"The easiest thing a catcher has to do is throw the ball to the pitcher," Healy says. "It's a thing that should be as easy as opening a door. But having to think about something that simple makes it a problem."
Karl Newell, a kinesiologist at the University of Illinois, says, "Consciousness gets in the way. If a pianist starts worrying about where his fingers go while he's playing, it will change the performance."
"When thinking interferes, it physiologically, neurologically leads to inappropriate tension. That causes changes in velocity and delivery," says Rod Dishman, director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the University of Georgia. "It wouldn't take much tension to throw it off. Just that split-second thought—God, am I going to do it again?—can affect it."
But what triggers this odd mechanism in the first place? The initial causes vary. Sasser's block began in 1987 after he was hit on the shoulder during a Triple A game in Calgary. He recovered from the injury, but, he says, "Ever since then, I can't flick the ball back to the pitcher." The problem was apparent last season, when Sasser started 67 games as catcher for the Mets, and seems to have worsened this spring.
For Stanley the traumatizing factor was a statistic. "I'd never heard of throwing percentage before I came to the big leagues," he says. "I got here, and that's what catchers are judged on. We had a very slow staff [delivering the ball to the plate], but I started thinking that it was me. I'd make one bad throw and hope that the next guy wouldn't run on me. I'd never given it a thought before, but once I did...."
For former Detroit Tiger Darnell Coles, the thrower's malady began at spring training in 1987. "I went in knowing third base was mine. I was confident," he says. "The first six games of the regular season, I had three errors. Then disaster really struck. I had a three-error game in Kansas City, then a few weeks later I had three more in another game. It got to the point where I wanted to cry. I really didn't want the ball hit to me. I wanted to die. Just crawl in a hole."
During a spring game in '77, Murphy made some bad throws to second base while he was playing catcher for the Atlanta Braves. The next day, when one of the Yankees ran on him, Murphy threw the ball to the outfield fence on one hop. Later that year he twice plunked his own pitcher in the back on throws to second. "Your mind won't let your natural abilities flow," Murphy says. "Your mind interferes, and you start thinking, Where am I throwing? What am I doing? instead of just throwing. Your mind starts working against you."
The affliction is sometimes exacerbated by a player's teammates or his own manager, who make it difficult for him to forget his last wild peg. Last season some of the Mets pitchers complained to manager Bud Harrelson about Sasser, saying he was disrupting their pitching rhythms. Opponents are even less likely to provide comfort. During one game last year, the Expos began loudly counting Sasser's pumps into his glove, then applauded derisively when he finally made his throw to the mound. (They stopped only when a Mets pitcher threatened to bean the next Expo hitter he faced.)
But why is it that one player makes an error and forgets about it, while another makes an error and forgets about everything else?
What all players with a thrower's mental block have in common is fear. Psychologists call it a fear of failure; athletes, when they acknowledge it at all, call it choking. Stanley says, "Now I see how many guys have it. I never realized before how much of the game is mental. You can see it when guys walk up to the plate, which guys are afraid. I'm sure they could see the fear in my eyes."