The Curling News is just two weeks away from publishing the November 2016 issue, the first release of this pre-Olympic 2016-17 season. But first, given the excitement in Canada surrounding the sport of baseball, here is Jim Corrigan’s “love-letter” column republished from our last (April) issue. And yes, provided his insurance gave him excellent coverage, of course we’d love to see Edwin on the ice…
By Jim Corrigan
What attributes of a professional athlete could turn a cynical old curling writer into an obsessed fan?
Edwin Encarnacion, first baseman and designated hitter for the Toronto Blue Jays, is my favorite baseball player of all time. For me, “all time” goes back to watching the New York Yankees in the early 1960s. Some pretty fair ballplayers have come down the pike in the past 55 years, so you might be wondering…why pick Edwin?
The seeds of obsession are sown when a fan identifies an athlete’s potential for greatness in its embryonic stages. Going into the last week of the 2010 season, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion had a modest 16 home runs. It was his first full year with the Jays organization. Mid-season, he had been sent down to Triple A. He was on the cusp, being a power-hitting prospect who could not seem to field a defensive position at the major league level.
Edwin wanted to hit 20 home runs. Every ballplayer wants to do that, but Edwin turned wishes into reality by clobbering five homers in the last week of the season. That got my attention. Great athletes perform at their best in the toughest moments. These are the “pressure situations” that shape the trajectory of their careers. Edwin had the right stuff.
The Jays weren’t so sure, putting him on waivers after the 2010 season. The Oakland Athletics claimed and released him. Edwin re-signed a one-year contract with Toronto as a free agent. Things got worse. After getting virtually no work at third base through spring training, Encarnacion started 2011 at the hot corner. He struggled defensively and took his troubles to the plate. Now he was seen as a defensive liability who was not contributing much offense. The window of opportunity was closing on his major league career.
This is a classic “down-and-out” story, and it illustrates the fundamental challenge of sport: Get better or go home. Through all of his tough times, Edwin continued to work hard and to “have a strong mind” (a quote from the excellent profile done on Encarnacion by Sportsnet’s Stephen Brunt in 2015). He ended up with 17 home runs and 55 runs batted in (RBI). These are marginal numbers for a power hitter, but the Jays picked up their option on him for 2012.
I first took notice of the exceptional nature of Edwin’s at-bats midway through the 2011 season. His teammate Jose Bautista was tearing up the American League. Edwin had “made some adjustments” and was putting together equally good plate appearances. Both were ultra-disciplined yet aggressive. With power.
The next step in fan obsession is prognostication. Before the 2012 season, I told friends that Edwin would hit 30 home runs. In my heart I felt that he could hit 40, but I played it safe. Edwin hit 42 and knocked in 110 RBI. That’s a big year folks, and I had called it!
The Jays and Edwin saw the potential in each other, and Encarnacion was locked into a nice four-year contract. In one of his rare interviews, Edwin sincerely thanked the organization for helping him take care of his family. As Brunt’s profile revealed, Edwin has been as good as his word on that front. Edwin loves children. He has a great smile. He appears to be a genuinely nice human being. I have become an obsessed fan.
Edwin Encarnacion may be the most controlled, cerebral and effective hitter in the game. He has averaged 37 home runs and 105 RBI per season over the past four years. He has not struck out 100 times in any of those seasons. That’s nearly unheard of from one of the top five power hitters in baseball. Although not in Bautista-land, Edwin takes about 76 walks per year. He attained these numbers despite being injured for significant portions of each of the last three seasons. This past summer, Jays TV announcer Pat Tabler confirmed something that I suspected for several years.
Tabler quoted a statistic showing that Edwin hit the ball hard two times more often than the next best major league hitter. In 2014, he tied a record set by Mickey Mantle for the most home runs in May (16). Edwin had the longest hitting streak in the American League in 2015, at 26 games.
To me, he stands at the pinnacle of those facing the toughest challenge in sport – the ability to square up a ball thrown by a major league pitcher.
The essentials of hitting are reviewed daily by announcers and analysts. You must know what you want to hit, be ready, don’t swing at balls. In a nutshell, this is Edwin’s approach. I probably have watched two-thirds of his at-bats in each of the past four seasons. He is the most disciplined, consistent power hitter that I’ve ever seen.
By now you might be wondering what any of this has to do with curling? In a word, everything.
A combination of will and skill is essential for any successful athlete, but these attributes only get you to the door. The truly great athletes are those who can deliver their best when the stabbing light of great consequence is shining into their eyes. It requires a delicate balance of intensity and management of intensity to perform well in these situations. It demands that the athlete have a rigorously consistent approach to every opportunity given to them. Their approach “normalizes” what otherwise would be a mind-boggling jumble of excitement, nerves, speed and confusion.
Baseball pitchers and hitters share one critical thing with every curler. There are moments when game, season and career literally must flow through our hands. These are the pitch, the at-bat, and the shot. The game cannot go on until we have taken our turn. In terms of consequences, not all of these opportunities are created equal. In terms of approach, they must be.
From television, we take for granted that today’s curling “lead” player will make both tick shots in the last end, that the second will double-peel their team out of trouble, that the third will pin the 15-foot runback and that the skip will draw the side of the pot for the win. Let’s not forget the training, control and discipline it takes to even make a good pass at these shots.
Just watch any of the successful curling athletes on TV these days. Or Edwin’s at-bats this season. You’ll see the role mental and physical approach play in championship performance.