Every player dreams about finding The Key.
For some, it's a trick pitch - a knuckler or spitter. For others, it's an altered batting stance, a new pitching windup, a differently weighted bat or . . .
Or any darn thing from hypnotism to Buddhism to magic socks to make a terrifyingly capricious game seem simple.
Doug DeCinces believes - no, he almost prays - that he has discovered his key.
"I've found it," says the Baltimore Oriole third baseman.
"I just want to keep everything like it is now. Not change a thing," said DeCinces, the American League's July Player of the Month. He hit 13 homers and drove in 35 runs in less than six weeks (37 games).
On the last day of June, DeClinces' spirits had hit bottom. The aggressive, self-confident 27-year-old had as many errors as R.B.I - 12 and .226 batting average.
DeCinces decided that if he did not want desperation to become his teacher, he had better turn to batting instructor Jim Frey.
Memorial Stadium had less than a dozen people in it as Frey leaned on the batting cage, murmuring words to DeCinces: "Be totally relaxed. Cut out all the pressing fidgets. Lay the bet on your shoulder and just throw it at the ball."
A ball jumped into the left-field stands. "Yeah, yeah," grunted DeCinces, hat off, sweat popping.
Then a popup. "Don't worry," Frey said. "Just relax. Give it a chance."
After a promising session, full of singing line drives, DeCinces seemed relieved - a man clutching at straws who had found a whole bale of hay.
"I don't know yet," he said. "But it sure feels good."
Now, DeCinces, one of the hottest sluggers in baseball, is sure.
"I've changed my stance, my hand position, my thinking," he said. "I'm almost totally different."
Indeed, DeCinces looks like a transformed players, his plate confidence infecting his every gesture. During July he made only one error while batting .336 and slugging .716.
August has brought three more homers for a career-high total of 20. Included was a 475-foot monster last week into the Yankee Stadium bullpen off Ron Guidry. It was one of the longest blasts ever to clear Death Valley.
"Doug has has a phenomenal streak," said Manager Earl Weaver, usually no gusher. "He's hit the ball as hard the last six weeks as Boog Powell or Frank Robinson ever did. The ball is leaving his bat as fast as any player I've ever seen."
Now comes DeCinces time of genuine crisis. Is his wonderful key made of steal of glass? Has he made the enormous transition from competent, but unspectacular, major an inexplicable slump send him back league regular to near-star? Or will the long season, the pitcher's union, an inexphcable slump send him back to the level of other players who must search each day for any tiny advantage?
DeCinces, like every streaking hitter, finds it hard to believe that the baseball will ever again turn back into that tiny, unhittable aspirin tablet that causes headaches.
"Doug is so calm and confident at the plate, all cocked, coiled and motionless with that bat laying on his shoulder, that he looks like a golfer getting ready to drive a ball off a stationary tee," said one Oriole. "The ball probably looks like it's on a tee to him."
Because DeCinces' tactical change has been so great, it is possible that his transformation is permanent.
"I've adopted some of Charlie Lau's theories - hold the bat flatter, grip the handle lightly, throw the barrel of the bat," said DeCinces, citing the Kansas City batting coach.
I'm hitting breaking balls much better, I definitely have less weaknesses," DeCinces said.
"In fact, this has changed me so much that I may have to reevaluate what I think I am capable of as a player. It's possible that I could be a little better than . . . well . . . than I ever thought I could be."
DeCinces almost hates to say those slightly brash wards since he knows how quickly they could come back to bite him! In his third full year as Brooks Robinson's successor, he has had so many ups and downs - injuries, slumps and streaks, booings from the hard-to-please Brooks Lovers - that he says, "Sometimes I think I've gotten numb to everything."
Even Weaver is noncommital, perhaps unconvinced as well. "I hope Doug has another month sometime when he has 31 RBI," he said. "It's just too early to tell if this is a hot streak by a good player who had been in a slump, or if Doug has really made a breakthrough.
"The numbers (goals) I laid on him," said Weaver, "were 20 to 25 homers and maybe 80 RBI. The way he's going, he might hit 30 homers this year even though he's missed almost 20 games."
DeCinces knows his challenge. "I have to live in the present . . . concentrate on each at-bat the rest of the year, then add up the totals and see what it tells me about myself.
"I can't make extra pressure for myself with goals," DeCinces said, remembering his 1977 vow to get 20 homers and 70 RBI. He finished with 19 and 69.
"I think I psyched myself," he said. "I even hit a '20th' homer in Toronto that hit the railing above the fence, bounced straight up and came back on the field."
For the moment, DeCinces even tries to enjoy his numerous line-drive outs - testimony that is still on the right track. "I was excited, honestly and truly excited, within myself about getting 'Player of the Month'. But August may be an even more important month to me. I don't think this is just a streak. It's been six weeks . . . six weeks."
And August may tell if the key is steel or glass.