Argo: Happy days are here again

Argo: Happy days are here again

CHAMPAIGN — In the mood for some leisure reading last winter, Willie Argo grabbed his Kindle and did a search for baseball-related books.
As the Illinois senior center fielder scanned through the offerings, one title caught and held his attention.

It was “The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance,” a book first published in 2002 and now in its third edition.

“I was like, I’ll check it out,” Argo said, “and I started reading it, and I was like maybe I’ll try this stuff.”

If ever a baseball player needed the advice that co-authors H. A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl were offering, it was Argo at that stage of his career. With his hitting performance in a two-year decline, the one-time multi-sport prep star and 2009 Freshman All-American was experiencing prolonged failure for the first time.

“I’ve always been a high achiever in everything I’ve ever done,” said Argo, who as a do-it-all star at Davenport (Iowa) Assumption High School earned all-state honors in baseball and football, and state medals in wrestling and track. “I’ve always done it well for the most part, so it was a struggle.”

And Argo wasn’t shy about letting his coaches, his teammates, even umpires, know it.

As his batting average fell from .355 as a college rookie to .318 as a sophomore (when he played through a wrist injury) to .270 last season, Argo wore his souring emotions on his sleeve. He would yell at himself. Complain about the umpiring. Throw his bat in frustration. Or his helmet. Make excuses. Shift the blame.

In the process, Argo’s negativity threatened to shift the focus, too, within his team.

“Last year at times I honestly believe he was a little bit of a distraction and didn’t know it,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said. “When you have guys in the dugout or in the clubhouse that are beating themselves up and (they’re) vocal about it, then all the attention’s on you and you’re not concentrating on the game.”

Picked over
The low point for Argo might have come last June. Eligible for Major League Baseball’s amateur draft for the first time since he’d been selected in the 49th round out of high school, Argo saw his name bypassed until Round No. 43.

It was a sobering blow for a guy who had entered his junior year with expectations of going high in the draft and making a move into the pro ranks the following summer. Wasn’t that, after all, what the scouts were telling him would happen as Argo prepared for what surely would be a bounceback season in 2011?

Instead, the Pittsburgh Pirates offered a relative pittance in signing-bonus money after Argo’s batting average plummeted 48 percentage points from his sophomore year.

In retrospect, Argo now can see he allowed the lure of the draft to consume him.

“I was just so focused on it and thinking about it all the time,” he said. “I put so much pressure on myself I couldn’t function.”

At the same time, three of his classmates were drafted in the first 18 rounds. While Argo headed to Madison, Wis., last summer to play in a collegiate summer league, catcher Adam Davis, shortstop Josh Parr and pitcher Corey Kimes were beginning their pro careers. And when Argo headed back to the UI campus in late summer, their absence was a fresh reminder that his own pro dreams remained unrealized.

“I think coming in (to college), everyone thought if anybody (in his recruiting class) was going to leave (early), it was going to be me,” Argo said. “And I didn’t have a good year and they did, and I was happy for them. But I wanted to go, too. I wanted to go on with my career. And it was hard.”

Book it
Then, through the magic of mobile electronics technology and the Internet, Argo happened upon a voice of reason in the form of a paperback, now well-worn and rarely far out of his reach.

As the title suggests, “The Mental Game of Baseball” has nothing to do with the mechanics of the game and everything to do with what goes on inside the heads of those who play it.

Argo insists its advice has been a game-changer for him. Advice that includes goal-setting, self-evaluation and, perhaps most important, how to deal with and move on from failure.

“The first day (after reading the book), I noticed a difference in my attitude and how I approached things,” he said. “So I kept trying to do the things I read about and kept trying to integrate them in my game.”

To Argo, there’s no more valuable message in the book than this:

“If you don’t do well, if you don’t succeed, you’re not a failure,” he said. “You just didn’t get your job done that at-bat or that pitch or that play. But you’re not a failure.”

Whether it’s the book or senior maturity or lessons learned the hard way, Hartleb said Argo is a transformed person this season.

And it goes beyond no longer pouting or complaining or throwing things, the Illini coach said. Once self-absorbed in his own private battle with the game, Argo now is a model teammate and leader.

“Willie’s changed his life,” Hartleb said. “And when I say that, there wasn’t anything wrong with his life last year, but to look at the leadership that he’s brought to the team, the outlook that he has in the dugout. If something goes poorly for him, last year he beat himself up. And this year he understands. He hasn’t been so concerned about an out, a strikeout, a missed opportunity.

“And his leadership — the way he talks to guys in the dugout and helps guys when they’re struggling — it’s been awesome. I couldn’t be any more proud of a single individual with the way he’s changed, the way he’s gone about a season.”

From his new perspective, Argo can see his former self in the occasional behavior of a frustrated teammate. It can be a cringe-inducing reminder of how he used to react to failure.

“Now that I have things under control a little better, you see guys doing that stuff and it’s just like, ‘How can you do that?’ ” Argo said. “But I was that guy last year. I was that guy whining and throwing stuff and everyone’s looking like ‘Shut up.’ Nobody wants to hear that stuff. Play the game. Do your thing. Come back in the dugout and try to do better next time.”

On the rise

Argo is doing better on the field, too. Has been all season.

Entering tonight’s Big Ten series opener against Minnesota at Illinois Field, the fourth-year starter is hitting .315 and leads the team in runs (42), walks (32) and on-base percentage (.429). Just the kind of production a coach looks for out of his No. 2 guy in the lineup, which Argo has been since the Illini’s sixth game this season.

“I try to take a lot of pitches,” he said. “I try to get on base, steal bases, score runs. And I’m not in it for myself anymore (at the plate), and I’ve done better because of that.”

In the midst of a roller-coaster career, one constant in the fleet Argo’s game has been his impact on the bases. On March 27, he became the program’s career leader in stolen bases with his 84th — breaking a record that had stood for 30 years. As a sophomore, Argo set an Illini single-season record for steals with 41. And with a current tally of 97 career thefts, Argo trails only four other players in Big Ten history.

“When you have somebody who sets a stolen-base record that’s been in place I don’t know how many years and you’re up in the 100 range, that’s a pretty special athlete,” Hartleb said. “That’s a person we’ll miss for a lot of reasons, not only for what he’s done on the field, the threat that he is at the plate and on the bases, the great catches, but we’re going to miss what he’s developed into this year as a leader and a person.”

It’s likely that when Argo’s Illini career is viewed from a distance in time, he’ll be remembered most for his prolific base-pilfering and for a plate performance at Baton Rouge, La., that still stretches credulity to the limit.

On March 7, 2009, Argo belted three home runs against top-ranked LSU — becoming what is thought to be the second player in history to achieve that feat in his first college game. Even Sports Illustrated took notice, featuring the Illini rookie in its “Faces in the Crowd” later that month.

“If that’s what people remember me by, that’s fine,” Argo said. “That, and the stolen bases. That’s something I’m proud of. That’s something I had to work at and put a lot of time into.”

As the senior approaches his final three home games — and perhaps the final three games of his Illini career — Argo hopes his lasting legacy will be more than numbers in a record book.

“I hope they remember that I was a grinder, (that) I always played hard and I always wanted to win, never a guy that would quit,” he said. “I hope they remember me for that, too.”