It has been known by many names over the years, normally as a mythical “disease” associated with a prominent baseball player who had his career inexplicably and suddenly derailed by it. From Steve Blass to Steve Sax to Mackey Sasser “disease,” being diagnosed with The Thing is more devastating for a baseball player than a torn rotator cuff or virtually any kind of physical injury. While advances in medicine have provided a means to remedy most physical setbacks, there is no known cure for this malady.
The Thing occurs when a player who has naturally and effortlessly thrown a ball for essentially his entire life suddenly loses the ability to come anywhere close to his target. It may be considered a version of the yips, but The Thing is far worse. For a catcher—the case with Mackey Sasser—it might be the sudden inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. For an infielder (second baseman Steve Sax), it can manifest itself in preventing the player from making the simple, short throw to first. For a pitcher (Steve Blass, Rick Ankiel), who takes pride in the specific ability to command where he is throwing the ball with precision, contracting The Thing can be especially ruinous.
There is no known or proven cause of The Thing that is widely accepted. All that is known is that once it has been contracted, the cure is almost impossible to attain. While some players have had success changing positions, most are soon forced to give up the game they love and have excelled at since childhood. The inexplicable sudden inability to do something that has become as natural as breathing is quickly accompanied by fear and embarrassment.
One summer, not too long ago, The Thing sunk its teeth into another victim—this one a left-handed pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds organization named Justin Carter. Justin had been acquired from the Colorado Rockies and was rated by scouts as a fringe major league prospect, having struck out 146 batters in 144 innings while going 13-6 in his second year of pro ball.
As it so often does, The Thing crept up quietly. Though hardly noticeable at the time, the first signs began to show up in staff game reports: “Justin had a hard time getting ahead in the count tonight. Seems to be fighting himself a bit on the mound.” Comments that are not uncommon in the world of player development were precursors of something far more distressing in this instance. Over the next few outings, the reports got worse, as Carter soon was unable to throw strikes of any kind with regularity. His next turn in the rotation was skipped so that he could “work on his mechanics.” Our top pitching instructor was also dispatched to no avail.
It wasn’t long before word came into the home office that Justin Carter had somehow contracted The Thing. I don’t know who made the “official” diagnosis, but no one needed to. When a player has The Thing, nobody has to say a word. The Thing is obvious to all. When Justin threw a pitch completely over the screen and into the stands during his last game, everyone involved, including Justin himself, knew that there was no ignoring this any longer.
Justin Carter was placed on the disabled list with “anxiety.” The minor league director was beside himself. None of the pitching coaches in the organization could detect a significant mechanical flaw, and no counseling sessions had been able to forge any progress. The reports were now coming back that Justin could not even throw the ball inside the big roll-away batting cage during batting practice! No batter on the team was willing to stand in the batter’s box against him, even for practice, so great was the fear of his wildness.
I arrived at the ballpark in Stockton, California, where our minor league team played its home games, just in time to see Justin attempting to play catch. He threw one ball not only over his partner’s head, but clear over the wall some 50-feet beyond where he was aiming. New ball in hand, he grossly overcompensated, driving it almost straight into the ground, more than 25-feet short of his intended target 75 feet away. I told the coach that was enough for now and to let Justin take the rest of the night off.
The next morning was a beautiful day under the California sun as I met with Justin and a couple coaches. We sat on a small set of bleachers on a quiet back field as we engaged in casual conversation with Justin that was no different from the small talk any two people meeting for the first time might enjoy. The clues provided during even a casual conversation, however, can reveal a person’s hardwired design. Justin was clearly a smart, big-picture thinker—the type who expected to be competent in anything he put his mind to and who was his own toughest critic. He was clearly hardwired to beat himself up thinking about how to overcome The Thing.
Before long, a coach tossed Justin’s glove to him, as the small talk continued. Sometimes related to baseball (“What pitches do you throw? How do you grip your curveball?”) and sometimes completely unrelated (“Where did you grow up? How many brothers and sisters do you have? What are your favorite foods?”), the conversation persisted as one coach quietly grabbed another glove and casually headed toward home plate.
Without realizing it, Justin was now standing in the vicinity of the pitchers mound wondering where this rather mindless discussion was headed as the coach casually flipped a baseball to him and motioned for him to toss it back. As the meandering conversation continued, Justin unwittingly began to do something he had done his entire life. As he answered question after question, Justin absent-mindedly began to play catch with his coach—something he had done on countless occasions over the years, yet something he had not been able to remotely accomplish for weeks now, no matter how hard he tried.
When he finally realized what he was doing, Justin couldn’t believe it. Immediately, he began to think, resulting in a wayward toss. We quickly reeled him back in, getting Justin’s mind back off of throwing with an off-topic inquiry. As the “therapy” quickly progressed, Justin began to gain confidence and, with our encouragement, he soon toed the rubber while the coach squatted down behind the plate. Justin Carter was pitching! Just as he had done all his life.
Before the morning was over, I had grabbed a bat and jumped in the batters box in street clothes! Though I didn’t take any hacks, I did show Justin Carter that, yes, he was still able to throw pitches with a batter standing at home plate.
In just a couple hours, an understanding of hardwired makeup had enabled us to accomplish something that no one in our organization had been able to do in weeks of trying. Justin was soon back on the mound, pitching in games, doing what he loved (and was paid) to do. The following season, in fact, he would post a 2.87 ERA in 69 innings. Though physical injuries would eventually derail his career for good, the breakthrough we made on that warm summer morning will never be forgotten.
The experience helping Justin Carter recover from a potentially devastating mental block is a prime example of how identifying and understanding hardwired makeup provides a guidebook for helping a player battle through slumps and be the best he can be. Hardwired makeup enables us to effectively understand and quantify the way each athlete’s mind functions. It gives us a more enlightened perspective in regard to both the athlete’s performance and behavior. This insight not only allows us to more accurately forecast an athlete’s potential, but to also implement optimal strategies designed to specifically help each player perform at his mental and physical peak!