CHICAGO -- Five hours before the first pitch last night at Comiskey Park, the sound of a bat meeting a baseball echoed through a corridor beneath the stands. Crack. Crack. Crack. The sound of Chris Hoiles still trying to get his season started. On the sixth day of July.
Alone in a fluorescent-lighted batting cage, dressed in a black jersey and gray pants, Hoiles swung at pitches delivered by a machine, then hit some balls off a batting tee. His teammates still weren't due at the park for another hour when he finished his extra session of batting practice.
The slumping life is a solitary one. And brother, is Hoiles slumping.
"I start slow every year," he said when he was done, "but never quite this slow."
Slow as in a .184 average before last night's game, almost halfway through the season. Hardly what the Orioles envisioned when they signed him to a five-year, $17.25 million contract last winter. They expected him to anchor the bottom third of their batting order, as he has for three seasons. Instead, they're waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
Hoiles doesn't deny that the combination of the poor numbers and the big contract are bothering him. "I'd be lying if I said they weren't; there's more pressure to produce," he said. But he also expects to begin producing more soon, and he has evidence on his side. His career average is 22 points higher after the All-Star break.
"All I can say is, judge me by my numbers in October," he said. "They'll be where they're supposed to be."
L Meanwhile, the Orioles continue to wait, and wait, and wait.
"If he's a second half [of the season] hitter, well, we're coming up on the second half," manager Phil Regan said yesterday.
If that sounds like the early stirrings of organizational exasperation, what did you expect?
"He's a 25-homer guy, and we need him," Regan said. "We're just going to keep playing him until. . ."
Until when? It's a pointless question. Having signed Hoiles to a contract far more generous than even he expected, the Orioles aren't making any moves at his position.
In fact, the wise-guy explanation for Hoiles' slump is that he is still stunned by the contract the Orioles offered him, a contract already being trumpeted around the league as one of the worst in recent years. Hoiles admitted yesterday that he was surprised by it.
"When I said I wanted a multi-year deal, I was thinking, like, two or three years," he said. "When they came out with five years, I thought, 'Yeah, that's unbelievable, especially for a catcher.' I was real excited about it."
He should have been. It was the longest contract signed by any major-league catcher in 12 years. For a 30-year-old with a .267 career average and 80 lifetime home runs.
No one will accuse the Orioles of playing hardball there. Or playing it smart, either. In 1994 Hoiles hit below .200 (and well below the league average) on first pitches, with two strikes in the count and when behind in the count. He amassed the vast majority of his hits when he was ahead in the count. In other words, he needed the ball fed to him.
That's hardly the kind of player in whom a team should invest a five-year deal. (Hoiles is hitting .101 this year with two strikes on him. Eight hits in 79 at-bats.)
Yet, of course, there also is much to recommend Hoiles, primarily his 20 homers in 1992, 29 in 1993 and 19 by August 12 last year.
"It's not like they offered me the money off one year," Hoiles said. "I've been doing the same thing for a few years here."
And he is hitting for power this year. He has eight home runs, putting him on a pace to hit close to 20 despite his slump.
Yet no one is close to satisfied, not Hoiles and certainly not the team. Thus, the early batting sessions, which have been on-going for more than a week. And thus, the debate about Hoiles' mechanics.
Regan said the Orioles are trying to correct a flaw in his swing, a loop that causes him to come underneath pitches.
"We want him to flatten out a little," Regan said. "He does it fairly well in batting practice and has trouble carrying it into the game."
Hoiles is highly coachable and open to suggestions, yet skeptical about making major changes.
"You get into trouble when you start overhauling things," he said. "Basically, hitting is all rhythm and timing. . . . And when you don't have those things, you struggle.
Hoiles' slump has been so bad this year that, he said, "there were a couple of times when I thought I'd never get another hit. But that's behind me now. I'm starting to feel better."
In the fifth inning last night, some six hours after he stood alone in the batting cage beneath the stands, he banged a double off the left-field wall, contributing to a run-scoring inning. Then he singled in the seventh, and again in the ninth, giving him seven hits in his past 12 at-bats. Raising his average 14 points in one night, to .198. A beginning? Maybe, just maybe. And if so, long overdue.