The entire California League watched Jay Cox struggle through the 2008 baseball season.
Very few people saw the inner struggle that served to both drive and demoralize the Modesto Nuts' outfielder.
Cox thought a slow start meant he wasn't working hard enough, when in fact no one on team worked harder. And when that slump continued through the first half of the season, the affable North Carolinian withdrew into his corner of the clubhouse, emerging, often smileless, for games and the daily extra batting practice.
He let himself be defined as a person by his statistics, a spiraling outlook he vows won't continue in the 2009 season, which for the Nuts begins tonight with a home game against Bakersfield.
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"It's not like I failed last year for two days or a week, Cox said. "I failed week after week after week. You show me anybody in the world who can deal with that and still come to the field with a smile on his face and I'll show you a guy who doesn't take pride in what he does."
Cox, a left-handed hitter with opposite-field power, hit .248 with seven homers and 47 RBIs, striking out 112 times against 21 walks. Not a good season, far from a career-ending disaster, yet far from what Cox expected — no, demanded — of himself.
"I've never failed in baseball before," Cox said. "When I failed last year, I didn't know who I was as a baseball player and I didn't know how to find that person. I've seen me at the worst, and now I can look at myself during those times and still be proud of who I am."
No one saw Cox scowl more last year than hitting coach Duane Espy, who was on the pitching and listening end of all those extra batting practice sessions.
"It was tough with Jay last year because he really rides that roller coaster," Espy said. "He's affected by outcomes as much as anybody. Sometimes I'd try to be as negative as I could with him just to force him to be more positive."
Cox, 24, worked all off-season on the inner game — the part of every ballplayer's psyche that must accept 70 percent failure at the plate equals a .300 batting average.
But changes also were made externally. Cox maintained a 230-pound frame while playing at the University of North Carolina. After being drafted by the Rockies in the 22nd round of the 2006 draft, he was told that slimming down would make him a faster, quicker, better prospect while enabling him to survive the 140-game minor league grind.
After three years of playing at 205 pounds, the 230-pounder is back, thanks to countless hours in the weight room.
"Baseball is a business and you don't have more than a couple years to prove who you are," Cox said. "If this is my last year to prove myself, I want to make sure they see the real Jay Cox. I want to be strong, hit the ball hard, hit the ball the other way. To be able to do all that I think I need to be 230."
Espy said he was surprised to see the larger Cox show up at spring training, but pleased with what he saw from Cox in the spring.
"I'm seeing a lot more consistent swings and a lot more of what we saw at the end of last season," Espy said. "He had a very good spring and hopefully he'll have to spend a lot less time and effort in the cages. He's very much ahead of where he was last year."
As far as 2009 is concerned, Cox isn't making any promises, as least statistically. His effort on the field and work ethic — never questioned — will remain. And when he fails, as every player will do, his disappointment will show.
But this time, Cox vows not to allow failure determine who he is as a person.
"I know I've put my time in, and I know I've done everything I can do, and this game still can kick me in the butt every day," Cox said. "But now, when I do have a bad day I can look in the mirror and say that I gave it everything I had."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.