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Slumps 

A double-header is only a couple of heated hours away.

In a little locker room off to the side of the Zephyrs clubhouse, a guy crouches in front of a little monitor hooked up to a Sony camera. The film is of men trying to do what few are ordained to do: effectively hit an apple-sized ball traveling at 90 miles an hour with a 2-lb. stick.

Well, it's August, so it's right about time to talk some baseball.

How about something that happens in baseball that can touch us in our lives, too, only it usually doesn't touch us with thousands of people watching? Maybe booing us, too. ...

Slumps.

Even the word can make the shoulders and the spirit sag a bit.

Slumps don't just happen in the green cathedrals we call baseball fields, of course. Slumps happen to shrimpers and salesmen and -- shudder here -- surgeons, too. And lately too many of us have been hearing from retirement planners and day traders and money managers that our vaunted economic system is not dead, only wounded. In other words, capitalism is in a slump.

In baseball, slumps probably start out innocently enough. You just go through a day or two of ordinary baseball math, which decrees that with a bat in your hand, you will be a failure seven or eight times out of 10.

Then maybe you have to face one of the league's better pitchers -- like a Roy Oswalt or a Matt Prior -- and he's on his game and he sticks the ball in your ear a couple of times, so your bat catches nothing but air that game.

Throw in one of these games: you hit the ball hard three times in four at-bats. In the second inning, the shortstop belly-flops to his right and throws you out from his knees. In the fifth, the runner from first breaks, and the second baseman goes over to take the throw and you hit a hot line drive at the spot he's now standing in.

In the ninth, you hit a Screamin' Meemee right down the line, but the left fielder gets a great jump on the ball and snags it in the web of his glove as he slides along on his wallet.

All of a sudden, you've hit one hit in your last 14 at-bats and, brother, you're in a slump.

Let's go back to the guy in the little locker room. His name is Gary Gaetti and his game for a quarter-century has been slumps. For 20 years and six major-league teams, getting out of slumps. Now, as a batting coach for the New Orleans Zephyrs, teaching others how to get out.

Gaetti is 43. He has a raptor's nose, a wrestler's wrists, and he knows about slumps the way Bach knew about music.

"First-hand," he says with mild self-mockery. "I used to get a major slump every season. Mine would usually come in May, somewhere between a hundred and 200 at-bats. One season, there was a stretch when I went 2-for-60. Oh yeah, I know slumps."

Like other infections, slumps can originate in a wide variety of micro-causes. "You could just be tired, early or late in the season. Maybe a couple half-sleep nights: allergies, delayed flight, a sick child. Or maybe you jammed a finger sliding into a base and you're not holding your bat right."

Of course, the reasons could be as much mental as physical. "Oh, the big thing is mental," assures Gaetti. "It may all start with a good game with no results. You hit the ball good, but had nothing to show for it. Or it could just be that in a certain ballpark, you're sure you're not gonna be able to hit. Every time I stepped in Yankee Stadium, I could swear home plate was 10 feet wide."

The hoodoo part of slumps is that they have a habit of perpetuating themselves. "You lose confidence, and suddenly you're taking the good pitches and swinging at the bad ones, and the umpires are calling you out on everything in between."

As hitting instructor, Gaetti takes each slumping player on an individual basis. Some are in denial; others visualize themselves in a full-fledged slump before even getting there. Some have no need to talk about it; others can talk of nothing else.

"Some guys, you just have to let them hit total bottom. And then they give you that look. That look that says what the hell do I do now." Gaetti shrugs and squirts a stream of chaw into a paper cup.

The first thing Gaetti does is to remind his young pupils that it is not at all strange what is happening to them. "I say if you never slump, you'd be the first player in the long history of the game not to."

Then he strives to show the slumper that nowadays baseball, the statistician's game, even keeps statistics on how productive you can be even during a slump. He holds up a tablet of categories headed "OPR" or "Offensive Production Rating."

"It keeps track of things like the time you battled the pitcher for a walk or maybe you make an out, but it's an out that moves a runner over. It's a way of saying we're watching, we're supportive, and we know you can help us win even without the things you see on SportsCenter."

Gaetti says you learn about the character of those mired in a slump. Those who can armor themselves with thoughts of this-too-shall-pass, those who learn to soldier on.

"When you get right down to it, there's only one way to deal with slumps," says Gary Gaetti, hitter of 360 big-league homers. "You gotta keep hacking."

A few hours later, Zephyrs second baseman Dave Matranga, who had failed to hit safely in 13 previous at-bats, knocked in the game's only run with an eighth-inning double as the Zs beat Fresno, 1-0.

"I just kind of felt like I was hurting the team. Then I had the opportunity to do something good in the last inning," Matranga told a reporter.

On the other side of the clubhouse, Gary Gaetti smiled. You gotta keep hacking.

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