Just like most of the country, Major League Baseball has been shut down for three months now, a product of a nation’s reaction to a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Men who have spent decades playing baseball all summer long suddenly have the summer free, although freedom isn’t a word that applies easily to quarantining and social distancing. The summer has not included baseball games, and it’s not certain that it will as MLB owners and players squabble about opening what would be an inevitably short season.
There are issues. And there are answers. As baseball has specialized over the decades, many teams have brought in mental skills coaches, and they have their work cut out for them.
The coaches have had to adapt, going from helping players maintain focus and beef up confidence to dealing not just with a pandemic that threatens themselves and their families but also coming to terms with living in a nation where protesters are in the streets in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
A century ago, baseball and America went through something similar. The 1918 flu cost 50 million lives globally, and it struck at the end of the War to End All Wars, World War I, where 20 million military and civilians died. The baseball community lost men to both.
Baseball players of that generation got through it the best they could. There were no positions in baseball anything close to mental skills coaches. They wouldn’t become a fixture in baseball until 1984, when the Oakland A’s hired Harvey Dorfman. Teams weren’t ignorant about the mental side of the game; consultants had been brought in off and on for half a century. But the A’s were the first team to bring a full-time mental skills coach into the organization.
And it paid off. Dorfman was around for the best of the Bash Brothers teams, including the World Series champion 1989 squad.
“When I came to the A’s (in 1987), Harvey was already there,” A’s Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley said. “At that point, nobody knew anything about athletes needed help with the mental part of the game. Sandy (Alderson) had hired him, and when I got there, seeing Harvey doing what he did made me know that I was in a special organization.
“I always felt that’s where we were in that era with the A’s. Community-wise, we were ahead of the game. At least I thought so. My view at the time is that we were really stepping out.”
Eckersley said he remembers Dorfman having his own uniform in the A’s clubhouse. It was a subtle thing, but talking to another guy in uniform seemed to be easier for players. The reliever said Dorfman helped him get over a phobia he had about left-handed slap hitters.
“Harold Reynolds comes to mind,” Eckersley said. “It was early on, and I was phobic about guys who weren’t trying to jack the ball out of the park just slapping the ball around and going the opposite way with the ball. Talking with him about it helped me get past it. He helped a lot of guys.”
The New York Times’ obituary of Dorfman talked about players who worked with him and felt indebted to him, including pitchers Roy Halladay Brad Lidge, Jim Abbott, Al Leiter, Bob Welch and Greg Maddux. Dorfman wrote books, including two of which are baseball staples, “The Mental Game of Baseball” and “The Mental ABCs of Pitching.”
Dorfman, who died in 2011 at 75, would go on to win a World Series ring with the A’s in 1989 and another with the Marlins in 1997 and blazed a trail for the mental skills coaches who are having to work overtime with baseball in a crisis.
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3
Click the "follow" button in the top right corner to join the conversation on Inside the Athletics on SI. Access and comment on featured stories and start your own conversations and post external links on our community page.