SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It was September and Michael Cuddyer, a career .271 hitter until his 13th big-league summer, was going to win a batting title. All he had to do was stay upright. Not give in to it. Stack capable at-bats upon capable at-bats, the way he had for five months, for 500 at-bats before. The Colorado Rockies were in last place again, and that stunk, but the schedule showed more games left, more at-bats left, and he was going to win a batting title if the sky didn't fall, and that was something.
Thing is, the whole experience felt weird to him. It seemed so personal, so slightly imperfect, the chase for batting average points like a beautiful painting well framed and tacked to the wall but gnawingly, almost imperceptibly, crooked. He was a team guy, as much as the game allowed anyway. The team was done. And he was counting hits. Hell, everybody was counting his hits. And that wasn't him.
"It wasn't the best feeling in the world," he recalled.
Years ago, when he was younger and new at this, the game would move a little too fast for Cuddyer, and he would worry about that, and then he could hardly sleep or eat, and that would show up in his batting average, and he would worry more.
He was becoming an everyday player, or trying anyway, and that was important to him. It's one thing to become a big leaguer, another to make it a career, and so the balance between selling himself out to the greater good and chasing his own numbers became a moving target. The experience wore painfully on him.
"Things started unraveling," he said.
So he returned to Chesapeake, Virginia, after the 2005 season, his first as a regular for the Minnesota Twins, and decided – for better or worse – to never seek another individual statistic. He'd give himself over to the game, to every game, and live with the consequences, and sleep and eat again. He returned in 2006 to his best statistical season. The Twins won 96 games. Cuddyer had himself a career plan.
Along came September 2013, and a month he'd lived over and over so many years ago.
"It was the same feeling," he said, "living and dying by getting a base hit or not."
He stood in the box and something had changed. He wasn't quite comfortable. A pair of oh-fers in mid-September cost him the batting lead to Chris Johnson, by a point. Jayson Werth, Yadier Molina and Freddie Freeman lurked. Good, capable at-bats would be fine. But Cuddyer needed hits.
"A weird dynamic," Cuddyer said.
He batted .370 the rest of the way. Turned out, he batted .385 in September. He finished at .331, 10 points ahead of Johnson, 60 points higher than his career average, 47 points better than he'd ever hit. On the final day of the season, he could let it go again, free of the drama, the thrill, the achievement, the bouts of weirdness in the batter's box. And it could just be glorious.
"Oh, it's extremely special," he said. "To have your name in the history books as a batting champion, it's just extremely special."
He loved the other names on the list. His boyhood hero, Don Mattingly, is on there. And his former teammate, Joe Mauer. Lots of Rockies, of course.
"And there's names that aren't on the list," Cuddyer said, "that give you chills."
That the batting title came from nowhere, and in the months after he turned 34, when it seemed we all had a pretty good notion of the ballplayer Michael Cuddyer was, seemed particularly satisfying to Cuddyer. He'd worked hard for this, and grew a little more into the game when he changed to a more aggressive two-strike approach, and started last season hot. Yes, it's almost strange when a Rockie doesn't win the batting title. And it was interesting that when one did, it wasn't Carlos Gonzalez or Troy Tulowitzki. While the natural assumption may be that Cuddyer's season was created by Coors Field, he did hit .311 on the road. Of the eight batting titles won by Rockies (Andres Galarraga at Mile High Stadium, Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Gonzalez, Cuddyer and three by Larry Walker at Coors Field), Cuddyer's home batting average (.356) is the lowest by 20 points.
Hey, it's better to hit there. Just is. But it's not everything.
"I didn't hit .500 at home," Cuddyer said with a smile.
He did, however, hit .426 on the first pitch. He did hit .263 with two strikes, when up until last season he hit .214. He fell into a routine with tee work, and he stopped caring so much about striking out, and the contact was better and so were the results.
"For me, it means my heart doesn't start racing [at two strikes]," he said. "I'm not nervous. I'm not scared to strike out. At the same time, I'm looking to put the ball in play with authority. And that was the thing. I wouldn't say I was comfortable, but I wasn't uncomfortable with two strikes. I wouldn't panic."
In the end, a million small pieces fell right, and September passed without incident, and Michael Cuddyer won a batting title, and he went home to Chesapeake, Virginia and decided he'd found something really great in himself.
Why now? He smiled.
"That's a good question," he said. "A great question."