Ankiel, Knoblauch struggle to rediscover their arms
Updated: Friday March 23, 2001 4:24 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
Baseball history is filled with the names of players who have struggled, suddenly, with something that seemingly had become second nature. Steve Blass. Mackey Sasser. John Smoltz and Sandy Koufax. Randy Johnson and Mark Wohlers. Steve Sax. Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.
Other sports, too, have their list of athletes who, for reasons sometimes never discovered, suddenly lose the ability to do what comes naturally. Golfing great Ben Hogan struggled with the putting yips during his career, as did Tom Watson. Tennis' Anna Kournikova has had several bouts with a wild serve.
Quarterbacks start overthrowing easy routes, perfectly good free-throw shooters become perfectly awful.
"I believe that they come to, kind of first off, doubt their ability. They start to overthink something that should be really reflexive. They begin to take too much time to consider all the machinations that go with that," says Dr. Shawn Harvey, an Atlanta-area psychiatrist who has worked with pro athletes and is considered an expert in the area of sports psychology. "It destroys their ability to do what they have been practicing so long."
It happens in everyday life, too, to many of us.
An unexpected hesitation walking down the stairs, as your feet can't figure out where to go. A strange misjudgment of the distance it takes to stop at the stop sign you see every day. A sudden problem chewing.
The difference is we're not getting paid millions of dollars to walk down a flight of stairs. We're not eating in front of millions of people.
"To a baseball player that is going through it, there is nothing in the world that is equal to this," says Dr. Jack Llewellyn, a sports psychologist who has been a consultant to the Atlanta Braves since 1991 and has been helping athletes for more than 25 years. "The whole world sees him every day."
Ankiel, the St. Louis Cardinals' young pitcher, has been through a very public struggle since last post-season. In his latest outing Thursday, he walked three straight batters in the first inning, then allowed a grand slam to Montreal's Vladimir Guerrero. The Cards kept him in, though, and he retired the side in order on 10 pitches in the second inning, throwing seven strikes.
It has been so difficult for Ankiel at times that the Cardinals have warned the media to back off the 21-year-old lefty. His agent has Ankiel working with a psychologist, and the team has done just about everything possible to help him fight through a problem that jeopardizes his career.
The New York Yankees' Knoblauch has been through the wringer, too. Last season, he struggled with the simple act of throwing to first from his spot at second base, something that has carried into this exhibition season. So the Yankees have moved him to left field, where he is due to make his first spring training start for the major-league club Friday afternoon.
Psychologists use many different methods to help players fight through their problems. The methods all are designed to steer the athlete toward concentrating on the positives.
"You pull out vintage throws, and then you repeat those throws 8-10 times on videotape. What you're doing is bombarding their system by showing them what they're capable of doing," Llewellyn says of the basis of his program. "They've almost forgotten over time about how good they are, since they've been bombarded lately with all the negatives."
Sometimes players pull through it. Sometimes they don't. Steve Blass never recovered from his throwing woes. But Steve Sax did.
One of the keys to a speedy recovery from such ailments is getting to a troubled player early enough, before the bad habits and faulty way of thinking are ingrained. If an athlete tries to work his way through it, or the team does not recognize the player's struggles early enough, it becomes harder to work through the problem.
"It's like a fire," Dr. Charles Maher, the Cleveland Indians' team psychologist, says of the types of problems that nip at one of an athlete's biggest assets -- confidence. "It's out of control."
Ankiel may have the tougher time working through his problems because, unlike Knoblauch, he has nowhere to hide. The Yankees can move Knoblauch to left, where the skills set is different and one or two bad throws a game may not affect a game.
On the mound, though, one or two bad throws can make the difference between a win and a loss.
"If he's strong, young and healthy, and he's thrown well in the past, then he can get past it," Llewellyn says. "But anybody who thinks he can get rid of it and not think about it again probably is kidding himself."
The scrutiny only will intensify on Ankiel and Knoblauch as the regular season approaches. Both the Cardinals and Yankees are contenders for the World Series. Both teams want to cure their guys of their throwing woes as soon as possible.
"I think it's always there," Llewellyn says of whatever it is that causes these sudden problems. "I think you can do some things mentally to push it to the back. But the worst thing you can do when you start to throw better is to start to get complacent and say 'Well, I've got that licked.'"
Right now, though, that would be a step forward for Ankiel and Knoblauch. Right now, they're still hoping to get there some day. Some day soon.