IOWA CITY, Ia. — In a game that chews up mental fortitude and spits it out on the other side, jumbled thoughts when exiting the yard are a player’s worst reality. Over the course of a long season, overanalysis can lead to a cerebral mess.
Ben Norman lived through that nightmare.
“I didn’t leave the ballpark with a clear mind,” the Iowa outfielder said of his sophomore season. “I’d leave and be thinking about the struggles all night and even the next day.”
After a freshman all-American campaign that included 56 starts on an NCAA Tournament squad, Norman slammed hard into a sophomore wall. The offensive sputters didn’t last a few weekends — they were more like three months — and the in-state kid full of Hawkeye blood was left wondering how to salvage the pieces.
The recovery process is underway.
As the Hawkeyes (21-14, 7-5 Big Ten Conference) open a crucial home series against conference-leading Nebraska (21-11, 10-2), Norman is on the path to resuscitating his baseball prowess in Iowa City. The junior currently leads the Hawkeyes in RBIs (26) and is tied for first in doubles (seven), homers (five) and runs scored (22).
The Des Moines Roosevelt product slashed .189/.293/.292 as a sophomore, mustering just eight extra-base knocks while appearing in 47 of Iowa’s 55 games. After racking up five hits in the first two weekends, Norman had just 15 the rest of the year. Amid one porous stretch from late-February to mid-April, the southpaw outfielder hit .154 (8-for-52) over 28 games.
The climb back isn’t complete, but Norman’s 2019 success to date reflects a dedication and determination to fight out of a dark hole.
“It just started with his work ethic,” Hawkeyes coach Rick Heller said. “He really worked hard in the offseason. He cleaned up his swing and got stronger. He’s just been doing a great job of controlling himself.
“And when he does that — Ben and I have talked about it — when he gets his good swing off and there’s no fear there, it’s really, really good right now. He’s been showing us that swing a lot lately.”
No matter what level, all players know the circuitous journey a season can take at the plate. One stretch might be full of blasts and breaks, with confidence and poise brewing along the way. All the answers illuminate nightly.
Then, without warning, the baseball gods waltz in and zap all positivity. Hot one week, lost the next. During those dark moments, hitters find solace in knowing the game will come around again at some point.
Norman didn’t have that luxury in 2018. The reassurance never came to balance out the futility. He eventually lost his full-time starting spot and was dropped down in the order when he did play.
What started as an unfortunate slump now had the elements to derail a career.
“I never really knew what the lowest of lows were in the aspect of my baseball career,” Norman said. “I never had failures that badly as a whole. I’ve obviously had stretches where I’ve gone up-and-down, but never like that.”
A summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, as well as extensive work with hitting coach Joe Migliaccio before the New York Yankees hired him away, rejuvenated Norman’s approach. A strong fall and winter had him cautiously optimistic that 2019 would unfold differently.
A needed early sign arrived in at-bat No. 1. Leading off the top of the third in Iowa’s season-opener versus George Mason, Norman roped a double to right-center field.
His first extra-base hit as a sophomore didn’t come until his 29th at-bat.
“I remember feeling like I was just floating,” Norman said. “It was like a dream, kind of. The tension and the anxiousness of the first game just released. The ball was flying in slow motion. It was crazy.”
For an offense that needed recalibrating after the departures of Robert Neustrom, Tyler Cropley, Matt Hoeg and others, Norman’s production has been needed. The Hawkeyes’ plate numbers are still average in the Big Ten — eighth in runs scored, seventh in batting average, tied for seventh in home runs — but Norman’s pop has come through in important spots.
“It’s a huge plus for our team when he’s in the middle of the lineup,” senior Chris Whelan said. He adds another power bat and has been swinging it really well. The kid works his tail off and worked his tail off this offseason.”
On the other side of the deepest funk, Norman operates with a deeper perspective. Unnecessary pressure has been removed from the daily itinerary, replaced with a calming sense of belief that rarely erodes.
The struggles don’t linger as long as they used to. A refreshed demeanor has Norman in a much better place.
“At the end of last year, I just had to wash everything away,” Norman said. “Just had to say, ‘OK, that’s about as low as I’ll get. I know it’s only up from here.’
“I took a positive mindset and stepped back and re-evaluated — ‘OK, this is just a game. I don’t need to put too much pressure on myself. Just go out and play and have fun.’ There was a recommitment to that focus.
"… This year, I’ve worked harder than I ever had before.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.