April 15, 2017

REACHING OUT TO THE DOG:

The Secret Life of Pitchers : What happens on the mound has more to do with the mind than the arm. (WILL LEITCH,  MAY 2017, The Atlantic)

A pitcher throwing to a batter is the most elemental event in baseball: Nothing can happen until the pitcher releases the ball. All the fielders, all the base runners--they're just bystanders like the rest of us. The drama out there on the field can't compare with the drama going on between those two men, one poised to pitch and the other to hit, each trying to outsmart the other. Mess with that delicate balance, and I'm not sure the sport will be baseball anymore.

Talk about pressure: A multibillion-dollar industry--one that has been a centerpiece of American popular culture for more than a century--rests on a figure standing alone in the grass with millions of eyes staring at him. Such a pivotal role can exact a high price, as Rick Ankiel discovered one day back in October 2000. The Cardinals phenom, who made his Major League debut at 20, was described as the next Sandy Koufax, blessed with a 95-mph fastball and a backbreaking curveball that Mark McGwire called "The Snapdragon." As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I felt that the whole world changed when Ankiel arrived in 1999. We had a new Bob Gibson, heck, a new Bobby Fischer or Mozart: a kid who could do the most difficult job in the world without even thinking about it, just because he had lightning-bolt talent straight from the gods.

On October 3, 2000, though, the magic vanished. Ankiel was making his first postseason start, against the future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. The Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, himself a future Hall of Famer, was so concerned about the pressure that he lied to the press and told them someone other than Ankiel was starting. In his new autobiography, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch That Changed My Life, written with Tim Brown, Ankiel reports that he wasn't sure what the big deal was: It was just another game, right? Then, without warning and without reason, it wasn't.

Ankiel notes the exact moment that everything fell apart: "Forty-fourth pitch of the game. Third inning. One out. A one-strike count to Andruw Jones. Greg Maddux at first base. Cardinals 6, Braves 0. Throw strikes, keep the ball in the big part of the park, nothing crazy, we win. I win. The future wins." He winds up.

Everything was fine. I wasn't tired. Not too hot, not too cold ... Head was clear. No thoughts of anything other than a curveball, so natural there'd be no need to consider the mechanics of it.
He released the pitch a little late. Just a little late, but it went awry, a wild pitch, far away from the catcher, Carlos Hernández. "I stood near the front of the mound and watched all of it happen, sort of curious."

Suddenly, Ankiel could no longer pitch. He threw four more wild pitches in the inning, along with four walks. He left the field with, as he puts it, "one psyche forever hobbled." A friend of mine who was at Busch Stadium that day said the crowd's reaction was akin to 50,000 people reacting as one to the sight of their child being punched in the stomach, five times, by a bully. In subsequent seasons, Ankiel attempted comeback after comeback. But he couldn't recover the old command.

How could this happen? In Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, & the Art of Deception, the reporter Terry McDermott quotes Hank Aaron saying, "The pitcher has got only a ball. I've got a bat. So the percentage of weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting."

Posted by at April 15, 2017 11:03 AM

  

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