WALLA WALLA, Wash. – For baseball players other than pitchers, there is nothing more dreaded than the hitting slump.

There are times when the best of hitters, from the Little Leagues through the Major Leagues, find themselves slumping at the plate, unable to buy a hit, as they say, or hit their way out of a wet paper bag.

                Jeff Cirillo talking to Whitman baseball team

So when former Major League All-Star Jeff Cirillo was on the Whitman College campus last week, talking about his most epic slump-busting effort, the Missionary baseball team was all ears.

Cirillo was a career .307 hitter in eight seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, and he hit .326 with 115 RBI for the Colorado Rockies during the 2000 season.

But after signing a two-year free agent contract with the Seattle Mariners, his batting average slumped to .249 in 2002 and skidded to .205 in 2003. He played in just 33 games for the San Diego Padres in 2004 before being released.

“It got to the point in 2004 when I was pitching batting practice to my six-year-old son in the backyard, and I thought to myself, if he asks me how to hit, I won’t know what to tell him,” Cirillo told a gathering of Whitman’s baseball squad.

“That’s how screwed up I was,” he said. “I was totally lost at the plate.”

And Cirillo wasn’t shy about tracing his hitting woes to the coaching staff at Seattle, which at time was led by volatile manager Lou Piniella and hitting coach Gerald Perry.

“Not a big fan of Lou Piniella and that style of coaching,” he admitted. “I’m just not. I put enough pressure on myself when I was playing, and there was always the pressure to do well and perform for the fans.”

Piniella and Perry began tinkering with his approach at the plate, he said. “They told me I had to do this, and I had to do that. They wanted me to do a toe-tap as a timing mechanism before every pitch, which was working at the time for Chipper Jones and Sammy Sosa.

That approach didn’t work for Cirillo, who says he became so worried about getting hits to please the coaching staff, that he developed a bad case of what he called the igottas.

                   Jeff Cirillo

“If you’re a pitcher, you think I gotta throw a strike. If you’re a batter, you think I gotta get a hit. I gotta, I gotta, I gotta. Well, the igottas don’t work. Hitting became such a battle. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it was they wanted me to do.”

Cirillo, who now makes his home in Bellevue, Wash., said he wasn’t ready to let his career end on a “sour note” when he was released by the Padres in 2004.

“I knew there was only way to get my stroke back,” he said. “I knew I had to be hitting again in live game situations, when it counts and where it matters.”

So, Cirillo made phone calls and found a roster spot on a winter league team in Mexico. “And we’re not talking about Cabo with your mom and dad,” he said. “We’re talking about central Mexico and extreme poverty. I was nervous about being down there, and I took a bodyguard with me.”

With no one looking over his shoulder, Cirillo used his time in Mexico to reprogram his former hitting approach.

“The reason I got off track was because I stopped trusting my own skills,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are playing baseball, going to school or holding a job. You have to trust your own skill set and believe in your own abilities.

“Once I got past the bad habits I had developed in Seattle and was back to concentrating on the baseball, I knew I was back. I got myself three extra years in the Major Leagues by going to Mexico, working through my problems and trusting myself again.”

Not that his final shot in the Major Leagues came easily.

“I had to beg, borrow and steal to get back with the Brewers,” he said. “The only reason they took me back was because of my pedigree and the good relationships I still had in Milwaukee. I had always tried to be a positive influence, and I didn’t burn any bridges when I left Milwaukee earlier.”

Cirillo, a third baseman for much of his career, hit .281 for the Brewers in 2005 and .319 in 2006. At age 37, he split the 2007 season between Arizona and Minnesota, hitting .249.

“The drive to finish on a positive note is what got me three more years in the Big Leagues,” he said. “I was able to fight my way back to the point where I could tell myself that it was okay to retire.”

Cirillo figures to be a frequent visitor to Walla Walla in the years ahead because of his ownership interest in the Walla Walla Sweets, a new summer-league team for collegiate baseball players. The Sweets will play their games at Borleske Stadium, which is also home for the Whitman baseball team.

            Taking questions

“Whitman is a great school,” Cirillo told the school’s baseball players. “You’ve already accomplished a lot just to get into Whitman. The dedication you’ve shown by getting into this school is the same kind of dedication it takes to be a successful athlete. You should cherish your opportunity to play baseball at a school like this. Believe in yourselves and trust your skills.”

Confidence, consistency and dedication are the keys to success in athletics or any endeavor, Cirillo said.  

“There were always guys more talented than me in college and the Minor Leagues,” he noted. “But the window of opportunity is small and a lot of those guys got sidetracked. They weren’t focused, they weren’t consistent and they weren’t willing to do what was necessary to get to the Major Leagues.”

Once the games begin, many players lose sight of the importance of consistency, Cirillo said.

“What does a pitching coach want? Just throw strikes consistently. Same thing with the hitting coach. He wants good, consistent at-bats. Fielders, just make the routine plays.

“Consistency is what coaches want. So, trust your skills, be consistent and play your own game. Stay in your own box.”

To help reinforce his pursuit of consistency, Cirillo followed the same routine prior to all of his games. “If we had a 7 p.m. game, I’d get to the ballpark at 2:30, and I’d go through the same routine every day, starting with hitting off a tee. The drills and the preparation never changed. It was monotonous.”

Once the games began, confidence was paramont, Cirillo says. “You need to have the mindset that you are better than any player you are up against. You have to believe you are the best. None of this igotta stuff. I am the best.”

As he stepped into the batter’s box, Cirillo said, he made a practice of tapping the plate three times as the words “I am great” ran through his mind.

One player asked Cirillo if he did anything to help extend his hitting “hot streaks.”

“Get a book before the season starts and write things down,” he suggested. “When you’re hot, write down the reasons you think you are hitting so well. Then, when you’re slumping, go back to what you wrote and use it for positive feedback.”

Cirillo said he isn’t a huge fan of analyzing video of at-bats in response to routine slumps that come and go with all players.

“With the video capability they have now, you can nitpick every swing you take,” he said. “You can smoke a ball and see later on the video that you were out in front of the ball just a little bit.”

When working through a routine slump, Cirillo said he would ask himself three questions before using video to work on mechanical fine points.

“First, did I see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand? If I don’t pick up the ball until it’s five feet out of his hand, I’m already late.

“Two, was my upper body loose? Was I relaxed? Tight, tense muscles move slowly.

“And, finally, did I swing at strikes throughout the at-bat. If I’m doing those three things correctly and still struggling, then I’ll look more closely at the mechanics. Otherwise, simplify things as much as you can. Don’t overthink the game, keep things in perspective and control what you can control.”

Cirillo remembers when former player Kevin Seitzer, one of his mentors in the Major Leagues, gave him this bit of perspective:

“He said, 'Jeff, if you go 0 for 4 at the plate, you’re not that bad, and if you go 4 for 4, you’re not that good.'”

“This is a game that can drive you crazy at times,” Cirillo added. “If the pitcher throws the ball on the black (corner), there isn’t much you can do. Or, you can take four great swings and end the at-bat with a pop-up.”

In some cases, when the hits aren’t falling, hard work is the answer, Cirillo said.

“You don’t make it to the Big Leagues unless you love the game, and at times it's a labor of love. If you are in an 0 for 12 slump, you take your bat to the cage and do more work.”

                            Jeff Cirillo and Whitman baseball players and coaches

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CONTACT: Dave Holden
Sports Information Director
Whitman College, Walla Walla, Wash.
509 527-5902; holden@whitman.edu