Adam Dunn, one of the new players on the White Sox in 2011, had heard the stories about the club's brilliant but joyless right fielder, Carlos Quentin. Dunn had heard the nicknames given by teammates about Quentin's moods, and Dunn wondered how someone could be so remarkably good at a game and yet have so little enjoyment playing it.
"It's my goal,'' the ebullient Dunn said, "to go to lunch with him every day and bring some fun to his life.''
Quentin smiled when he was told of Dunn's goal. Quentin has a warm, engaging smile, the White Sox just don't see it very often, at least not during the season.
"He knows every line from every movie ever made, he has a memory for those things, and he's very entertaining talking about that,'' said White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker. "I've seen him in the winter, working out with 20 or 30 professional baseball players, and he's the funniest guy in the room, he's the loudest, he's the biggest jokester in the room. I've told that to people from our organization, and they think I'm kidding. We need more of that from him during the season.''
The White Sox are getting more smiles, and lots of extra-base hits, from Quentin because finally, at age 28, he has taken steps to not be so hard on himself, to control his anger even after an 0-for-4 game. It's a condition that has been so acute at times during his major league career, Quentin has had trouble sleeping at night, and hasn't eaten properly
-- he'd often skip lunch and go straight to the park. He is a Stanford graduate, deeply intelligent, so it occurred to him: "If there is no joy and no fun in this game,'' he said, "why am I doing this?''
A terrible stretch at the plate, or a losing streak by his team, would affect Quentin physically. "My stomach it felt like my insides were going to fall out all over the place,'' he said. "I was sick to my stomach. It is so easy to enjoy the good times when you and the team are doing well. You can enjoy life, separate it from baseball. To still enjoy life when you are not at your best -- to address that -- is what mental toughness is all about.''
So Quentin saw a psychiatrist, Dr. Leslie Sherlin from Santa Barbara, Calif., last winter for help, as Quentin says, "to try to live a life besides this game.'' He tried that in spring training 2010, one teammate said, "but after three weeks, he was back to beating himself up over every out he made.'' But this season, it seems to be different, it seems to be better.
"Everyone handles things differently,'' he said. "I'm working on ways of dealing with it. It was a long time coming. I've picked up a lot from [White Sox first baseman] Paul Konerko [the captain of the team, and one of the game's best leaders]. He has told me, 'Do things the right way. If you do, you can punch your card, leave the field, and leave everything here.' I've had a tough time doing that. I'm working on it. It's exciting to see progress.''
Now, Quentin says, "I can turn in my card every day knowing I did everything I could with issues I could control. That's my focus every day. I'm getting up earlier now. I'm eating more. I'm moving my body around more. I'm not stagnant. I'm trying not to fall into my old habits. I want to take the person that I am in the offseason and bring him into the season. And maybe if I can do a better job of that, maybe it will help me play better.''
He has. Quentin is hitting .281 with six home runs and 16 RBIs. He leads the American Leagues in doubles (12), total bases (55) and extra-base hits (18). When the White Sox recently lost 10 of 11 games, and averaged fewer than three runs per game, the only one who was hitting was Quentin. Now that he's physically healthy, and a little less self-destructive mentally, he is starting to look like the player that batted .288 with 36 homers and 100 RBIs in 2008, a year in which he finished fifth in AL MVP voting.
To still enjoy life when you are not at your best -- to address that -- is what mental toughness is all about.
”-- Carlos Quentin
"He is a freak,'' Dunn said. "He's one of the rare guys that can take a slider away and just smoke it to right-center field, then take a changeup in and smoke it to left-center field.''
Walker has seen a difference this year in Quentin's approach. "He looked in the mirror the last two winters, he knows what beat him,'' Walker said. "I bet he was a hell of a football player, and he has a football mentality, he thinks you have to run through a wall. But he's not as hard on himself this year, and at the end of last year, he found the swing that he is going to use. You don't have to be a psychiatrist to figure out what he had to do.''
Quentin is still as intense as ever, he still gets hit by a pitch at a historic rate (79 times in 1,765 at-bats), he still hates to lose and he still hates to make an out. But he is sleeping better at night and he doesn't skip lunch; he instead has lunch with the affable Dunn.
"We talk about all sorts of things,'' Dunn said. "But we don't talk about our swings. I'm not talking about anything that I don't know anything about.'' And with that, Dunn laughed out loud. He has done that several times this year with Quentin. And now, it's OK.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN