The Sox’ Gordon Beckham credits a video session with helping him get back on track at the plate. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: July 11, 2012 10:18AM
Athletes who change roles or positions or make an obvious alteration to the way they do things often are said to have ‘‘reinvented’’ themselves.
For Gordon Beckham, the process has been one of rediscovery.
‘‘I’ve gone back to being myself,’’ he said.
Beckham’s flashy debut as a 22-year-old rookie with the White Sox in 2009 evoked comparisons with Chicago infield standouts of the recent past: Ryne Sandberg on the North Side, Robin Ventura on the South. Less than a year after signing with the Sox as their first-round draft pick out of the University of Georgia, Beckham was lining extra-base hits all over U.S. Cellular Field and handling third base as though he had been born to play there after a college career at shortstop.
He hit .270 and slugged .460 with 28 doubles, 14 home runs and 63 RBI in just 378 at-bats. You didn’t have to be a Sox rooter to take umbrage with his fifth-place finish in American League Rookie of the Year voting. Little did anyone suspect the average and the power numbers would remain career highs as Beckham entered his fourth season.
Some drop-off was probably inevitable as the pitchers got to know him better. In 2010, Beckham batted .252 with 36 extra-base hits. He made another position switch, to second base, and lost 30 games to a hand injury.
Last season, he never got anything going, hitting .230 with minimal pop. Along with Adam Dunn and Alex Rios, he was part of an axis of underachievement held responsible for the failure of the Sox’ ‘‘All In’’ commitment.
‘‘He’s a very talented player; it was hard to figure why he was struggling,’’ said former teammate Omar Vizquel, a 24-year veteran. ‘‘He was fighting himself. He needed to relax and just play baseball.’’
When Beckham finished this April with a .153 average, it was as though 2009 never happened. His unshakeable confidence was noticeably shaken.
‘‘Every at-bat, I was thinking about my hands, my feet, my swing,’’ he said. ‘‘I was worrying about what was wrong instead of just letting it fly.’’
Former Sox manager Ozzie Guillen wasn’t much help. He had paid minor-league dues for four seasons after signing as a 17-year-old street kid from Venezuela and seemed disdainful of Beckham’s college-boy background and seamless rise through the system. The Sox, he said, were in trouble if they had to rely on ‘‘Bacon’’ for big-time contributions.
Failure never had been one of Beckham’s life experiences. And while he surely seemed ready for the major leagues when he arrived in Chicago, his 59-game minor-league apprenticeship hadn’t prepared him for the inevitable ups-and-downs all big-leaguers face.
‘‘He’s been learning on the fly at the major-league level, facing big-league pitching every night, and it’s pretty good,’’ said Ventura, the Sox’ first-year manager. ‘‘Most guys learn to cope with failure in the minor leagues. Gordon wasn’t down there long enough to get that experience.’’
Ventura, a former college star at Oklahoma State, knows about ups-and-downs: He survived an 0-for-41 famine as a White Sox rookie in 1990.
‘‘If he grounded out or popped up, he was taking it personally, putting too much pressure on himself,’’ Ventura said. ‘‘I told him: ‘Don’t worry so much about outcomes. Be yourself. Stay in the moment and go play baseball.’ I could tell him that, but he’s the one who had to do it.’’
Batting second in front of Dunn and Paul Konerko, Beckham crept above the Mendoza Line with a two-hit game against the Cubs on May 18. He hit .326 with three homers and eight RBI while the Sox were moving into first place by winning nine of 10 games recently. Even when his bat failed him, his fielding remained Gold Glove-quality.
‘‘He never let his hitting affect his play in the field,’’ said Vizquel, a Hall of Fame-caliber shortstop. ‘‘He has become an excellent second baseman.’’
But he’d like to build up the .237 average he’s carrying after going 3-for-5 with three RBI in the 10-1 pounding of the Astros on Saturday. Beckham believes that he will and that he got his swagger back after a back-to-the-future video session with hitting coach Jeff Manto.
‘‘Jeff showed me a tape from 2009,’’ he said. ‘‘When I watched it, I said: ‘That guy looks like he knows what he’s doing up there. It doesn’t matter who the pitcher is, he’s in trouble.’ I’ve got to get back to being that guy.’’