PHOENIX — The morale of baseball clubhouses is fully subject to the success of the team.
After a win — any win — reporters walk into a dance party. Music is blaring, towel whippers are running amuck, guys are hollering across the room, making postgame plans and mischievously interrupting interviews to make a fool of the interviewed.
After a loss — any loss — the clubhouse is a library, or the wake of a distant relative. There’s no music to be heard, only crickets. Non-active players from that day swiftly head for the exits. Active players linger in the showers, perhaps hoping the number of media awaiting them will dwindle. The televisions are turned off and the faces are straight and somber.
Leading a clubhouse then, when exactly half of your postgames are fiestas while the other half reek of death, is sure to be tricky. And doing so in a season of personal struggle and malperformance must be all the more difficult.
Such was the reality for Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero in 2013, who posted a career-low .230 batting average on the season.
“When you’re doing good, it’s easy to talk,” Montero said Wednesday, thinking back to last season. “And when you’re doing bad, if you don’t talk, they’re going to be like, ‘Alright, when he’s not hitting, not doing good, he doesn’t say nothing.'”
Montero’s teammates, then, may have witnessed not only the worst year of the catcher’s career, but also the quietest in 2013.
Sidelined by a back injury for part of the season, the outspoken Montero ended up playing in just 116 games — his fewest in the last three years and second-fewest since 2009. And when he was healthy, the 30-year-old hit at a .230 clip and turned in a measly .318 on-base percentage. Not since 2007 had he ever struggled so much at the plate. By September, he was regularly hitting seventh or eighth in manager Kirk Gibson’s lineup and, after one such occasion, his confidence was so lacking that he told the media that he should have been hitting at the bottom of the order all season.
“I’d hit me eighth,” he told reporters at his locker toward the end of the season.
He put a different spin on that quip Wednesday.
“There was times where I felt like (asking) if there could be a designated hitter for the catcher,” he joked.
He was shut down and felt out of place as the looked-to leader in the Diamondbacks clubhouse. There were even times, Montero said, that he didn’t feel like coming to the park.
“Last year, even when I wasn’t hitting, I was trying to keep it the same — being (motivational), motivating my teammates, trying to get the best out of them,” he recalled Wednesday. “It was tough. It was a bad feeling, because you worry about (your own slump).
“I had too many thoughts in my mind about (my own slump), that it probably didn’t allow me to go out there and speak up and (encourage them), saying, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ and things like that, you know? So it was tough.”
Along with the numbers and the approach at the plate, the confidence is something Montero chiseled away at over the offseason.
“Confidence level plays a very important role,” he said.
Early on this spring, however, that level was still hampered by the negativity and struggles of the season prior, Montero said. Even when Cactus League play began, Montero was so mentally beat up from 2013 that he attributed his hits to luck. He was swarmed by doubt.
“My mind felt like it wasn’t right,” he said. “It wasn’t good, it wasn’t good enough, like it wasn’t me.”
That changed, though, and it changed with a conversation.
“I had a good talk with Peter,” Montero recalled Wednesday of his spring transformation, citing a meeting with Diamondbacks mental skills coach Peter Crone.
“That was a good talk. It was probably like 20 minutes, but I tell you what, the next day I felt so much different. I did.”
All of the sudden, Montero said, he was reminded of his ability.
“I have always been able to hit,” he said. “I just had to tell myself that.”
Now, after starting his 2014 campaign by going 5-for-17 with four walks, a home run and a .429 OBP, Montero hopes that one tweak will increase his volume not just at the plate, but also in the Diamondbacks clubhouse.
“Staying strong, mentally positive is more important than the physical part.”