Quentin intensely driven to succeed
Returning from broken right wrist, slugger picking up where he left off last season
CHICAGO -- He is a ball of awkward energy, a hunchback of a man in the batter's box. He's part Hulk, and his body language suggests that you shouldn't talk to him, bother him or disturb him while he's preparing for his job. It's not that White Sox left fielder Carlos Quentin doesn't like you; it's just that he doesn't have time for you. You are a fan, the media, or anything else that is not a seamed white ball. That white ball is all that matters to him. It's what he obsesses over; it's what he covets; it's what drives him and preoccupies him all of the time.
It's the desire to drive that white ball which makes Quentin an anomaly to the people who cover his team, who play with him and who oppose him. The intensity with which Quentin plays is what drove him to an American League MVP-type season last year, and it is also what ended that campaign prematurely. Quentin, who has a team-leading eight home runs this season, went home last year without the hardware and instead with a broken right wrist, which he fractured by slamming his right hand on his bat in frustration after fouling off a pitch. It was a freak injury for a player whose rhythms and habits go beyond dedication and, from the outside, make him seem borderline crazy. As for the White Sox, who acquired him prior to last season from the Diamondbacks? They wouldn't have him change any of it.
"Why would he change?" White Sox general manager Ken Williams says. "I can say this about very few guys that I've come across in this game: It's hard for me to imagine him being more driven than he already is. But I think the important thing with him to note is he's one of the few players that does not play the game for statistics and numbers. He plays every game to win that game. And you see it the way he tries to take out the second baseman on the double play or goes first to third, or goes for a ball in the outfield.
"Yeah, he broke his hand and it hurt us last year but that same intensity was leading him toward the MVP, too. Sometimes the things that make you a success trip you up from time to time."
From the time he started playing baseball, Quentin said he learned to play the game with emotion and intensity. He excelled at San Diego University High School in both football and baseball, but his grades were what set him apart. A scholarship to Stanford University ensued, and it was there where Quentin -- who went undrafted out of high school -- established himself as a prospect. The Diamondbacks took him 29th overall in the 2003 draft, and as he advanced through the minor leagues he was billed as one of their top prospects in a system full of them. But by the winter of 2007, Arizona shuttled him to Chicago for minor league first baseman Chris Carter (the move allowed the D-backs to acquire All-Star right-hander Dan Haren in a separate deal).
It was a steal for the White Sox. For Quentin, after years of high expectations in Arizona, combined with disappointment after myriad injures prevented him from fulfilling that potential, the move was welcomed. That didn't make it easy at first, though. He now says he was able to learn from the experience.
"People can love you one second and hate you the next," Quentin, 26, says. "Everyone knows you and it's very personal and you get traded and it's all ended -- just immediately -- and you realize you're trying so hard to do well and now a decision is made and you can't do anything about it."
It was a loss of control that Quentin had to deal with. When he entered White Sox camp last spring, he said the team told him that his performance would dictate whether he would make the club. Quentin felt at ease: He was being treated like a man and appreciated the clean slate. He also said he was allowed to be himself; no one was trying to tell the Stanford guy to dumb down his game -- a common refrain Stanford players have heard over the years. A.J. Hinch knows about being labeled. He went to Stanford, then played in the majors for parts of seven seasons before joining the Diamondbacks' front office. Hinch is now the director of player development for Arizona, and one of his main tasks is overseeing the farm system. He got to know Quentin well, or as well as Quentin allows one to know him. Hinch says when he was playing he was often told to simplify his game, as coaches and teammates often assumed he was overthinking because of his pedigree.
"I feel like you automatically get nominated to be the player rep and you get a little bit of a tag as a thinker and an intelligent guy, which is a compliment," Hinch says. "But too much of it can be a detriment."
When Quentin was traded, he could have been typecast once again, but fortunately for him, his new general manager was a Stanford man himself. Williams was a major leaguer and a thinker, sometimes to a fault.
"I was a general manager at 36 years old for a reason, and I think my playing career was cut short because of it," Williams says. "There's a little bit of truth to that. But most of us weren't born very good to begin with. [Quentin's] different. He's good. It's all right to be good and analytical."
People have their perception of what baseball players should look like. This is a business and [Quentin] treats it like a business. He sleeps and drinks baseball.” -- Ken Griffey Jr.
Williams insisted on not changing anything about Quentin, and that included his approach at the plate. His stance is fairly compact, and he hunches as he gets as close to the plate as possible. Over the years, pitchers have not taken kindly to the approach, and Quentin set a minor league record after being hit 43 times in 2004. It's what's gotten him here, and despite manager Ozzie Guillen's asking him to wear protective gear, Quentin says he feels it hinders him. When he steps into the box, it's the part of the game he finds most challenging, and he wants to be free of everything but his focus. Quentin says it's the pure competition of going against another man, and then hopefully winning the battle, that gives him satisfaction.
"The moments in the box, I wouldn't say you enjoy them, but you learn more about yourself," Quentin says.
Leading up to the game Quentin is constantly moving, shadow-swinging his way through the clubhouse, lifting weights and studying a computer program that trains his eyes, a muscle exercise he does before every game. His emotions are all wrapped up into preparing for the opponent.
"He loves playing baseball and I think every day he shows up and just wants to help his team win," says Dustin Pedroia, a Pac-10 opponent of Quentin's who played at Arizona State and was the American League's MVP last season. "He doesn't feel like he needs to talk to anybody. I respect the way he plays the game."
Once the game starts, a calm envelops Quentin. His enjoyment is achieved in doing small things, even if the look on his face suggests he's miserable.
"There's three type of people," says Ken Griffey Jr., a teammate of Quentin's for the final two months of last season. "There's ones in baseball who have the game face, the ones who look normal and the ones that look like me and smile all the time. None of them are wrong, but people have their perception of what baseball players should look like. This is a business and [Quentin] treats it like a business. He sleeps and drinks baseball."
Griffey says that Quentin reminds him of Paul O'Neill, the animated outfielder for the Reds and Yankees who often took his frustration out on the nearest watercooler. Griffey says if Quentin were harming himself off the field, it would be an issue. But teammates have accepted Quentin for who he is, which Griffey says is "a gamer." Although Quentin would likely rather take a 95 mph fastball in the ribs than be interviewed -- especially about himself -- when he allows time to a reporter he gives thoughtful answers, and reveals a deep introspection about himself and his approach to his job, especially when in the batter's box.
"You're the center of the game, you're the center of attention," Quentin says. "That's such a rush, every time you do it, four or five times a game, it's a rush. And then you get a hit, and it's even more of a rush. The adrenaline flowing inside is unbelievable and I think every player knows how that feels. If you get a hit, there's no way a player does not enjoy that, and I'm the same way. I just don't have to have a smile on my face."
When Quentin propelled himself into the MVP conversation last season -- he hit .288 with a team-leading 36 home runs and 100 RBIs -- that same intensity is in part what took him down. His frustration led him to break his right wrist. He says in the past he would have beat himself up about it, but because his team still made the playoffs and because he was personally able to grow -- and felt allowed to under the leadership of Guillen and Williams -- he came to peace with how his season ended. He says he's trying to find other ways of releasing his emotion, because in the past bottling it up proved harmful. So he steps out of the box, kicks the dirt and picks up a few blades of grass, or when he returns to the dugout, he walks into the tunnel and yells to himself. He said he asked Guillen and his teammates that if they sense he's about to lose it to tell him. There were a few times in spring training when Guillen did just that, Quentin unaware he was bordering on possible self-destruction.
"He's still intense," Guillen says. "When he wasn't playing he felt guilty, he felt bad because we were in the pennant race [and] he lost a tremendous opportunity to be MVP. He learned from that lesson. I respect that. I want my players with the same intensity, I want [him] to be himself. I don't want him to change."
Adds Quentin: "I was taught how to play the game a certain way throughout my life. I've tried to change it and I guess I've slowly adapted it to hopefully be more successful. I love baseball. It's just how it is for me and it's part of who I am. I accept it. I realize it."
Quentin hasn't changed, but there have been small signs. He says that when he's not in-season, he's a different person. In fact, in a commercial for the White Sox currently airing on local TV, Quentin is seen shadow-swinging his bat -- which he says he does often because sometimes he just gets "lost" in his thoughts -- in different locations all around the team's complex. He doesn't say a word in the ad as his teammates poke fun at his eccentric side. The public relations staff approached Quentin during the spring, and he said that was the smart move. And the PR people convinced him the commercial would be done in a tactful way.
And the team has embraced that quirkiness -- which the manager himself is also known to have. After all, when Quentin first arrived he was told all he needed to do was perform and he'd fit in. More than a year later, the team has stuck to its word.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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