They still call him "Disco" but lately he's lost the beat.
The last thing the Baltimore Orioles expected when they acquired Dan Ford from California in a trade last winter was a mild-mannered fellow who would hit an inoffensive .230. They were looking for some sparks to fly.
Nine months later, they have an outfielder plagued with self-doubt. "My wife tells me, 'Danny, you're thinking too much, you're not the same,' " said Ford.
In mid-August, the Orioles' season-long test of their touted right fielder came to a disappointing end. For the first time in an impressive eight-year major-league career, Ford was platooned, relegated to spot duty, hitting principally against left-handed pitchers.
The move came as no surprise to Ford. "When you look at the numbers, it's bad," he conceded Wednesday as he dressed for another game he would not start. "Two thirty-three (average), nine (homers), 40 (runs batted-in). It's bad, especially with a team that's depending on you to help them win."
When they traded Doug DeCinces and pitcher Jeff Schneider to California for Ford last winter, the Orioles and their fans expected to greet a loosey-goosey free spirit who would boogie in the dressing room and hit somewhere near his career average of .276 with 20 or so homers and 80-odd RBI.
They got neither. The hits didn't come and, as time passed, Ford grew tighter and tighter.
"I put a radio in my locker, but I hardly ever play it," said Ford in the soft voice that has characterized his comments most of the year. "I've been a little outside of myself by not doing what I normally do. When you're in a slump, you want to be loose, but this isn't a real lively place."
Ford is struggling and, because of the kind of person he is, there are those who enjoy watching him squirm.
Last season at California, Ford was the nude gatefold in a women's skin magazine, was suspended for corking his bat and was a principal in two on-field brawls.
He came to Baltimore and fell flat on his high profile. Meanwhile, DeCinces marched to what ballplayers call a "career year" with the Angels, including the second-best slugging percentage in the league. Now, said Ford, he hears the Baltimore fans shouting, "DeCinces, DeCinces" from the stands. "That's what they're thinking about," said Ford.
Nor has his on-field style endeared him to his new home fans, who get to see him again Friday night when the Orioles return to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, trying for their 13th victory in 14 games as they open a weekend series against the Minnesota Twins.
"I can't explain why Pete Rose runs out walks or Reggie Jackson watches his homers," said Orioles General Manager Hank Peters. "Every player has his style and it's not something you can program. But it's obvious Ford's style -- nonchalance and relaxation -- is not appealing to fans."
When Ford saunters up to the plate dragging his bat behind him, said Peters, fans get the idea he's dogging it. Interestingly, Oriole brass and Ford himself think the problem is the opposite.
"Quite the contrary," said Peters. "He's at the point now where he's pressing when he gets in the game."
Manager Earl Weaver concurred: "It happens to a lot of people after a trade. He's trying too hard, maybe swinging at a bad pitch instead of taking the walk, trying to get untracked. Not one time this year have I been disappointed with his attitude or his effort. He tried like hell to be a part of the club. There's no doubt about it, I don't think he's been able to relax."
Weaver thinks Orioles fans have been too hard on Ford, in part spurred by critical radio accounts of his play. "When he goes 0 for 4 with a double play, that can't sound good," said the manager. "But when they say, 'It took him so long to get from here to here,' that don't set too good with the fans. But that's their impression and they have to say what they see."
"Sure," said Ford, "my friends tell me, 'They're cuttin' you up on the radio.' "
Weaver and Peters maintain that Ford has done everything they've asked, and it's only his inexplicable impotence at the plate that disappoints them. "We wanted speed in the outfield and Ford was high on the (trade) list for that reason," said Weaver. "He has definitely helped defensively, even though he's dropped a couple. He's got to balls that helped us. He's got one problem -- offense."
In an effort to reverse the trend, batting coach Ralph Rowe has been working on opening the Ford stance, which is as distinctively closed as anyone's in the league, with a front foot practically pointing at the first-base dugout and a back foot in line with the third base on-deck circle.
But midseason changes are rife with peril. "It's hard to adjust in a pennant race" when pitchers are throwing bullets, said Rowe.
There is talk of inviting Ford to winter instructional camp to continue the work, and he says he would be happy to go. Meanwhile, he takes his unfamiliar place on the bench daily while John Lowenstein, Gary Roenicke and Jim Dwyer share the outfield duties.
With a year left on his Baltimore contract, Ford knows he'll get a chance to redeem himself next season. Meanwhile, he's taking a deep breath and looking forward to road trips, where the pressure is a little less intense.
"At home, you're playing in front of the fans, your teammates, the press, all the people you work for," said Ford. "They're still waiting. They're saying, 'When's he going to start doing something?' "