Pat, pat, stride, release. The young catcher rises from his crouch and goes through this new routine each time he tosses the ball back to the pitcher, practicing the choreography he hopes will return him to the big leagues. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 25, was the Opening Day catcher for the Rangers, a 6'4", 235-pound switch-hitter with a promising future. But that was before his arm—or was it his mind?—betrayed him, before he began throwing wildly back to the pitcher, at first just occasionally, then several times a game. What do you do when a simple task becomes so complicated? You try to take your brain out of the equation. That's what Saltalamacchia is doing now in Oklahoma City with Texas's Triple A team: making sure to tap the ball twice against his glove before stepping toward the pitcher and throwing in hopes of committing the new rhythm to muscle memory.
This is an article from the June 7, 2010 issue
Pat, pat, stride, release. The old catcher sighs deeply when he hears of the young one's routine. "I hope it helps him," Mackey Sasser says, "but I don't think it will—not long term, anyway. I tried everything he's doing, changing my mechanics, the way I gripped the ball. That kind of fix was never the answer for me." Sasser, 47, knows what it's like to spray the field like buckshot with his return throws. He knows about Saltalamacchia's demotion to Oklahoma City, where in one game in May he made 12 throws that either bounced on the way to the mound or sailed over the pitcher's head. Sasser, who played nine years with the Giants, Pirates, Mets and Mariners, developed the same inexplicable wildness in 1991, and by '95 he was out of baseball. His legacy? The mysterious problem from which Saltalamacchia suffers is often called Sasser syndrome.
Sasser, now the coach at Wallace Community College in Dothan, Ala., found an answer, though it wasn't until his playing days were over. After listening to advice from dozens of sources and trying all kinds of remedies—the Mariners had him hypnotized by a priest and ordered teammates to put orange dots in their gloves to give Sasser a better target—he met sports psychologist David Grand. With the help of Rob Polishook, a mental-training coach, Grand treated Sasser the person, not just the ex-catcher with the yips. They encouraged Sasser to open up not only about the anxieties related to his wildness but also about other, seemingly unrelated traumas. Before long Sasser was telling them about personal upheavals such as his parents' divorce when he was 10. "Performance blocks like Mackey's are more the symptom than the disease," Polishook says. "We try to get to the underlying causes, and those can be both on and off the field. It's not so much a matter of fixing a throwing problem as it is resolving the issues that led to the throwing problem."
Now that the old catcher has some answers, he would like to share them with the young one. Sasser has sent Saltalamacchia, or Salty, as everyone calls him, his phone number and e-mail address, but so far he has received no response, maybe because the Rangers, who would not make Saltalamacchia available to SI, are publicly downplaying the problem. "I know what it's like," Sasser says. "You feel like you've got 500 pounds on your shoulders. Everybody wants to talk to you, and you can't listen to all those voices."
But the young catcher should pick the old catcher's voice out of the babble. If ever two players needed to meet and talk, it's Salty and Sasser. Other players have suddenly developed scattershot arms: pitchers Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel, and second basemen Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch. But no two case histories have been so nearly identical as those of the young catcher and the old one.
Saltalamacchia had shoulder surgery last September and believes his throwing problems stem from the poor mechanics he developed by coming back too soon. Sasser's struggles began when he was hit by a pitch on his right shoulder in 1990; he changed his throwing motion because of soreness, then changed his stride after injuring his ankle in a home plate collision. "Before long, I made a few bad throws, and then I started thinking about it before every throw, wondering if I could get it there on target," he says. "Then I was in trouble."
Saltalamacchia isn't without a sounding board. He has been working with sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, and lately he's been showing progress. There have been no more 12-throw nightmares, although in a recent game he one-hopped a throw back to the mound, sent another into centerfield and still another toward the second baseman, all with no one on base. He's hitting .298 with five homers in 25 games for the RedHawks, but he won't be called back to the Rangers until he has an extended stretch with no wildness, according to Texas G.M. Jon Daniels. "It's like you're on a cliff and you tell yourself not to look down," Saltalamacchia told reporters several weeks ago. "No one understands until they go through it themselves."
Sasser understands. "Everyone kept saying I had a phobia," Sasser said. "I didn't have a phobia. I just had a lot of things built up inside of me. [Polishook and Grand] taught me how to release all of that and just let it go. That's one of the things I'd say to the young guy: Just let go of those issues inside you, and you'll find the throwing takes care of itself."
Pat, pat, stride, release. The old catcher wants the young catcher to know that the most important part is always the release.
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