Episode 16: September 17, 2010
In 1972 Steve Blass suddenly lost the ability to control his pitches. Thirty years later, the same thing happened to Rick Ankiel. We expect professional athletes to be stoic, unaffected by danger and injury, but the culture of baseball can have profound consequences on the performance of even the most elite athletes.
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
A month and a half ago at Fenway Park. You've probably seen replays: there's a base hit to shallow right field, Ryan Kalish is rounding third, Shin-Soo Choo makes a perfect throw home and the ball arrives at the same time as the runner, sending Indians rookie catcher Carlos Santana head over heels and unable to get up. The replays of Santana's leg bending backwards were so gruesome one of the Cleveland announcers asked not to see any more. Santana somehow held onto the ball and Kalish was out, so most people would say the 24-year-old catcher did exactly what he should have done. It was just another day in the life of a Major League catcher.
I'm Alex Reisner...
Blocking the plate has been considered part of a catcher's job for a long time now. But let's look at this: Carlos Santana is one of the hottest prospects in all of baseball. He's played fewer than 50 games, and one out in a season where the Indians have no chance of making the playoffs is considered worth risking a career-ending injury? Fortunately Santana is expected to be back for spring training next year so he got extremely lucky, but my point is that the culture of baseball values guys who risk injury to make a play. People love seeing Aaron Rowand make spectacular catches while running into outfield walls. Guys who are cautious are disliked by fans, chastised by the media, and often criticized by their own teammates and coaches.
I'm not saying this is unique to baseball. In football nothing short of going all-out every play is even tolerated. And in hockey there are countless stories of guys playing with broken bones and blown-out knees... Just about any professional athlete in any sport is playing injured at least some of the time. This is just the way it is.
Now, if I can, I just want to shift gears here and talk about Steve Blass. Steve Blass was a pitcher for the Pirates from the mid-60s to the early 70s. Through 1972 he had an ERA of 3.24 and 100 wins, including 16 shutouts. He was a control pitcher, comparable in style to Catfish Hunter or Tommy John. He was also a bona fide World Series hero, pitching 2 complete games (including the 7th) in Pittsburgh's 1971 championship over Earl Weaver's Orioles. But then Blass lost his control. He walked batters, hit them, threw behind them. It wasn't just a tough stretch, it wasn't a mechanical problem, something happened. In his last 90 or so innings as a Major League pitcher he had an ERA over 9 and walked 3 batters for every one he struck out. The weirdest part was that he could throw just fine in the bullpen, but as soon as he was in a game, the skill he once had was gone. It was a mental problem he was never able to solve.
As I mentioned in Episode 4, a similar thing happened a few years ago to Rick Ankiel. Ankiel's experience was similar to Blass's in that it ended his pitching career. Ankiel was lucky enough to get the opportunity to become an outfielder, but as far as I know his pitching problem isn't solved. Mark Wohlers also had a similar problem in the late 90s. Wohlers partially recovered but was never the same pitcher he had been earlier in his career, and retired after bouncing around among a few different teams.
But the so-called "Steve Blass disease" isn't limited to pitchers. Steve Sax, the Dodgers second baseman in the 80s, was never known for being a great fielder, but in 1983 he began having a serious problem with throwing the ball to first base. His throws were so erratic that fans sitting behind first base began wearing batting helmets. Fortunately Sax's problem didn't end his career. It went away and he was able to play second base for 10 more years. In the late 90s, another second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, who *was* known as a very good fielder (one of the best in the game), began having a similar problem with throwing balls into the stands. On one occasion he actually hit Keith Olbermann's mother in the face. Unlike Sax's problem, Knoblauch's didn't go away. The Yankees moved him first to designated hitter, and finally to left field, but his hitting declined and he retired 3 years later after being released by the Royals.
Finally, Mets fans probably remember Mackey Sasser, the young catcher who was supposed to replace Hall of Famer Gary Carter. Sasser was a good hitter and a solid defensive catcher. He had no problem throwing runners out trying to steal second base, but he had trouble making the routine toss back to the mound after each pitch. I remember seeing him at Shea Stadium in 1990 repeatedly making a motion like he was about to throw, but not requiring 3, 4, 5, or more tries to actually release the ball. Of course because it was New York the crowd would chant "one, two, three" in unison as he tried to throw the ball. Like Steve Blass, he had no problem throwing the ball back during practice and in the bullpen, just during games. Eventually, runners would time Sasser's pumps and take second base. The Mets tried using him in the outfield but eventually granted him free agency. He tried unsuccessfully to come back with three other teams but the problems continued and he had to retire.
It's pretty clear to me that in all of these cases the problems were psychological. The popular explanation is "overthinking" - you make a mistake and become conscious of a mechanical problem, and then you can't stop trying to force your body through the motions, which makes you throw even worse, which makes you monitor yourself more, so it's a self-perpetuating cycle. But I don't buy this explanation. It sounds reasonable because we've all experienced that kind of paralysis, but we eventually get out of it. Professional athletes certainly go through similar things, but you can't get to the Major League level without learning how to solve that problem quickly. I'm no expert, and this is all speculation, but I'm pretty sure in these cases something deeper was happening.
After Mackey Sasser retired as a player he became a coach at his alma mater Wallace Community College. But at a certain point his throwing problem became so bad he couldn't even throw batting practice to his players. Sasser had seen close to 50 sports psychologists but this time he went to a doctor named David Grand. Of the 40-something specialists Sasser had seen, Grand, amazingly, was the first to ask about his childhood and his injury history. Sasser revealed several interesting things:
* when he was growing up his father lived in perpetual pain due to a severe rheumatoid condition that prevented him from throwing the ball overhand to his son; it also caused him to become a self-medicating alcoholic and forced Mackey to take on more responsibility in the family than most children do
* when he was 7 years old Sasser's 5-year-old brother ran past him into the street got hit by a car and thrown 100 feet in the air; he was somehow revived by the EMTs but was never the same again
* Sasser was a quarterback in high school and, like most quarterbacks, was hit hard numerous times as he was releasing the ball
* as catchers do, he also sustained numerous knee injuries and one serious shoulder injury which impeded his natural throwing motion
Dr. Grand explains that every experience that is physically or emotionally upsetting results in some sort of trauma. That means an athlete remembers, not consciously but in their body, every detail about the injury...the sounds and smells in the moments before impact, the feel of impact...the whole scene, in detail. If the athlete is in a similar situation later in life...it could be 10, 20, 30 or more years later, they may find themselves subconsciously guarding against a repeat occurrence of the original traumatic experience, which could hurt their ability to perform as they usually would. When multiple similar traumas occur the situation gets even worse.
*If* this is true, I don't think it's too hard to see how Sasser's experiences *could* lead to his having trouble throwing a baseball. Now I know a lot of catchers have multiple serious injuries and not all of them develop a throwing problem, but everyone handles pain differently, and if the effects of trauma aren't apparent until years after the original event, there could be more players than we think that have difficulty throwing after they retire. I'm also fairly certain that a lot of athletes are afflicted in the lower levels of the game and aren't able to reach the big leagues where we'd hear about their troubles. Currently Red Sox catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia is seeing a psychologist about similar problems and there are reports that pitcher Daniel Bard overcame the condition before reaching the majors.
Now I'm not saying absolutely that a trauma-based approach is the answer to all of these throwing problems. I'm saying I think it's worth considering as a possibility. Unfortunately, in the world of men's professional sports, it's not an approach that's likely to be too popular. It's a world where Mackey Sasser was humiliated by his coaches and fined $20 for every time he hesitated, where city newspapers ran insensitive headlines, and where the fans mocked him every game. This is how it is in sports, and I know that most of the time it doesn't matter. The fans and the media say what they want and the game goes on, players' careers go on. Baseball players are expected not to hesitate to put themselves in physically dangerous situations 162 days a year, and nobody ever admits to being scared and nobody admits to being hurt by anything that gets said. And if you think that there's nothing else going on behind the scenes, well, I think you're wrong.
Richard Crowley, a psychologist who worked with Sax, Wohlers, and Knoblauch talks about how hard it is to discuss anything psychological with athletes. How he has to almost trick them at first or they won't listen because it's like he's questioning their manhood. "Yes, your problem is your mechanics. No, your emotions have nothing to do with it. You're not a pansy."
But here's the thing: Rick Ankiel's father was in jail much of the time when he was growing up. Fathers are supposed to see their sons play baseball, especially when they get to the Major Leagues, and especially when they're pitching in the playoffs, which is where Ankiel's problems started. Steve Blass had a brother-in-law named John Lamb who joined the Pirates as a pitcher in 1970. On the first day of spring training in 1971 Lamb got hit in the head by a line drive that fractured his skull. Obviously he needed some fairly serious surgery and Blass's problems coincide with Lamb's failed comeback attempt 2 years later when it became clear that his life would never be the same.
Again, I'm not saying there aren't other possible explanations. I'm saying that as a community we really don't understand psychology and trauma. Even the specialists who treated Mackey Sasser didn't look at his history. Blass and Ankiel's problems at least seem to make some "sense" to us because we're willing to acknowledge that there's some pressure that goes along with being a big league pitcher. We don't really understand why Sasser couldn't make the no-pressure throw back to the pitcher, and we assume that there must be some direct and immediate cause. The Wikipedia article on Mackey Sasser even attributes his problem to a particularly bad collision at home plate, even though it started long before that.
I guess I don't really have a big point to make here. I'm not a psychologist, I'm not trying to say that we should all be studying trauma. I'm just noticing a situation.
We like to believe that athletes are super-human. We watch them play because they can do amazing and inspiring things. And we're shocked when we discover they have faults in their personal lives, or that they have personal lives at all. Physically they may be special, but mentally and emotionally they're vulnerable just like the rest of us, and a lot of us aren't even willing to acknowledge our own vulnerability. Anyway, I know this is not a normal topic for a show about baseball, but that's exactly why I think it's important. At the very least it's something to consider if you're wondering whether Carlos Santana should have been blocking the plate.
All content on this web site and in podcasts copyright © 2010-18 Alex Reisner.