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Mackey Sasser, who was hoping to be the New York Mets' starting catcher this season, has lost his chance at the job—not because he can't hit, not because he can't throw out runners at second base, but because he has trouble throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Sasser has to pump the ball two or three times into his glove before lobbing it back to the mound. Base runners were timing Sasser's feeble return tosses and making delayed steals.
Monty Fariss, a promising shortstop in the Texas Rangers system and their 1988 first-round draft pick, has been moved to second base. The Rangers decided they could not afford to have a shortstop who was afraid to zip the ball to first base. Fariss, who displayed a potent arm while at Oklahoma State, had begun sending timid, arcing throws to first, sometimes barely beating the runner on an easy play, sometimes not beating him at all.
Mike Stanley, a catcher for the Rangers, became so fixated on his throwing percentage (the percentage of base runners a catcher throws out) that he grew terrified of throwing the ball at all. As a result, he sent rainbows to second and third base and little lobs back to the pitcher. Now that Stanley has received some psychological counseling and is making better throws, people are telling him how much stronger his arm is. "My arm is the same as before," Stanley says. "I'm just not afraid to let it go anymore."
In each of the cases above, it's as if the player suddenly forgot how to throw a baseball, and, in effect, he did. Almost every season there are a few big league players who find themselves unable to perform an act that used to come almost as naturally as breathing. It has happened to infielders who've fired the ball to first more times than they've tied their shoelaces, to catchers who could once gun down the swiftest base runners and to pitchers who have made it to the majors on their pinpoint control. Somehow these players develop a mental block that inhibits the simple act of throwing. It's baseball's version of the putting yips in golf. Without warning, the infielder begins launching balls into the stands, the catcher can't get it to the mound on a line, and the pitcher starts regularly denting the screen behind the plate. And it seems only to happen during games, rarely in practice. So bizarre is the phenomenon that it would be comic—except that careers hang in the balance.
Players who have suffered from such a block certainly find nothing funny about it. When Stanley first sought counsel in 1989, he told a sports psychologist, "Help me. I'm beginning to hate this game."
In the ninth inning of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 1983 home opener, Andre Dawson, then with the Montreal Expos, tripled into rightfield. Steve Sax, then the Dodgers' second baseman, scurried into short right to take the cutoff. Dawson had stopped at third, but Sax hummed it home anyway. The ball bounded away, and Dawson scored. "It was a pretty average error," says Sax. "But I started thinking about it. I started losing my confidence, my timing. Pretty soon they were gone."
By mid-August Sax had made 30 errors, most of them stray throws. In the All-Star Game in July he had demonstrated his mysterious malady before a national television audience by bouncing a throw in front of first baseman Al Oliver—who was standing less than 40 feet away from him. After that public display, the mental block of the easy throw came to be dubbed "Steve Sax disease" and the errant tosses "Sax attacks." But Sax's case wasn't the first.
A host of major league catchers—Johnny Edwards, Clint Courtney, Fran Healy, Ray Fosse and Jim Hegan—have suffered at various times from the same malady. Seven-time All-Star Dale Murphy started his pro career as a catcher, but he was moved to the outfield because he developed a mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher. "The problem, to a degree, existed throughout my career," says Healy, who caught 415 games over nine seasons in the majors during the '70s. "But I was able to hide it. I'd just flip it back real easy to the pitchers. I'd walk out after every pitch and say something to the pitcher, like 'Stay low' or 'Keep on it' or 'Bad call.' As a catcher you can disguise a problem like this. Pitchers can't. Their careers are over."
Steve Blass was a pitcher who never recovered from his mental block. He entered the 1973 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates with a career ERA of 3.24, allowing an average of 1.96 walks per game. But that season he was 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA, walking 84 batters in less than 89 innings. A season later Blass was out of baseball. "You have no idea how frustrating it is," he said during spring training in 1974. "You don't know where you're going to throw the ball. You're afraid you might hurt someone. You know you're embarrassing yourself, but you can't do anything about it. You're helpless. Totally afraid and helpless. A sore arm is tangible. I can understand that. There's a reason. But what was happening to me...."
For catchers and infielders the embarrassment factor is compounded by the fact that the throwing errors occur not on difficult plays but on easy ones. Sasser can still throw out base runners. Sax, even when his confidence was at its shakiest, could make the tough throw from deep behind second base. Fariss can go in the hole at shortstop and make the strong throw. Why does it happen only on the easy plays—for catchers, the toss back to the pitcher; for infielders, after the easy bouncer hit right to them? Every player who has battled such a mental block answers this question with the same words: "Because you have time to think." (Pitchers, of course, have time to think before every pitch.)