The Secret Life of Pitchers
What happens on the mound has more to do with the mind than the arm.
The Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, will never be mistaken for a rebel. He’s a 58-year-old Harvard Law School grad who clerked for a U.S. district judge appointed by Richard Nixon; became a partner at the lofty Philadelphia law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; and made his name in the league negotiating collective-bargaining agreements and investigating the Biogenesis doping scandal of 2013. The guy even wears a tie when he throws out the first pitch at games.
Yet as Manfred enters his third year as commissioner, no one should underestimate just how much of a baseball radical he is. Since taking over in 2015, Manfred has imposed new strictures on the use of instant replay, banished chewing tobacco from the field for new players, abolished the decade-and-a-half-old rule that the All-Star Game decides home-field advantage at the World Series, and now inaugurated the no-pitch intentional walk. But his most explosive ideas are yet to come. Manfred has floated the notion of limiting defensive shifts and the number of pitching changes a team can make, altering the strike zone, and shortening the season. He has even said that he’d consider, when a game reaches extra innings, automatically putting a runner on second base. (The rookie leagues are doing just that this year.)
Manfred’s guiding principle is “pace of play,” rooted in a presumed need to appease increasingly restless fans: Millennials who supposedly (proof is lacking) can’t keep their eyes off their phones. Speeding up the game has become a full-on crusade, and Manfred is focused on the feature of baseball that entails the most standing around—the pitch. The pitch clock, which was introduced into the minor leagues in 2015, shortened games by an average of 12 minutes, for example. He has talked about wanting batters to hurry up and get in the box, catchers to hurry up and flash the sign, and pitchers to hurry up and pitch.
But here, in daring to contemplate meddling in the action (or seeming inaction) on the mound, Manfred is in for trouble. A pitcher throwing to a batter is the most elemental event in baseball: Nothing can happen until the pitcher releases the ball. All the fielders, all the base runners—they’re just bystanders like the rest of us. The drama out there on the field can’t compare with the drama going on between those two men, one poised to pitch and the other to hit, each trying to outsmart the other. Mess with that delicate balance, and I’m not sure the sport will be baseball anymore.
Talk about pressure: A multibillion-dollar industry—one that has been a centerpiece of American popular culture for more than a century—rests on a figure standing alone in the grass with millions of eyes staring at him. Such a pivotal role can exact a high price, as Rick Ankiel discovered one day back in October 2000. The Cardinals phenom, who made his Major League debut at 20, was described as the next Sandy Koufax, blessed with a 95-mph fastball and a backbreaking curveball that Mark McGwire called “The Snapdragon.” As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I felt that the whole world changed when Ankiel arrived in 1999. We had a new Bob Gibson, heck, a new Bobby Fischer or Mozart: a kid who could do the most difficult job in the world without even thinking about it, just because he had lightning-bolt talent straight from the gods.
On October 3, 2000, though, the magic vanished. Ankiel was making his first postseason start, against the future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. The Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, himself a future Hall of Famer, was so concerned about the pressure that he lied to the press and told them someone other than Ankiel was starting. In his new autobiography, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch That Changed My Life, written with Tim Brown, Ankiel reports that he wasn’t sure what the big deal was: It was just another game, right? Then, without warning and without reason, it wasn’t.
Ankiel notes the exact moment that everything fell apart: “Forty-fourth pitch of the game. Third inning. One out. A one-strike count to Andruw Jones. Greg Maddux at first base. Cardinals 6, Braves 0. Throw strikes, keep the ball in the big part of the park, nothing crazy, we win. I win. The future wins.” He winds up.
Everything was fine. I wasn’t tired. Not too hot, not too cold … Head was clear. No thoughts of anything other than a curveball, so natural there’d be no need to consider the mechanics of it.
He released the pitch a little late. Just a little late, but it went awry, a wild pitch, far away from the catcher, Carlos Hernández. “I stood near the front of the mound and watched all of it happen, sort of curious.”
Suddenly, Ankiel could no longer pitch. He threw four more wild pitches in the inning, along with four walks. He left the field with, as he puts it, “one psyche forever hobbled.” A friend of mine who was at Busch Stadium that day said the crowd’s reaction was akin to 50,000 people reacting as one to the sight of their child being punched in the stomach, five times, by a bully. In subsequent seasons, Ankiel attempted comeback after comeback. But he couldn’t recover the old command.
How could this happen? In Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, & the Art of Deception, the reporter Terry McDermott quotes Hank Aaron saying, “The pitcher has got only a ball. I’ve got a bat. So the percentage of weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting.” We’re all waiting on the pitcher, and nobody knows that better than he does. Much of McDermott’s book—which features chapters on fastballs, changeups, and spitballs, and a discussion of one game in particular, the Seattle Mariners pitcher Félix Hernández’s August 15, 2012, perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays—focuses on the power the pitcher has to dictate all that surrounds him. That power, as McDermott understands, involves the brain far more than it does the arm.
McDermott’s deeply felt portrayal of the men on the mound is informed by an awareness of how much of what they do takes place in their head. A pitcher’s job is to upset a hitter’s timing, to get him off his rhythm—which means entering his mind. Jamie Moyer, who pitched for the Phillies and many other teams too, could not throw a 90-mph fastball but thrived on his ability to fool hitters into thinking that one was just around the corner. Give them a slow pitch, and he could count on them to overestimate the speed of what he threw next. “I would never have had a career if it wasn’t for the pride of major league hitters,” he tells McDermott. “They were determined to never get beat by a fastball.”
A hitter’s job is, essentially, to guess what a pitcher is thinking—which means that a pitcher needs time to think. Imagine if he had to throw on the run, or before he was tackled by a rushing linebacker. The mental battle staged between the mound and home plate is the catalyst for every other contest on the field. No wonder batters try to steal signs or find a pitcher’s “tell,” like a poker player’s. (McDermott reports that when Babe Ruth was a pitcher, he would stick out his tongue slightly before throwing a curveball. That giveaway was one of the reasons he became a hitter.) But when a pitcher is in peak control, physically and mentally, as Félix Hernández was on that day in August 2012, he can be virtually unhittable.
And then comes a day like that one in October 12 years earlier. Ankiel didn’t suddenly lose the ability to throw hard, or to make his curveball move as if controlled by a string. He still had all the talent that made Cardinals fans like me so excited. But in an instant, he ceased to be able to summon it. Ankiel calls his affliction—one shared by various haunted souls in baseball history, perhaps most notably the former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass—“The Thing.” He doesn’t know why it decided to attack him, and he spends most of the book earnestly searching for answers. He talks to sports psychologists and former managers, to fellow pitchers, even to Blass. He talks to his therapist and his family. (His father was a two-bit criminal who abused his mother and made Ankiel’s childhood a series of nightmares suffered in public, at times on a youth-league pitching mound.) Their insights are no more helpful than his ultimate conclusion: There was no reason. Ankiel offers the analogy of dealing with a rabid dog.
If a boy had reached to pet a large dog and that dog had bitten him, he’d think of that pain every time he put his hand near a dog again. That’s what pitching had become for me, even when I was pitching well enough to keep pitching. Every time I picked up a baseball, I was reaching out to that dog. Its ears were back. It was growling. My heart raced. The blood drained from my head. I reached further and hoped it wouldn’t bite and waited for the pain.
In his surprisingly open and compelling memoir—a standout in the motley genre of athlete autobiographies—Ankiel details his many efforts to cope with the problem, from drinking to drugs to a brief retirement to deciding that he’d rather forget pitching altogether, returning as a hitter and an outfielder instead. “I couldn’t recall being in higher spirits,” he writes of that turning point. His victory is understanding that no matter how much talent you have, no matter how much will and determination you might muster, you will always be constrained by the limits of your own mind. Ankiel doesn’t know why he can’t pitch anymore. All he knows is that he can’t.
It’s the rare quarterback who loses the ability to throw the ball downfield, or basketball player who can’t shoot free throws. “Target panic” is a term among archers, and golfers are familiar with the yips. In baseball, an especially fertile field for the affliction, when catchers and infielders get stuck, easy plays seem to pose the challenge—“because you have time to think,” sufferers will say. For pitchers, of course, no throw is possible without just that. Ankiel loved being at bat, because for him, the task was reactive rather than proactive; he just saw the ball and hit it. (That approach ultimately proved to be his weakness, and the reason he was out of the game at 33. His raw power left his swing full of massive holes that Major League pitchers happily exploited.) It’s of note that when he made throws from the outfield, he could fire off 300-foot bullets with unerring precision. The brain gets in the way—yet the brain makes the game.
A once-in-a-generation arm like Ankiel’s is only a tiny part of a drama that can’t be rushed. If you forgo patience in the name of picking up the pace, you lose that Old West–style showdown between two men staring at each other—and you risk fundamentally altering what gives baseball its eternal allure. Baseball is a beloved game in large part because it can be played by anyone. It isn’t a sport suited only to monsters and giants, for a simple and subtle reason: It is more about the mind, and the soul, than the body. Rob Manfred wants to save baseball. But the best way to save the game is to let it be.
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