CLEARWATER, Fla. - The gnawing part is that everything about him suggests John Mayberry Jr. is a player. He runs fast. He hits bombs. He can play leftfield, centerfield, first base. In his uniform, he is a 6-6 Adonis, his looks so good that Hollywood would pass on casting him as a ballplayer, on those very grounds.
And yet here he is, auditioning again at age 28, trying to prove - maybe even to himself - that last summer's power explosion was a start, not a blip.
And thus far, not proving much.
Mayberry owns a .188 average despite the second-most at-bats of anyone in camp. He says he's not pressing, and hitting coach Greg Gross speculated Thursday that reacquainting himself with first base - a position he played in college - might have something to do with it. But during a spring when the daily debate centers around replacing an offensive vacuum created by injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and the departure of Raul Ibanez, Mayberry's futility thus far is not exactly evoking images of say, Ben Francisco, a year ago.
That's a joke.
Benny, you might recall, tore the cover off the ball all spring in 2011 but lost his swing on the plane trip home. Mayberry is hoping to do the opposite.
"It's been a work in progress," he was saying before Thursday's 2-1 Phillies victory over Tampa Bay at Bright House Field. "Obviously, I wish that I had gotten off to a better start. But there's still a lot of baseball to be played. It's just one of those things where it could be as little as one at-bat you get locked in, and you go from there."
His career path suggests this is not just rah-rah gobbledygook. When he's locked in, as he was after tinkering with his swing late last summer, Mayberry can be an intimidating threat, especially against lefthanded pitching. The oddity of his spring - and maybe a bit of a disclaimer - is that he has only one hit in 23 at-bats against lefties. His average against righthanders - which have troubled him in the past even during good times - is a more respectable .261.
What does that mean? To me, it means Mayberry's struggles this spring are less about mechanics and more about mentality.
"You wish the guy who's trying to man his position would just say, 'Hey, I did OK last year, I'll just let it go and see what happens,' " Gross said. "The mind is a funny thing. You don't know how guys are going to react. And John did it last year. I'm sure there's something in the back of his mind: Which is it, the John of the year before or the John of last year? And I think we're all hoping it's the John of last year."
He will get an extended chance. His versatility is one assurance of that, especially with Howard out. The other assurance is that he plays for Charlie Manuel, who has occasionally lamented his own lack of opportunity at the major league level. Francisco didn't find his permanent seat on the bench until Domonic Brown was recalled in late May. Mayberry yo-yoed between the minors and the bigs until he was recalled for good in early July, crouching-tiger swing in tow.
We all saw what happened then. Mayberry hit .301 for the remainder of the season and banged 12 home runs in 163 at-bats. Given that Howard's first monster season did not occur until he was 26, or that Jayson Werth did not become an everyday guy until he was 29, or even that Ibanez did not find his groove until he was 30, it at least suggested another late bloomer.
Again, one look at the guy can make you a believer.
Not surprisingly given Francisco's plight of a year ago, Manuel has been guarded when asked to project Mayberry's future.
"He had earned the right to see if he can play every day, and he's going to get that chance just like we gave Francisco last year," the manager said the other day. "I'm not going to give a number of at-bats on John, but John's going to get a chance to play every day."
Also not surprisingly, Mayberry sees the Phillies rightfielder who preceded Francisco as his late-blooming model.
"Jayson Werth - I've seen it up close and personal," he said. "His persistence. Just continue to plug away. It's an admirable trait."
Sure is. But baseball's landscape is littered with the skeletons of once-promising prospects who plugged and plugged until they were finally told to go home.
Mayberry is not close to that, not after last summer's run. But it would sure be nice if he could "lock in" over these final few days, so we again can believe that 2011 was his late start, not his aberration.
Contact Sam Donnellon at email@example.com.
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