SALT LAKE CITY — C.J. Cron, the former Ute baseball player, is impressing the devil out of the Angels during his first month in the major leagues. His three home runs, nine RBI and .300 average amounts to an unexpected siege.
But as history proves, if there’s one thing harder than taking or building a city, it’s maintaining it. You might say the enemy is always at the gates of Jericho. Cron will see follow-up visits by opposing pitchers, and they won’t be social calls. He’ll be crowded with fastballs, tempted with bait and proffered only pitches he least likes.
That’s the prediction of Chris Shelton who had his own fantastic spring in the majors before things went south. His advice to Cron: know and be himself.
“He got to the bigs real fast,” Shelton says. “He needs to understand what got him there will probably keep him there.”
In other words, don’t do what Shelton did.
Now finishing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah, Shelton had one glorious month in 2006, when he set the MLB record for home runs (nine) in the first 13 games of the season. He was on track to park an unthinkable 112 pitches in a year. Instead, he was back in the minors by July. Though he was recalled later that season, he never reached the majors in 2007. By 2009, plagued by a knee injury, he was history, both literally and metaphorically.
“I tried to live up to that expectation people put on me, and that wasn’t me,” says Shelton, a former Salt Lake Community College and Utah player. “That was a special time, and it was something I was capable of doing for a stretch, but not consistently.”
Impressive as Cron’s MLB start has been, it pales compared to Shelton’s start. Cron had five hits in his first nine at-bats, with one double. Shelton made the opening day lineup for the Detroit Tigers in 2006, after hitting 18 homers the previous year. His first-day totals: two home runs and a single. He was seeing the ball like a nighthawk. That April he logged 10 homers, 17 runs and 20 RBI with a .326 batting average.
Yet some pitchers figured him out early, such as Gil Meche of Seattle. Shelton got one hit in eight career at-bats against the right-hander. Four of the outs were strikeouts.
“He was one guy that I just couldn’t pick up the slider, and he knew it, and took advantage of it,” Shelton says.
The problem wasn’t just increasing competition as the weeks passed, though that was part of it. “They get you out on a certain play, they’ll stay there until you prove otherwise,” he says. “Once you do, they’ll find something else out on you and make the adjustments right back.”
The other problem was his own making. Fans called the redhead “Red Pop,” “Orange Crush” and “Big Red,” when they weren’t calling him Babe Ruth. Though he says he didn’t try to hit home runs every time up, he was “just trying too hard to live up to expectations.”
Not his expectations, he notes, but Joe the barber’s, Sharon the banker’s and Alex the butcher’s.
The more he thought about it, the harder it became. He hit .216 and .231 in his last two seasons. After his hot streak of 10 homers, he logged just eight the rest of his career.
An assistant coach at Cottonwood High, Shelton has never met Cron, though both played for the Utes and both played first base. He says Cron has the talent to stay in the majors, but should soak up advice from superstar teammate Albert Pujols.
“He’ll teach you more than you’ll ever want to know,” Shelton says.
He is philosophical but not bitter about his own brief ride.
“I tell people I knew it was going to change at some point — and always hoped it wouldn’t — but in my heart I knew it would,” Shelton says. “It was a ride I’ll never forget. I loved every second.”
Even the part where the walls came tumblin’ down.
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