Damn You, Little Man!

"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