Monday, August 15, 2011

It's A Game Of Feel

It's a battle that every baseball player fights, and one that most of us have lost from time to time. Baseball, unlike football or basketball (but surprisingly similar to golf), is a game of feel. The way a ball leaves your fingers, or the way a bat feels clutched both firmly and loosely in your hands at the plate. The tenuous transfer of a ball from glove to bare hand. No matter how fast you can run a 60 yd. dash, how high your vertical is, or how many times you can bench 225 lbs., the "feel" of the game can be lost in the blink of an eye.

As professional baseball players, we are keenly aware of this struggle. All of us have seen someone get the "Yips". You know, when a guy can't seem to throw the ball 50 feet without airmailing it or skipping it 37 times. Or when a guy will literally swing at anything thrown within a mile radius of home plate. Everyday we set foot on the field there is a thought, crammed into the depths of our sub-conscious, that replays the phrase "I hope I haven't forgotten how to do this." It's a fragile thing, this baseball game. So in order to preserve our abilities we have adopted strict routines and absurd rituals (superstitions if you must) to shelter us from the harrowing reality that "feel" comes and goes.

Guys will go through the same stretching routine everyday. They will eat/drink the same concoction if it will get them closer to .300. Hitters will tighten their batting gloves exactly 5 times before heading up to the plate where they will execute the same practice swings before every pitch. Pitchers will pick up the rosin bag on their way counter clockwise around the mound, pat it twice and toss it to their right, clean the rubber and lick their fingers, all before delivering the first warm up pitch. These are just examples, but you get my drift. Personally, I have a few idiosyncrasies of my own. I will only turn gloveside when receiving a ball from the third baseman. I will wipe away the trail of dirt that my foot makes in front of the rubber after each pitch. I won't ever pick up the rosin bag...only touch it while it's resting on the ground. These started out as fidgets. After some success, though, they turned into superstitions. After enough time passed they turned into habits, which eventually bloom into routines.

Are baseball players superstitious? Yes. But more than anything, we are men of routine. It is our coping mechanism. Nothing is more important in the game of baseball than confidence. In a game so constructed around failure and the volatility of success, the ability to remain confident in the face of adversity is what sets players apart. I am sure that the most critical catalyst to confidence is a personalized and repeatable routine. For every routine that is visible on TV or on the field...Nomar's toe taps and glove tightening, Fidrych's antics on the rubber, Heath Bell sprinting in from the bullpen, Big Papi's spit and clap, Ichiro's Samuri-esque bat salute...there are countless more routines that go on behind closed doors. All of which serve to keep the "feel" of this fragile game firm within our grasp.

It's a funny thing how someone can lose it so quickly. How a hitter, after 500 at bats, can fall into an 0-40 slump. Or how a pitcher can throw so well for 4 innings and implode the following inning. Most of us have been playing this game since we were about 5 years old. Thousands upon thousands of throws, swings, grounders, pop flys. At some point you would think that muscle memory would take over, but there's a barrier to that...Us. I can go out and throw well 4 or 5 starts in a row, then in a mid-week bullpen throw a few pitches that "just don't feel right". After making a few small adjustments something else begins to feel a little askew. No worries, I can just make another adjustment and be fine. After 50 pitches I can make so many minor adjustments that I begin to feel lost in my mechanics. Focusing on when my hands are breaking, how high my leg is going, where my foot is landing. My muscles want to take over and do what they know how to do, but my mind won't let them. It's a slippery slope, and a self-induced one at that.

To eliminate the possibility of falling into that abyss, I have a bullpen routine. 32 pitches, good, bad, or indifferent. No more, no less. It's enough to feel comfortable on the mound again, but not enough to let me confuse myself. Hitters are the same way. Batting practice is 4 rounds with a certain amount of swings per round. If it's a bad round, it isn't enough to frustrate you too much. If all the rounds are bad then you just get to come back and do it all over again tomorrow. Setting limits on our routines protects us from ourselves, which in turn produces positive results more often. It's inevitable that "feel" will come and go. As ballplayers, we can only hope that our routines will see it stay longer than its gone.