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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Bring the Pain
By David Shields

Pain is just weakness leaving your body.
—slogan of the Johns Hopkins University crew team

 

During the 1998 and 1999 baseball seasons, while he was being sued for divorce, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Mark Wohlers had difficulty getting the ball anywhere near the plate. In '98, his earned run average (ERA) was 10.00, which is terrible; in '99 it was 27.00, which is unheard-of awful. "I convinced myself the reason I couldn't pitch straight was because I blew out my elbow," Wohlers said, "even though deep down I don't know what it was. The mind is a powerful thing."

Karl Newell, a kinesiologist at the University of Illinois, says, "Consciousness gets in the way. If a pianist starts worrying where his fingers go while he's playing, it will change the performance."

Atlanta Braves catcher Dale Murphy made a few bad throws to second base during a spring training game in 1977. The next day, when an opponent tried to steal second base, Murphy threw the ball to the outfield fence on one hop. Later that year he twice hit his own pitcher in the back on throws to second base. "Your mind won't let your natural abilities flow," he said. "Your mind interferes, and you start thinking, ėWhere am I throwing? What am I doing?' Instead of just throwing. Your mind starts working against you." Unable even to return the ball to the pitcher, he was forced to move to the outfield, where he became a perennial All-Star.

At age nineteen, Steve Gasser was one of the stars of the Minnesota Twins minor league system. In 1988, traded to the New York Mets and pitching in Class A ball, he walked eleven batters and threw seven wild pitches in one inning, walked twenty-one batters and threw thirteen wild pitches in six innings. He never pitched again.

Allan Lans, the Mets' psychiatrist, says, "Everybody brings their personality to the game. It all comes down to an anxiety response. In baseball, people talk about someone getting wild. Then everyone comes rushing to the rescue to fix it and they just make the problem worse. ėJust throw the damn ball,' I tell them. ėStop thinking too much.'"

In I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, Rodolfo Lin…s writes, "That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement."

Science writer Brian Hayes agrees:

 

Only organisms that move have brains. A tree has no need of a central nervous system because it's not going anywhere, but an animal on the prowl needs to see where it's headed and needs to predict, even envision its future place in the world. The poster-child for this close connection between motricity and mentality is the sea squirt. This marine creature starts life as a motile larva, equipped with a brainlike ganglion of about three hundred neurons. But after a day or two of cavorting in the shallows, the larva finds a hospitable site on the bottom and puts down roots. As a sessile organism, it has no further use for a brain, and so it eats it.

 

Baseball players suffer mental blocks far more often than athletes in more frenetic, less rote sports, such as football or basketball; in baseball, there's too much time to stop and think. Shortstops and third basemen rarely suffer from the problem, since their throws are nearly always somewhat rushed. For second basemen, it's the easy throw to first base that's usually the culprit, not the difficult, hurried throw from deep behind second base; for catchers, it's the even easier throw back to the pitcher. And it happens by far the most to pitchers, who, of course, have the most time to think.

Pat Jordan's memoir, A False Spring, chronicles his experience as a minor league pitcher whose arm went haywire: "I could not remember how I'd once delivered a baseball with a fluid and effortless motion! And even if I could remember, I somehow knew I could never transmit that knowledge to my arms and legs, my back and shoulders. The delicate wires through which that knowledge had so often been communicated were burned out, irrevocably charred, I know now, by too much energy channeled too often along a solitary and too fragile wavelength. I lost it all that spring."

Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, makes a distinction between "implicit learning"—what the body knows—and "explicit learning"—conscious knowledge. In cases in which athletes develop mental blocks, a switch has been flipped from implicit to explicit. I played high school tennis, and I remember this happening to me once, in the district finals. I won the first set against someone who was an obviously superior player, and when I realized this fact, I suddenly couldn't get my right arm to stop moving in jagged, pixilated slow motion. I felt like a marionette operated by some unknown other. I lost the last two sets 6–1, 6–0.

Hayes says, "None of us knows—at the level of consciousness—how to walk, or breathe, or throw a baseball. If we had to take charge of these movements, issuing commands to all the hundreds of muscles in just the right sequence, who would not collapse in a quivering mass?"

"I'd never heard of throwing percentage before I came to the big leagues," Texas Rangers catcher Mike Stanley said. "I got here, and that's what catchers are judged on. We had a very slow staff, but I started thinking it was me." Although he was fixated on the percentage of base stealers he threw out, Stanley—his body in full rebellion against his mind—threw soft, high-arcing tosses to second and third base whenever anyone tried to steal. "I never realized how much of the game is mental. You can see it when guys walk up to the plate, which guys are afraid. I'm sure they could see the fear in my eyes."

Rod Dishman, the director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the University of Georgia, notes, "When thinking interferes, it physiologically, neurologically leads to inappropriate tension. That causes change in velocity and delivery. It wouldn't take much tension to throw it off. Just that split-second thought—ėGod, am I going to do it again?'—can affect it."

In 1997, Rick Ankiel, whom USA Today named the High School Player of the Year, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and received a $2.5 million bonus. In 1999, he was the Minor League Player of the Year. In 2000, his first full season with St. Louis, his won-lost record was 11–7, and in the last month of the season he was 4–0 with a 1.97 ERA. At age twenty-one, he started the first game of the National League division series against Atlanta. In two starts and one relief appearance in the 2000 playoffs, against the Braves and the Mets, Ankiel walked eleven batters in four innings and threw nine wild pitches, most of which sailed ten feet over the batters' heads. In a game against the Mets, he threw five of his first twenty pitches off the wire screen behind home plate. He's no longer in the majors.

Ankiel says, "I was always the smallest kid. I was terribly shy. Maybe it was because my dad yelled at me so much. I was afraid to mess up. If I swung at a bad pitch in Little League, he'd make me run wind sprints when I got home. It was always, I could've done better. He always said, ėDo what I say, not what I do.'" Rick Sr. has been arrested fifteen times and convicted seven times—burglary, carrying a concealed weapon, and most recently, drug smuggling.

Ankiel says his father instructed him "never to show emotion on the mound, which I always thought was strange because I was never like that anyway."

At fourteen, Ankiel told his father, "I'm never going to be in the major leagues, so I'm going to do stuff with my buddies, hang out on the beach, go surfing, go fishing" in Fort Pierce, Florida. Ankiel's father said, "That's not gonna work. If you love the game,

good things will happen."

In The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, Anson Rabinbach writes: "Neurasthenia was a kind of inverted work ethic, an ethic of resistance to work in all its forms. The lack of will or energy manifested by neurasthenics is the incapacity to work productively."

When Ankiel started to have trouble throwing the ball over the plate during the 2000 playoffs, his father, Ankiel's pitching guru his entire life, had recently been sentenced to prison for six years, and his parents had just gotten divorced. With his father gone, Ankiel made sure bad things happened.

Asked how he would treat Rick Ankiel, sports psychologist Jack Llewelyn said,

 

You pull out vintage throws, and then you repeat those throws 8-10 times on videotape. What you're doing is bombarding the system by showing them what they're capable of doing. They've almost forgotten over time about how good they are, since they've been bombarded lately with all the negatives. If he's strong, young, and healthy, and he's thrown well in the past, then he can get past it. But anybody who thinks he can get rid of it and not think about it again probably is kidding himself. I think it's always there. I think you can do some things mentally to push it to the back. But the worst thing you can do when you start to throw better is to start to get complacent and say, "Well, I've got that licked."

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2004 issue.

—EFQ

DAVID SHIELDS's new book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine (from which this essay is excerpted), is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in May. He's the author of seven other books, including Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

© 2004 David Shields

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