SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Brandon Belt insists that he has never lost a race at the community pool in Nacogdoches, Texas, a byproduct of having size-15 feet.
"When you've got flippers like that in the back," he said, "you've got some good acceleration in the water."
Belt also claims to be hard to beat on the pingpong table and says that nobody in the clubhouse could top him in a game of basketball. Finally, Belt explains that he has a foolproof plan for his post-baseball career. An eighth-grade hip dislocation ended his run as a kicker, but Belt thinks he has what it takes to head back to college and be a punter.
"Once again, the feet play into it," he pointed out, smiling wide. "I know people don't expect me to be good at anything because I look goofy and awkward. But I sneak up on them."
Belt snuck up on baseball in 2010, posting a .455 on-base percentage and hitting 23 homers across three levels to shoot up prospect lists. Over the next two seasons, the sport returned the favor with a series of ups and downs.
The struggles at the plate were hard for Belt to handle, and it didn't help that he spent the 2011 season becoming familiar with the roads between San Francisco and Fresno. Belt felt his career hit a crossroads last summer during a trip through Atlanta and Philadelphia. The kid with the discerning eye and sweet swing had one hit in 20 at-bats on the trip, striking out eight times and looking generally lost at the plate.
On the flight back to San Francisco, Belt stared down at those size-15 feet and contemplated his big-league future. He realized that in an effort to avoid another trip to the minors, he had started obsessing over his statistics.
"I was worried quite a bit, because it was a year, honestly, of just playing terribly," Belt said. "Once you get that low, you kind of think to yourself that you need to get your stats up if you want to hang around any longer."
As the plane soared over the Midwest, something clicked.
Belt says he has always played his best when he looks at wins, not walks, homers and other individual stats, and he decided that he would do the same the rest of the season.
"I just said, 'Screw going out there and worrying about numbers all the time.' I was fed up with it, so I put all my focus on the team," he said.
As it turned out, Belt didn't need to worry all that much about his status. The Giants knew they had put Belt in a tough spot with the lack of a consistent role, and they also knew that Belt remained the best option at first base.
"He's been great at handling all that we've thrown at him," manager Bruce Bochy said. "At his young age, he dealt with it as well as you can."
Immediately following the trip, Bochy gave Belt a day to clear his head. From then on, the Giants had a force at first. Belt hit .328 from July 24 to the end of the season.
Belt knows it's a cliché to say that "playing for the team" turned his 2012 season around. He also knows it worked.
"I was putting too much pressure on myself," he said. "You can't play like that."
Note The Chicago White Sox's seven-run eighth inning Monday in Scottsdale was a tough one for Bochy to swallow, and not just because it erased a 9-2 lead in a game that ended in a 9-9 tie. Bochy brought his son, Brett, into the game with the bases loaded and one out, and Brett allowed a two-run double and three-run homer.
"You're nervous for him, and that probably goes with being a dad," Bruce said. "I put him in a tough spot, but he's a tough kid. He'll be fine."