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KURT STREETER

Figgins uses simple plan for success

August 12, 2007|Kurt Streeter

Nothing worked.

His fingers felt strange. His swing felt funky.

He groped, lurched and looked lost. He swung hard and just knew that this would be the hit that broke his slump. Then he watched, horrified, as another baseball smacked off his bat and curved into an infielder's glove.

Since 2002, Chone Figgins has been an Angel in Anaheim. He was doing well, and he was ready. This would be his breakout season. Instead, what he got was a nightmare.

First, he hurt his right hand. Then, all at once, he could no longer get a hit. Fans started calling for his head. There were rumors that the Angels would get rid of him. A trade.

His numbers told the story. On May 1, his batting average stood at .125. Twenty-eight days later, it had climbed -- by .008.

One hit for roughly 10 times at bat. Great odds for the lottery, awful for a baseball player.

Worst of all, Figgins, who pronounces his first name like Shawn, simply had no clue.

What was wrong?

We've all been there: nothing going right, no end in sight. Maybe there was something here all of us could learn.

Some baseball players don't like to talk about things like this, good or bad. If they're cursed, then talking about it might make things worse. On the other hand, if they're charmed, then talking about it might make the magic disappear.

Figgins isn't like that.

We sat in the empty stands at Anaheim last week, just before batting practice. Figgins is 5 inches less than 6 feet tall, unimposing enough that you could easily mistake him for a dentist. But his brow was furrowed, his voice anxious. He sounded like a skier talking about a chain-reaction collision at Mammoth. "Man," he said, "it just snowballed.

"I'd have a good at-bat, and then I'd tinker. I'd think, 'Oh, if I get out in front of the ball a little. . . ,' or, 'Oh, if I stay back a little.' It was like I was sort of lost."

April? The snowball got bigger.

May? Ice cold.

The hitless games piled up. They came against Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, Texas, Cleveland, Kansas City and the Dodgers.

In late May, at the low point of his season, he got two days off. He huddled with one of his best friends, outfielder Nathan Haynes. They have known each other since the minors. "You just don't look like your old self, the Chone I used to know," he recalled Haynes saying. The message was clear.

"I just had to sit back, look at what I was doing and get back to the simple things," he said. "I guess most people can relate to that."

Partly, it was sweat.

During those two days off, he hit and hit and hit some more. Before games, he hit on the field. During games, he hit under the stands, in the batting cage. After the games, as his teammates went home, he hit back on the field again.

Partly, it was discipline.

He told himself: Keep the bat in the hitting zone as long as possible. Try to hit nothing but low drives. Stick to the same routine -- at practice and in games. Don't try to do anything fancy. Nothing spectacular. Take the pitches you get and hit them.

Repeat. Commit to memory.

When Chone Figgins came back from those two days off, he was a brand-new Angel. He was clear in his approach and confident in his simple swing. He relaxed. When a hittable pitch came, it was bat-against-ball -- and another line drive.

In June? He hit safely almost half the time.

Some players climb out like this, then quickly tumble back into their slump. But Figgins got hot and stayed hot.

July? Hot.

Now, in August? The Angels are leading their division, poised for big things. And Figgins keeps spraying the field, one shot after another.

"He's just as locked in as you can possibly be," says Mickey Hatcher, the Angels' batting coach. He compares what Figgins, now hitting .339, is feeling at the plate with what Tony Gwynn must have felt during his whole career.

Right now, other than all-world outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, you can make a case that Figgins is the most important Angel. Batting second, stealing runs, covering third base, he has emerged as a quiet, dependable leader. And the guy with the hottest bat.

Watching him play has become one of the best things about a team that wins the hard way and doesn't always get its due.

The Angels don't pound opponents with home runs. They simply don't have the muscle. They win with speed and smarts and crisply hit singles -- many of them off the bat of Figgins.

Want to see how this turnaround started?

Easy. Before a game, head to Angel Stadium and watch batting practice.

Notice the bigger, taller players taking their swings, often loose, sometimes wild, blasting baseballs all over the yard. Often, it's just show.

Then watch Figgins, No. 9. Standing next to the outfielders, he's the one who looks like a kid.

But notice, there's no fanciness.

As he approaches the plate, he loses his smile. He crouches. He narrows his eyes and blocks out everything that's swirling around him.

For a moment, the bat rests on his shoulder.

The ball comes. He swings. His black-and-beige bat is a rhythmic pendulum.

Crack . . . crack . . . crack . . . crack.

Figgins keeps going, using the same, simple swing that he'll use later in the game.

Steady, contained, simple. Again and again.

There's something to learn from that.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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