An athlete faces unbelievable pressure on a daily basis, and the term "putting an 800 pound gorilla on your back," derives from the meaning of placing even more undue pressure on yourself. It is challenging enough to play a difficult game well, but to do something that calls attention to yourself, either by statement or deed, is like placing an 800 pound gorilla on your back and still trying to walk. Definitely not an easy task, and certainly not conducive to a sterling performance. Nevertheless, athletes do it all the time...and Ruth was about to confront this gorilla with an act that is discussed to this day by baseball lovers everywhere.
One can still see this towering figure, with legs much too thin to carry such a heavy body, striding to the plate in a 4-4 tie. As he arrived at home plate, he glanced around at the hostile crowd and suddenly did the unthinkable, something sure to place more pressure on a hitter than would ever be induced by an opposing pitcher...he pointed to the center field bleachers in disdain. The point was remarkable for its clarity, surely even the mighty Ruth couldn't be foolish enough to be pointing to the very area where he intended to hit the ball. After all, this was still the World Series, where pressure drips from every vessel of your body, and heroes are made and destroyed in less time than it takes to flick your bat at a 95 mph fastball. Yet Ruth not only placed that 800 pound gorilla on his back with his pointed finger directed towards center field, but shortly thereafter carried that gorilla round the bases, as with a quick swing of his powerful wrists, sent the sphere sailing deep into center field, precisely where he had just pointed.
The fans were stunned, teammates were spellbound, Ruth merely amused at all the commotion....after all, if a larger than life character like Babe Ruth couldn't carry a gorilla on his back, who could? And, my friends, the lesson learned on that October day in 1932 is …"putting an 800 pound on your back with full intention, fits best if you have the ability to carry it well"...as Ruth certainly had!
The story of "putting a gorilla on your back" carries special meaning today for one Bobby Abreu, he of the quick bat and powerful arm, who currently occupies the same right field position as the immortal Babe did, though 60 years later. As has been documented on more than one occasion, Abreu is quite possibly the most gifted Phillie player on a team that carries gifted players by the bushel. On a team with a veritable Who's Who of the Rich and Famous, it is Abreu who carries the best bat, has the strongest arm, scores the most runs, leads the team in doubles, generally can be counted on to hit over 20 home runs, throws out base runners with alarming frequency.... and has time to clean the clubhouse every other Friday! Yet there is one thing that Abreu refuses to do.... he refuses to bat lead off on a team that has precious little else to call a lead off hitter.
For all their talents, this current edition of the Philadelphia Phillies is virtually bereft of anyone who can answer the call from the lead off spot....except Mr. Abreu. You see, Abreu is one of the most gifted of souls who is actually a free swinger who walks with tremendous regularity. He is a living breathing on base machine, able to coax walks as easily as he dispenses with base hits.... a perfect elixir for what ails the Phils. And when Abreu reluctantly answers the call from the lead off spot, he produces where it matters most, in the won-lost column. The Phils have clearly shown a greater propensity to win games when Abreu bats lead off than when he hits in his more popular middle of the order slot. Yet, Abreu, recently was unable to be convinced of his teams need in this area.... and decided to put that 800 pound gorilla on his back. He chose to go back to his more comfortable spot in the middle of the Phils perceived Murders Row, along with Thome and Burrell. You see, athletes, for better or worse, are viewed in an entirely different light than the rest of us normal human beings. If a doctor doesn't feel comfortable performing a certain operation, he is applauded for his strength of character, not to mention the concern for his patient. If a mechanic doesn't feel qualified to fix a certain auto part, the world goes about its merry way thinking that it's better to be honest than foolish. However, when an athlete, in a team sport that counts on unity for top performance over a long season decides he prefers to pick and choose where he will hit in the order, especially in such a demanding city as Philadelphia, he has placed that gorilla squarely in the center of his back and said...watch me now!
For better or worse, Abreu has placed incredible pressure on himself to produce greater numbers from the middle of the order after his decision. He will no longer be judged on the standards he has set by his past performance. Those standards vanished the same moment his name disappeared from the number one slot in the batting order and was placed back at spot number five. Abreu raised the bar for his performance when he made this decision, because right or wrong, he appeared to state in unspoken words that his performance was more important than the teams. This is not necessarily an indictment of his character or his concern for his teammates or team. By all account, Abreu is well liked, plays hard daily and is never a discipline problem. As I have written before, there are better players in the National League...but not many.
However, Abreu will not be judged by the standards set by a man who willingly accepts his spot in the order, wherever that spot is, but by a man, who believes he will produce in greater numbers from the middle of the order. Fair enough...as long as his production is steady and the Phils win. In fact, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that in his past two games back in his comfortable middle of the order spot, Abreu has homered twice, doubled once, scored several runs, and generally made himself a royal pain to the erstwhile first place Red Sox. Two victories later, and with great assistance from Abreu, the Phils are once again a happy and successful bunch.... though still without a leadoff hitter. For in the glory of their triumphs, there was one glaring red flag continuing to wave in the wind.... and that was the total lack of production from the Phils lead off spot.
So, unless, or until this situation is solved, it will continue to nip at the Phillies achilles' heel as a potential problem area. And the problem area will be as easy to solve as the mathematical equation that shows the sum difference between first and fifth... places in the order where Abreu has batted. How this problem plays itself out will determine how heavy the gorilla feels between the two broad shoulders on Abreu's back? And whether, like Babe Ruth, he can take that gorilla and easily carry it around the bases.... after his latest home run!
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