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"You can't be afraid to fail," says former major league manager Chuck Tanner. "If you worry about failing, you will. The biggest reason behind these throwing mysteries is players trying not to make mistakes. You can't play that way. You have to play the way you did when you were a kid and not be afraid."
So why should a player suddenly become terrified? Dick Lister, a sports psychologist in Costa Mesa, Calif., and a former minor league player, says, "To know why Sax or anybody has this problem, you'd have to know something about his childhood, about his relationship with his parents." Cy Young meet C. Jung.
These athletes, though, aren't hatched in the major leagues; they've all played under pressure before at some level. Is there something that ignites this crisis of confidence in a player? Says Lister, "Maybe there was a significant event in his personal life—with his wife or girlfriend, or a business failure. Something that caused a loss of self-esteem, and he started to question himself."
What, then, might serve to interrupt this complex cycle of deteriorating confidence? Many cures have been suggested. For example, a player should take the can of chewing tobacco out of his back pocket. That, at least, was what one letter writer offered as a remedy to Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Bruce Ruffin in 1988 when he lost his control (the writer's theory was that the tin of snuff was pressing on a nerve in Ruffin's leg). The Mets' Harrelson has also been receiving letters every week from backyard psychologists and basement physiologists who claim that they can cure Sasser.
The afflicted players, sometimes desperate with frustration, are willing to try almost anything. Blass tried pitching from second base. Courtney used to bring neighborhood kids into Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., to pitch to him so he could practice throwing the balls back to them. The Dodgers tied a sock over Sax's eyes and made him throw balls to first base blindfolded. Coles was told to throw sidearm (he made just as many wayward throws, he says, and he felt more unnatural doing it). The Mets have had Sasser practice throwing from his knees.
"Everybody wants to help solve the problem," says Fariss, then, after a pause, "or help create one." The most common—and least helpful—suggestion anyone can make to a player with a mental block is to tell him not to think about it. Says Sax, "It's like a big elephant in front of you. You can't ignore it."
Daniel Wegner, a professor at the University of Virginia who has studied how people suppress thoughts, has discovered that, paradoxically, the more a person tries not to think about something, the more difficult it is to forget it. Wegner says, "People will develop an obsession, not because there's anything interesting about it, but because so much energy is paid in trying to suppress it. For some, the cure is thinking about it every day, until they just get sick of it. And when they allow themselves to think about it on purpose, they think they have control. The thing to do is tell everybody you see. Talk about it, even laugh about it."
The discovery that there are other ballplayers who have had these mental blocks, and talking to them about the problem, seems to help struggling players most. "It helped when I saw that I wasn't alone," says Stanley. "Because for a long time I thought I was." Coles says, "Nobody ever told me that other players went through it. They just told me I stunk."
Sax, who hasn't suffered from Sax disease since 1985, has become something of a guru to those stricken with thrower's mental block. A week and a half ago, before a split-squad game between the Mets and Yankees in Fort Lauderdale, Sasser sought out Sax's advice. Sax told him that visualizing strong, accurate throws had helped him get over his block. Sasser says, "I've been working with people on visualization. But either the throw's going to come or it's not. What can you do? Just pray." Stanley, too, has tried visualization. "But all I could visualize was making an errant throw. I couldn't even visualize myself making a good one."
It has taken two years for Stanley's confidence to be restored. "Everything I do, I tell myself that I did it the best that I could," he says. "I tell myself that that was a good throw, but he got a good jump. But you can say positive things over and over again, and it won't help. You have to believe it. It has taken me this long to finally believe it."