SAN DIEGO — As Jay Bruce’s slump ceased this past week — he had hits in five straight games, including the game-winning homer and two other hits Tuesday — he reflected with an awareness, but not a concern, that he had been having a hard time.
“I do my best not to let my emotions get involved with my play, because what I’ve come to learn about my career is I believe in the work of it all,” Bruce said. “You can’t fall for it. ‘It’ being the good, the bad, the OK. You just have to work, you have to prepare and you have to come out here and give yourself a chance to be successful.”
That philosophy is a common one among major-leaguers, particularly veterans, but it also is a learned one. Mets’ rightfielder Bruce was fortunate to learn that lesson early in his career, he said.
July 2009. Citi Field. Reds-Mets. Bruce, 22 and about a year removed from his major-league debut as the top prospect in baseball, was nearing the All-Star break hitting .207, a number he can recall off the top of his head.
David Wright dumped a bloop into right. Bruce slid, missed the catch and broke his right wrist, with his glove hand snapping back as it hit the grass and the trapped ball coming loose.
He missed nine weeks.
“It was the best thing to happen to me,” Bruce said.
Bruce never had failed before, at least not at baseball. He was a stud as a Texas high school player, was drafted by the Reds in the first round in 2005, flew through the minors and arrived in the majors with immense hype — although he barely was able to legally drink.
During Bruce’s time on the disabled list, a pair of Cincinnati teammates taught him how to deal with his first significant failure.
One was Scott Rolen, acquired by the Reds from the Blue Jays three weeks after Bruce broke his wrist. Bruce immediately gravitated to Rolen, a seven-time All-Star. Rolen helped Bruce toward a paradigm shift in evaluating how well he was doing.
“He said you should figure out a way to quantify success differently,” Bruce said. “Maybe success isn’t two hits a night. Maybe success isn’t hitting .270 or .280 or .300 or whatever. It has nothing to do with the results on the field. It was all before the game. Are you mentally prepared? Are you physically prepared? Did you get your rest? All that to me is success now.
“It has to carry over because you have to have results, but I just tried my best to ignore everything except my work.”
The other was Joey Votto, who was a fellow major-league newbie but who had the work ethic of a vet. Both were Reds rookies in 2008, but Votto — who didn’t have nearly the hype Bruce did — “is 50 times the player I am,” Bruce said.
At the time, Bruce didn’t have much as far as a set routine. Sometimes he’d hit off a tee, sometimes he’d hit soft toss. The daily preparation didn’t need to be regimented or regular, because baseball had always come so easily.
Watching Votto changed his mind.
“His work ethic, his plan, everything he does and went through and continues to do is something I have a huge [respect for],” Bruce said. “It’s the most relentless I have ever seen. I always say he’s the most diligent and focused worker that I have ever met in my life.”
That’s how, in two months during the summer of 2009, Bruce learned how to work hard and work right. He came back that September and hit .326. The next season, he was an above-average big-leaguer for the first time. The season after that, he was an All-Star at age 24.
The specific work Bruce puts in changes periodically, but the mindset and philosophy are maintained through hot streaks and slumps, including this month’s slump and a brutal stretch in 2014-15.
“I was miserable, man. I was miserable,” Bruce said. “I didn’t know what was going on. What kind of kept me sane is the fact that I was working my [expletive] off and saying, listen, I can sleep at night, because when I go to sleep, I know I’m working and preparing and trying my best to put myself in a position to be successful. It all comes from those guys.”