The quarantine lasted a couple of weeks and Paul DeJong, his coronavirus case not awful — a fever for a couple of days and no sense of taste for about a week — used the time to enrich his brain and his soul.
At the advice of his agent Burton Rocks, the Cardinals’ All-Star shortstop watched some old movies like “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Grumpy Old Men,” the latter of which he especially enjoyed not primarily because of the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau pairing but rather because he loves ice fishing. He read some Greek mythology as well as some philosophy from Rudolf Steiner.
And he thought deeply about the way he does his job. The 27-year-old, whose career already was off to a darn good start, decided that he wants to emulate a Cardinals teammate of his, who in turn sounds quite a lot like a very popular Yankee.
“I can remember seeing him on the field with a similar type of demeanor as Goldie,” DeJong said of DJ LeMahieu.
To be clear, I volunteered LeMahieu’s name when, in our conversation, DeJong explained how much — and why — he admired Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Said DeJong: “He’s our best player by every standard. Watching his body language, his comfort level, his concentration and focus, I learned from that.”
He digested Goldschmidt’s game with a different eye during his quarantine, as one of the higher-profile players to get stricken by the Cardinals’ outbreak that halted their season for over two weeks. At home, watching his teammates play on TV, DeJong developed a greater appreciation as well as a resolve to replicate Goldschmidt.
His time alone, DeJong said, turned into “an introspective journey on how I want to carry myself on the field and get the most out of myself as a player.”
The path to doing that, he said, is “Being present and in the moment. So many times you go up there and you want to make something happen. Then it turns into something you don’t always do. You swing too hard at a hanging slider and pop it up. You wind up chasing stuff. You miss the little cues.
“The game happens so fast, you need to be on autopilot. When you’re trying to do something, you lose a little accuracy, a little speed. You need to trust yourself.”
The word “autopilot” made me think of LeMahieu, whom his Yankees teammates have nicknamed “The Machine.” DeJong saw enough of the second baseman when he was with the Rockies to validate the comparison.
“He’s a textbook guy,” DeJong said of LeMahieu, currently on the injured list with a sprained left thumb. “He never pulls the ball. He’s seeing the ball for that much longer because he’s going up there looking to pull only in the perfect scenario. His margin for error is huge, and that’s why he’s as great a hitter as he is. He’s a special bat.”
DeJong’s best guess as to how he contacted COVID was that, after a game in Minnesota, he sat next to an asymptomatic teammate (who later tested positive) for a short while — maybe not even 15 minutes — as they ate a post-game dinner. Even as he began to feel better, he repeatedly tested positive before the tide turned.
He has tried his best to turn this rough go into something that can make him better. And with the season having made it this far despite the multiple outbreaks, DeJong expressed supreme, understandable confidence that this season will finish.
“The mental and psychological things we went through warrants a World Series,” he said, laughing. If it’s a Cardinals-Yankees Fall Classic, with Goldschmidt and LeMahieu facing off and DeJong attempting to emulate both, we can call it Rise of the Machines.
Let’s catch up on Pop Quiz questions:
–From George Goodman of The Bronx: An episode of “The Bullwinkle Show” (commonly referred to as “Rocky & Bullwinkle”) references an outfielder-first baseman who played for the Dodgers and Cardinals. Name him.
–From Sam Lerman of Queens: In a 1986 episode of “The Golden Girls,” Dorothy undergoes surgery to treat Morton’s neuroma. Which current player and former Most Valuable Player underwent surgery to treat the same condition?
–From Russell Cherkes of Hauppauge: Who played Babe Ruth in the 1942 film “The Pride of the Yankees”?
The always great “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” just ran a terrific feature on Marlins rookie infielder Eddy Alvarez, a former medal-winning speed skater in the Olympics (which is insane when you think about it). You can catch this and all of the show’s segments on HBO Max.
Your Pop Quiz answers:
1. Wally Moon. 2. Mike Trout. 3. Babe Ruth
If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]
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