitter, he hacked at everything. His swing was very lungey. He could not keep his hands back, instead choosing to play pepper with the ball, in part because he was simply trying to make contact.

As a result, he obsessed over his swing, overthinking at times as opposed to letting his instincts dominate. Hewitt proved unable to make integral mechanical adjustments, which scouts increasingly came to view as laziness.

As a former player, Parent can relate to Hewitt’s struggles. “When I played with Tony Gwynn in San Diego, he’d say you just gotta stay back. How? I don’t know you just gotta stay back, he’d say. Some of the best players can’t say how they do things. Some of the worst, less talented guys, they work at it and watch more of other people and try to fit in, but they can’t figure it out.”

The Phillies’ decision to draft Hewitt, which was derided by many analysts due to Hewitt’s rawness, underscores their continued emphasis on athleticism and aggressiveness.

“You look back at some of the good organizations,” Parent says “the Cincinnati Reds with Lou Piniella in 1990, they had Eric Davis, the Mets had Darryl (Strawberry). Basketball players. Athletic. They put people in place who taught them how to play baseball. A lot of organizations draft based on what they did in college. But drafting a more athletic guy is a better find because he’s more athletic and can help you down the road.”

“You can never take the aggressiveness away,” Legg says. “It’s hard to teach somebody to be aggressive. In time, they’ll learn, maybe I shouldn’t have swung at the first pitch or maybe I shouldn’t have gone for third with two outs. You would always rather have somebody aggressive than not aggressive. It’s easier to tone it down before you get to the big leagues than to make somebody aggressive.

“You want somebody up there hacking and than say, okay, with two strikes, let’s slow it down a bit. Maybe take the body out of it, use your hands more, go the other way. We used to say you can’t get off the island if you’re not swinging. Well, walking doesn’t get you to the big leagues.”

Members of the Phillies brass continue to insist that the athlete in Hewitt eventually will make the adjustment. They don’t believe plate discipline is an inherent skill, but something that can be learned in time.

“Vision’s a huge part of it,” Legg says, “but I think, the more you see them (changeups, breaking balls, etc.), the more you learn to lay off ‘em and understand what you can hit.”

“If Anthony gets it, he’s going to be a very special player. It’s a matter of when he’s going to get it, when the light is going to come on. When is he going to put everything together and not try too hard and impress people.”

Yet, Hewitt appears light years removed from reaching his potential. In more than 700 plate appearances in the minors, he has a .605 OPS. and an abysmal 28:246 BB/K ratio.

James passes Hewitt an old edition of the Asbury Park Press, a local paper with the only Lakewood beat writer. A dead silence ensues. Hewitt leans over, taking a quick glance at it, before promptly tossing it in the garbage.

“Something you didn’t like in there?” I ask.

Hewitt leans back. “*** ‘em,” he deadpans. James, Singleton and Hewitt resume laughing.

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  1. Ghost of Red Smith said...

    A good effort, Matt. You obviously love the game. One bit of constructive criticism—I’ve read the lead anecdote about a half-dozen times, and I still have no idea what it is you’re trying to say.

    Is the lockerroom really segregated? Do the players segregate themselves, or does management do it? To whom was Singleton referring when he said “they just put us over here”? Has it “long” been the practice of the team to put black and white players at seperate dining tables, or was it spearheaded by Anthony Gose & Jeremy Hamilton just last year? If the white players are at one table and the black players are at another, where do the Latino players sit? And, most importantly, if you’re trying to write a piece about how different the minor league experience has been for these two players who have become friends, does the anecdote about the dining room tables do anything at all to help tell that story?

  2. Matt Himelfarb said...

    The dining room table part is just a humorous, personal lead-in that catches the reader’s attention, as you will find in most feature stories. As you can tell from the story, I also thought it was fascinating how Hewitt and Singleton, were thrusted into similar circumstances, and clearly shared a close-bond (including eating together all the time, along with Jiwan james, that the first few graphs also established), yet Singleton has thrived while Hewitt has floundered, which I thought puts an interesting spin on this story, and why I combined the two.

    Is the lockerroom really segregated? Yeah, Singleton, Hewitt and James, along with the latinos, Villar, Valle, and Lugo, all have their lockers toward the back. While Singleton, Hewitt, and James ate at the table, Valle, Villar, and Lugo actually eat at their lockers, which are all next to each other.

    Frankly, I think you are taking it a little too seriously and literally, although sorry if I didn’t make that part clear in the story.

    When Singleton said, “we didn’t pick when we came here, they just put us over here and we were like, okay”, he was just making fun of the situation.

    I was joking about it with Trevor May, who told me that Gose and Hamilton did the same thing with last year. Does it go back further than that? I don’t know.

    Hewitt, Singleton, and Hewitt probably eat together because there friends. No one really ordered them to sit there. The Latinos also eat together; the three I mentioned struggle speaking english, so that is just natural, as I have found being around other minor league clubhouses.

    Ok, maybe its’ also an inside joke within the organization. That is for the reader to infer I guess. It wasn’t like I actively went around investigating the issue. The point is, it is all in good fun- there is no actual racial tension in the clubhouse.

  3. Ted Maire said...

    Just because this sort of thing always makes me curious, when I saw “Hewitt’s late grandfather, Bill Hewitt, who passed away when Hewitt was 11, pitched in Triple-A,” I had to head over to the minor league pages of BB-Ref. 

    There were two William Hewitts listed, (No Bills), and only one of them was a pitcher, and since the years he pitched were 1946 & 1947, I’m guessing he’s about the right age, but he only pitched in the West Texas-New Mexico league…and I rather doubt that a league in West Texas and New Mexico was already integrated in 1946 & 1947, so I have doubts about that being Hewitt’s grandfather.  The only other Hewitt who pitched in the minors between then and 2005 was a Philip Hewitt from 1956 to 1958, which would make him the right age (presumably) and would remove the segregation problem.  He went 1 for 4 as a batter for Miami in the International League in ‘56, but then dropped down to the low minors for a couple of years, pitched in 12 games and appeared in a total of 220 games, hitting 245 with 4 Home Runs.

    Assuming that his grandfather was Phil, and not Bill (might you have misheard?), I always find it interesting to see how the stories of people’s minor league pasts inflate.  A single game in AAA (in which he didn’t pitch) and a couple of years in the low minors (where he pitched, but in less than 10% of his games played) turns into “Grandpa was a pitcher in triple A.”

  4. Matt Himelfarb said...

    Thanks for the research. I also find it fascinating. Perhaps I did mishear him, I’m really not sure.

    Anthony didn’t know a whole lot about his grandfather. He died when he was eleven, and he pitched in AAA. That was all I got out of him. I asked him if he pitched in the negro leagues, and he said he wasn’t sure. I might be able to follow up on this.

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