Damn You, Little Man!

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"So,
do you, like, play for a league?" asked the 15-year-old as
I exited the batting cage. "No — I just come hit at the cages
once in a while," I replied as a wryly self-satisfied smile
played at the corners of my mouth. "You hit that thing pretty
good," he continued, pulling on his own batting gloves and
feeding a token into the machine. "I'm not even sure I can
get around on it."

Like millions
of other men of a certain age (all right — 42), I've spent a scandalous
amount of time and money at batting cages, reliving (well, all
right — embroidering) adolescent glories. The last time I faced
live pitching, KC and the Sunshine Band was still charting on
the Top 40, and Walter Cronkite was signing off each evening's
newscast with a grim tally of the days Americans had been held
in Iranian captivity.

My batting
average in my final year of High School baseball was .475. My
performance fell off precipitously in American Legion competition
until our hitting coach — a veritable Yoda in such matters — initiated
me into the mysteries of the Walt
Hriniak/Charlie Lau school of hitting
. As a result I wouldn't
lunge pitifully after curveballs. Pitches suddenly loomed as large
as basketballs, and cruise-missile line drives began flying off
my bat.

But as if
in obedience to some iron law of compensatory misfortune, as one
mystery was solved, an even greater one took its place. No longer
bedeviled by the curve ball, I fell prey to a pitiless demon known
as "The Little Man."

Baseball
players are a notoriously superstitious lot, careful to observe
a pious silence about certain subjects. For instance, a pitcher
who is working on a no-hitter will be shunned in the dugout, lest
a thoughtless teammate make casual mention of the fact, thereby
jinxing the hurler's performance. But the diffidence displayed
by a pitcher's teammates during a no-hitter is nothing compared
to the terrified silence of most players regarding The Little
Man — a psychological affliction that has killed numerous baseball
careers, both amateur and professional.

The Little
Man, explains former Florida Marlins manager John Boles, can suddenly
visit any player without warning while he is performing the most
elementary task in the game — throwing the baseball. He "sits
right here on your shoulder and talks to you," says Boles.
"He's whispering in your ear. Gets in your head when you're
throwing. And you can't believe — baseballs go up, down, inside,
outside, all over the place."

"When
the brain has negative activity during a motor skill — it can
be hate, anger, doubt — it impedes the electrical impulses throwing
a baseball requires," elaborates retired pitcher Steve Rogers,
who has been a special assistant for the Major League Baseball
Players Association. According to Rogers, who grappled briefly
with The Little Man during his career, a player "is going
through his motor skills and in that fraction of a second … in
his mind at light speed is `Don't screw it up.' That negative
thought is enough to alter the action."

Pitchers,
predictably, are well represented among The Little Man's victims.
The most notable recent case of that variety involves Rick
Ankiel
, a young southpaw signed by the Cardinals amid speculation
that he may be Sandy Koufax's tulku.
After an impressive rookie season in 2000, Ankiel suffered a complete
breakdown during the division playoff series with the Atlanta
Braves. In the first inning of Game 1, the 21-year-old — who had
been renowned for his control — became the first Major League
pitcher in 110 years to throw five wild pitches in one inning.
The next season, Ankiel pitched only six games for the Cardinals,
eventually descending all the way to the rookie-level Appalachian
League. He's currently in AA ball trying to re-create himself
as an outfielder.

The affliction
that appears to have ruined Ankiel's career was once known as
the "Steve
Blass Disease,"
named for the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander
who won Game Seven of the 1971 World Series — and who was gone
by 1973 after his control deserted him. Blass's name is hopelessly
associated with the condition; in fact, an early 1990s episode
of the TV series "Northern Exposure" used the expression
"Steve Blass Disease" as a generic description of someone
who has simply "lost it."

Blass isn't
the only former Major Leaguer whose name has become indelibly
affixed to this mysterious mental block. In some circles the malady
is known as the "Sasser Syndrome" in honor (as it were)
of former journeyman catcher Mackey Sasser, whose promising career
was cut short after he succumbed in 1991. This illustrates a particularly
cruel facet of The Little Man. When a pitcher can't throw the
ball to the catcher, he's lost his control, and becomes an object
of sympathy. A catcher who suddenly can't throw the ball back
to the pitcher becomes an object of indignant scorn.

Newsday
for May 15, 1991 reported that Sasser's role as starting catcher
for the Mets was in abeyance "until he overcomes his phobia
about throwing the ball back to the pitcher… Sasser made his fourth
start of the season Monday night but was removed in the seventh
inning after he had trouble returning the ball to the mound. He
would tap the ball in his glove as many as six times before throwing
it back. Pitcher Dave Cone had to come in toward the plate at
times to receive the throw."

"I really
don't have any answers," commented then-Mets GM Frank Cashen.
"I've seen it before. Probably the most unfortunate thing
about it is that the people who have it very seldom are cured."
It certainly didn't help that Sasser had to endure abuse from
fans, opposing players, teammates, and even some umpires.

A left-handed-hitting
catcher who hit .307 in 1990, Sasser tried to reshape himself
into a third baseman, first baseman, and outfielder, with no success.
Like Blass, Sasser became the subject of an unwanted ironic tribute:
The ever-mutating Sasser D computer virus was named
after the forlorn ex-ballplayer
. (Had his career not been
blighted by The Little Man, Sasser may have become an avatar of
another left-handed-hitting catcher, Yogi Berra; witness Sasser's
comment that his wife "went into contraptions" during
the birth of their first child.)

By whatever
name it's known — The Little Man, the Steve Blass Disease, the
Sasser
Syndrome
, the "Yips"
— the incapacitating condition afflicts more than a few catchers,
who (in the words of baseball commentator Bruce Markusen) "become
fearful of one of the game's most basic and ritualistic acts."

Clint Courtney,
the 1952 rookie of the year, suffered a bout for 10 days during
the 1953 season (which doubtless made playing for the inglorious
Washington Senators that much more difficult to bear). His solution
was to throw the ball to the third baseman, who would return it
to the pitcher. Courtney's condition cured itself as suddenly
as it appeared, but for its duration the Senators actually had
two catchers suited up at the beginning of each game.

Mike Ivie,
a 17-year-old recruited by the San Diego Padres in 1970, developed
a crippling case after beginning his minor league career, and
twice turned down a chance at the Majors because he didn't want
to catch. Before Dale Murphy became one of the most dominant players
of the 1980s as a center fielder, he was a frustrated catcher
prone to return pitches by casting the ball into center field.

Other position
players — such as All-Star second basemen Steve Sax of the Dodgers
and Chuck Knoblauch – have been touched by the same plague. And
almost without exception the condition has no identifiable connection
to an injury or other physical ailment. Some of those who suffered
— Dale Murphy in particular — had strong and accurate throwing
arms, but found it almost impossible to make routine short throws.

Similar mental
blocks have tormented skeet-shooters, bowlers, golfers, and other
athletes who find themselves incapacitated without warning. Unpleasant
as it is to be defeated after offering one's best effort, it is
unbearable to find one's self incapable of performing rudimentary
physical tasks learned as a young child — such as throwing a baseball
in a reasonably straight line for a short distance.

Because thinking
is the apparent cause of the disorder, and thoughts are transmissible
through speech, baseball players refuse to discuss it — lest it
prove contagious. Thus a player who falls victim — like I did
as a 17-year-old catcher playing American Legion ball in Idaho
— often believes himself to be at once uniquely debilitated and
the carrier of a highly infectious disorder.

As a High
School player, I once caught all three ends of a triple-header
(Idaho Cross-State League tournament, May 1980 — as Ring Lardner
would say, you can look it up), going 7-for-12 and throwing out
three baserunners. When I wasn't behind the plate, I was often
deployed to right field, a position reserved for the outfielder
with the strongest arm. Throwing from a crouch, I could often
nail a runner trying to steal second. I hit for average and power,
and had relatively good speed for a catcher.

But then
one terrible June night, at McDermott
Field
in Idaho Falls, The Little Man materialized on my shoulder
late in an extra-inning game. My coach, thinking the problem was
fatigue, moved me to right field — where I threw out a runner
trying to go from first to third on a single (the fool). "Nope
— the arm's fine," I concluded, thinking the problem was
a momentary lapse.

Then two
games later, on our home field, The Little Man paid a return visit
during the first game of a double-header – against the
hated Boise Senators
, no less.
I sat out the second game, but two nights later was behind the
plate in Pocatello. To my unspeakable relief, my tormentor had
departed. I spent the rest of the season exiled to the outfield,
and never caught another game.

When the
Madison High Bobcats
took the field the next spring, a different catcher was behind
the plate, and I was in the stands. As the game got underway,
I focussed carefully on my friend Shane, who was clad in the "Tools
of Ignorance" I had once proudly worn. Three pitches into
the game, I detected the slightest equivocation as Shane returned
the ball to Kyle on the mound. My skin grew clammy, and flop sweat
condensed on my brow: I knew that my friend, who had taken the
field after my courage had failed, was about to encounter my nemesis.
Sure enough — after the very next pitch Shane heaved the
ball halfway to second base.

Without a
word to anyone, I bolted from the stands, got in my car, and went
home. It was bad enough that I was banished from baseball — but
to be the carrier of this unspeakable plague was simply beyond
endurance.

I didn't
attend a single game for the rest of the school year, and Shane
never experienced The Little Man again. In spite of — or maybe
because of — my absence as both player and spectator, my former
teammates went on to win the 1981 Idaho AA state championship.
Until recently, I had thought the enfeebling condition that had
driven me from the game I loved more than food or water was my
private, personal curse. Now I can console myself with the thought
that I actually contributed to that state championship by taking
The Little Man with me.

May
20, 2005

William
Norman Grigg [send
him mail
] writes for The
New American
magazine.

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