Michael Garciaparra: Only way to go is up

What can three seasons of experience do for a first-round draft pick? In more cases than not, the answer is one of two things.

Ideally, that highly-valued, grossly-paid player quickly works his way through the minor league system and shows improvement each step of the way. By year four, he should be getting close to big league stardom.

That isn't what always happens, though, and the question that then arises for a one-time prospect in this situation is "what can I do to make it happen?"

How can one erase the past? How can a player forget the troublesome times – the injuries, the slumps, the pain and anguish – that comes with underachieving? For Michael Garciaparra, the Seattle Mariners' No. 1 pick in 2001 and 36th player chosen overall, these are the questions that continually dance in the back of his head.

Garciaparra, the younger brother of major league all-star Nomar Garciaparra, received a $2 million signing bonus from Seattle back in 2001. Regarded by many back then as a shortstop with the tools to be good, his game was raw in almost every area.

And catching up with the rest of the pack wasn't going to be easy. He had a lot to learn, and a lot of pressure to face. Living up to the standard that his brother set was one thing, living up to the level that a highly-paid first-round draft choice must play at was another.

Initially, things were good. At age 19 in 2002, Garciaparra made his pro debut in the Arizona Fall League and did so in a fairly productive fashion. With Peoria, he batted a respectable .275 and added eight doubles, five triples and 13 steals in 46 games. Not earth-shattering, but definitely something to get excited about.

After a quick stop at the end of the season in Everett, Garciaparra began his second pro season at Mid-A Wisconsin. That's when the problems began, or more specifically, the slumps. It was a slump that lasted all season long, affecting both his play at the plate and in the field.

Garciaparra, a fine young man who's only fault may be that he internalizes too much, was a shadow of the player he was the year before. All parts of his performance plunged to new lows.

Quick on his feet, he lacked the instincts to steal bases at a high frequency. Flashy with the glove, he often struggled with the routine plays. Impatient at the plate, he fell behind in counts and rarely hit his way on base.

Only a hot-streak at the end of the season allowed him to post a .243 average at the plate, but his two home runs and 15 extra-base hits in 440 at bats were hardly what the organization was hoping to see. Throw in 50 errors, and this thing was quickly on the verge of spiraling out of control.

Even so, Garciaparra was happy with the way he ended the season on fire with the bat, and felt optimistic heading into 2004. Just when it looked like he might have turned the corner, though, more bad news struck. This time, it was an injury to his wrist sustained during spring training. Hoping it would improve on its own, it never did. The M's were forced to shut him down in April.

Garciaparra returned to the field in the summer, playing at High-A Inland Empire, and knew he had a lot to prove. Again, however, his efforts largely failed. Moved to second base from shortstop in the final month of the season to allow Erick Monzon to play in the six-hole, he batted only .226.

Three years down the drain. More than that, three years Michael Garciaparra would like to forget and get past.

Similar to the way fellow M's farmhands Chris Snelling and Ryan Anderson need to regain the confidence in their body, Garciaparra is now in a situation where he knows he must do the same with his psyche.

This winter, the rebuilding process started in the weight room, a place he ventured to every day of the offseason from November on while in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Every morning, he'd wake up and make the drive to Tempe and work out from 10-to-12:30 in an attempt to get bigger and stronger without losing speed.

Sounds like something a running back might do, but this workout program's intentions weren't to get to the endzone. They were followed strictly to get Garciaparra back on the right track.

Starting in January, the infielder started two-a-days, heading to the gym from 10-to-12 in the morning and then once more from 2-4:30 in the afternoon. Now up 15 points from his playing weight at the end of last season, a solid 187 pounds, Garciaparra feels readier than ever for the season ahead.

"I'm trying to put on weight going into spring, but I want to be able to use that weight," he said. "It's going to be important to use that weight and steal a couple more bags than I did last year too."

His new outlook doesn't just begin and end in the weight room, either.

"I did more baseball stuff this offseason earlier than I have in years past," he said. "I started swinging and taking ground balls earlier. Now I've been going to Peoria every morning to take ground balls. We also hit in the cage, hit in the field, and get instruction from a couple coaches down there."

Now almost 22 – his birthday is April, 2 – Garciaparra is making every effort to do less thinking, less internalizing than ever before. While many fans out there might think a player like this would head into his fourth pro season with a make-or-break attitude, that isn't the approach the infielder with the famous last name is taking heading into spring.

"I don't really have a greater sense of urgency, maybe a less sense of urgency," he said. "I think it might have made things more difficult on me in the past."

Shifting the way one thinks is easier said than done. I mean, ask Steve Sax how easy it was throwing to first base in the late 80's. Or maybe catch up to Mackey Sasser and see what the former catcher thinks about throwing a ball back to the pitcher. Thinking, or in this case, not thinking about an issue, is Garciaparra's biggest hurdle.

If he can overcome any self-doubt that may have crept in his head, if he can put the pressure of the past behind him, if he can control what he can control, things still may turn out okay for the one-time first-round pick.

Perhaps the best way to jump-start it all would be a quick start to the 2005 season.

"It's very important," said Garciappara, looking ahead to April, where he figures to repeat at Inland Empire. "That's why I'm doing all the training I'm doing. Confidence plays a big part in this game."

Another part of the game that Garciaparra needs to improve on, quite a bit at this point, is his ability at the plate.

Priority number one is to be more patient. He does that, and he knows good things will follow.

"My goal is to have better at bats," he said. "Not giving them away. Taking what I can get. Being more patient at the plate will help me out a lot."

How much it will help is hard to guess. And how much more improving Garciaparra can still make is just as up in the air. Time will tell.

Perhaps the only certainty at this point is the burning desire Garciaparra maintains to live up to the expectations every Mariners fan had for him on draft day, now going on four years ago.

"If there is anyone who says they don't worry about that, they are probably lying," he said. "I know what people think, and I'd like to prove a lot of people wrong that don't believe in me and a lot of people right that did believe in me when I was drafted."

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