Mysterious Malady

Why do some major leaguers suddenly forget how to throw a baseball?
April 07, 1991

Mackey Sasser, who was hoping to be the New York Mets' starting catcher this season, has lost his chance at the job—not because he can't hit, not because he can't throw out runners at second base, but because he has trouble throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Sasser has to pump the ball two or three times into his glove before lobbing it back to the mound. Base runners were timing Sasser's feeble return tosses and making delayed steals.

Monty Fariss, a promising shortstop in the Texas Rangers system and their 1988 first-round draft pick, has been moved to second base. The Rangers decided they could not afford to have a shortstop who was afraid to zip the ball to first base. Fariss, who displayed a potent arm while at Oklahoma State, had begun sending timid, arcing throws to first, sometimes barely beating the runner on an easy play, sometimes not beating him at all.

Mike Stanley, a catcher for the Rangers, became so fixated on his throwing percentage (the percentage of base runners a catcher throws out) that he grew terrified of throwing the ball at all. As a result, he sent rainbows to second and third base and little lobs back to the pitcher. Now that Stanley has received some psychological counseling and is making better throws, people are telling him how much stronger his arm is. "My arm is the same as before," Stanley says. "I'm just not afraid to let it go anymore."

In each of the cases above, it's as if the player suddenly forgot how to throw a baseball, and, in effect, he did. Almost every season there are a few big league players who find themselves unable to perform an act that used to come almost as naturally as breathing. It has happened to infielders who've fired the ball to first more times than they've tied their shoelaces, to catchers who could once gun down the swiftest base runners and to pitchers who have made it to the majors on their pinpoint control. Somehow these players develop a mental block that inhibits the simple act of throwing. It's baseball's version of the putting yips in golf. Without warning, the infielder begins launching balls into the stands, the catcher can't get it to the mound on a line, and the pitcher starts regularly denting the screen behind the plate. And it seems only to happen during games, rarely in practice. So bizarre is the phenomenon that it would be comic—except that careers hang in the balance.

Players who have suffered from such a block certainly find nothing funny about it. When Stanley first sought counsel in 1989, he told a sports psychologist, "Help me. I'm beginning to hate this game."

In the ninth inning of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 1983 home opener, Andre Dawson, then with the Montreal Expos, tripled into rightfield. Steve Sax, then the Dodgers' second baseman, scurried into short right to take the cutoff. Dawson had stopped at third, but Sax hummed it home anyway. The ball bounded away, and Dawson scored. "It was a pretty average error," says Sax. "But I started thinking about it. I started losing my confidence, my timing. Pretty soon they were gone."

By mid-August Sax had made 30 errors, most of them stray throws. In the All-Star Game in July he had demonstrated his mysterious malady before a national television audience by bouncing a throw in front of first baseman Al Oliver—who was standing less than 40 feet away from him. After that public display, the mental block of the easy throw came to be dubbed "Steve Sax disease" and the errant tosses "Sax attacks." But Sax's case wasn't the first.

A host of major league catchers—Johnny Edwards, Clint Courtney, Fran Healy, Ray Fosse and Jim Hegan—have suffered at various times from the same malady. Seven-time All-Star Dale Murphy started his pro career as a catcher, but he was moved to the outfield because he developed a mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher. "The problem, to a degree, existed throughout my career," says Healy, who caught 415 games over nine seasons in the majors during the '70s. "But I was able to hide it. I'd just flip it back real easy to the pitchers. I'd walk out after every pitch and say something to the pitcher, like 'Stay low' or 'Keep on it' or 'Bad call.' As a catcher you can disguise a problem like this. Pitchers can't. Their careers are over."

Steve Blass was a pitcher who never recovered from his mental block. He entered the 1973 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates with a career ERA of 3.24, allowing an average of 1.96 walks per game. But that season he was 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA, walking 84 batters in less than 89 innings. A season later Blass was out of baseball. "You have no idea how frustrating it is," he said during spring training in 1974. "You don't know where you're going to throw the ball. You're afraid you might hurt someone. You know you're embarrassing yourself, but you can't do anything about it. You're helpless. Totally afraid and helpless. A sore arm is tangible. I can understand that. There's a reason. But what was happening to me...."

For catchers and infielders the embarrassment factor is compounded by the fact that the throwing errors occur not on difficult plays but on easy ones. Sasser can still throw out base runners. Sax, even when his confidence was at its shakiest, could make the tough throw from deep behind second base. Fariss can go in the hole at shortstop and make the strong throw. Why does it happen only on the easy plays—for catchers, the toss back to the pitcher; for infielders, after the easy bouncer hit right to them? Every player who has battled such a mental block answers this question with the same words: "Because you have time to think." (Pitchers, of course, have time to think before every pitch.)

"The easiest thing a catcher has to do is throw the ball to the pitcher," Healy says. "It's a thing that should be as easy as opening a door. But having to think about something that simple makes it a problem."

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

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

But what triggers this odd mechanism in the first place? The initial causes vary. Sasser's block began in 1987 after he was hit on the shoulder during a Triple A game in Calgary. He recovered from the injury, but, he says, "Ever since then, I can't flick the ball back to the pitcher." The problem was apparent last season, when Sasser started 67 games as catcher for the Mets, and seems to have worsened this spring.

For Stanley the traumatizing factor was a statistic. "I'd never heard of throwing percentage before I came to the big leagues," he says. "I got here, and that's what catchers are judged on. We had a very slow staff [delivering the ball to the plate], but I started thinking that it was me. I'd make one bad throw and hope that the next guy wouldn't run on me. I'd never given it a thought before, but once I did...."

For former Detroit Tiger Darnell Coles, the thrower's malady began at spring training in 1987. "I went in knowing third base was mine. I was confident," he says. "The first six games of the regular season, I had three errors. Then disaster really struck. I had a three-error game in Kansas City, then a few weeks later I had three more in another game. It got to the point where I wanted to cry. I really didn't want the ball hit to me. I wanted to die. Just crawl in a hole."

During a spring game in '77, Murphy made some bad throws to second base while he was playing catcher for the Atlanta Braves. The next day, when one of the Yankees ran on him, Murphy threw the ball to the outfield fence on one hop. Later that year he twice plunked his own pitcher in the back on throws to second. "Your mind won't let your natural abilities flow," Murphy says. "Your mind interferes, and you start thinking, Where am I throwing? What am I doing? instead of just throwing. Your mind starts working against you."

The affliction is sometimes exacerbated by a player's teammates or his own manager, who make it difficult for him to forget his last wild peg. Last season some of the Mets pitchers complained to manager Bud Harrelson about Sasser, saying he was disrupting their pitching rhythms. Opponents are even less likely to provide comfort. During one game last year, the Expos began loudly counting Sasser's pumps into his glove, then applauded derisively when he finally made his throw to the mound. (They stopped only when a Mets pitcher threatened to bean the next Expo hitter he faced.)

But why is it that one player makes an error and forgets about it, while another makes an error and forgets about everything else?

What all players with a thrower's mental block have in common is fear. Psychologists call it a fear of failure; athletes, when they acknowledge it at all, call it choking. Stanley says, "Now I see how many guys have it. I never realized before 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."

"You can't be afraid to fail," says former major league manager Chuck Tanner. "If you worry about failing, you will. The biggest reason behind these throwing mysteries is players trying not to make mistakes. You can't play that way. You have to play the way you did when you were a kid and not be afraid."

So why should a player suddenly become terrified? Dick Lister, a sports psychologist in Costa Mesa, Calif., and a former minor league player, says, "To know why Sax or anybody has this problem, you'd have to know something about his childhood, about his relationship with his parents." Cy Young meet C. Jung.

These athletes, though, aren't hatched in the major leagues; they've all played under pressure before at some level. Is there something that ignites this crisis of confidence in a player? Says Lister, "Maybe there was a significant event in his personal life—with his wife or girlfriend, or a business failure. Something that caused a loss of self-esteem, and he started to question himself."

What, then, might serve to interrupt this complex cycle of deteriorating confidence? Many cures have been suggested. For example, a player should take the can of chewing tobacco out of his back pocket. That, at least, was what one letter writer offered as a remedy to Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Bruce Ruffin in 1988 when he lost his control (the writer's theory was that the tin of snuff was pressing on a nerve in Ruffin's leg). The Mets' Harrelson has also been receiving letters every week from backyard psychologists and basement physiologists who claim that they can cure Sasser.

The afflicted players, sometimes desperate with frustration, are willing to try almost anything. Blass tried pitching from second base. Courtney used to bring neighborhood kids into Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., to pitch to him so he could practice throwing the balls back to them. The Dodgers tied a sock over Sax's eyes and made him throw balls to first base blindfolded. Coles was told to throw sidearm (he made just as many wayward throws, he says, and he felt more unnatural doing it). The Mets have had Sasser practice throwing from his knees.

"Everybody wants to help solve the problem," says Fariss, then, after a pause, "or help create one." The most common—and least helpful—suggestion anyone can make to a player with a mental block is to tell him not to think about it. Says Sax, "It's like a big elephant in front of you. You can't ignore it."

Daniel Wegner, a professor at the University of Virginia who has studied how people suppress thoughts, has discovered that, paradoxically, the more a person tries not to think about something, the more difficult it is to forget it. Wegner says, "People will develop an obsession, not because there's anything interesting about it, but because so much energy is paid in trying to suppress it. For some, the cure is thinking about it every day, until they just get sick of it. And when they allow themselves to think about it on purpose, they think they have control. The thing to do is tell everybody you see. Talk about it, even laugh about it."

The discovery that there are other ballplayers who have had these mental blocks, and talking to them about the problem, seems to help struggling players most. "It helped when I saw that I wasn't alone," says Stanley. "Because for a long time I thought I was." Coles says, "Nobody ever told me that other players went through it. They just told me I stunk."

Sax, who hasn't suffered from Sax disease since 1985, has become something of a guru to those stricken with thrower's mental block. A week and a half ago, before a split-squad game between the Mets and Yankees in Fort Lauderdale, Sasser sought out Sax's advice. Sax told him that visualizing strong, accurate throws had helped him get over his block. Sasser says, "I've been working with people on visualization. But either the throw's going to come or it's not. What can you do? Just pray." Stanley, too, has tried visualization. "But all I could visualize was making an errant throw. I couldn't even visualize myself making a good one."

It has taken two years for Stanley's confidence to be restored. "Everything I do, I tell myself that I did it the best that I could," he says. "I tell myself that that was a good throw, but he got a good jump. But you can say positive things over and over again, and it won't help. You have to believe it. It has taken me this long to finally believe it."

If special drills, visualization and positive thinking all fail, a player, as a last resort, is asked to change position. In 1984, Dave Engle, then the Twins' catcher, was named to the All-Star team even though he could only lob the ball back to the pitcher when there was a runner on base. Rick Stelmaszek, the Twins' bullpen coach, says, "He got by with it for a while, but what I think really got him was the time Alfredo Griffin timed the lob and went from second to third. Dave really got uptight after that." He spent the next four years with four different teams, playing first base, third base, outfield and—very little—behind the plate.

Murphy went from being a scatter-armed catcher who endangered his pitchers to a five-time Gold Glove winner in the outfield. "I did start to relax in the outfield," Murphy says. "I realized I could go out and throw it 240 feet. You're not trying to pinpoint it, you just try to get it close."

This spring the Rangers decided to turn Fariss, their shortstop of the future, into their second baseman of the future. "I don't like to give up on something," Fariss says. "But lots of people change positions. Ten years later nobody remembers why they moved. But there must have been some reason."

Fariss has no difficulty making the throw from the second base position, so that's where he'll play this season for Triple A Oklahoma City. The Mets will try Sasser in the outfield and third base, and occasionally he'll catch. And Stanley will catch for the Rangers. "I'm going to make errant throws," Stanley said last week while sitting in front of his locker at the Rangers' spring camp in Port Charlotte, Fla. "But I can't let it affect the next one. It's a constant battle." As he spoke, a group of five or six kids played catch just outside the clubhouse door, throwing the ball as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

TWO PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMONSasser's difficulty in tossing the ball back to the pitcher cost him a job as starting catcher. Errant throws from the shortstop position have forced Farris (right) to play second base. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (SAX)When Sax (above) displayed the effects of his mental block on national TV, his name became synonymous with the affliction. Blass (right) suddenly couldn't find the plate and never recovered. PHOTOJAMES DRAKE (BLASS)[See caption above.] PHOTOTOM DIPACEBefore Stanley got psychological help, he said that he was "beginning to hate this game."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)