Friday, April 22, 2011

The Mental Game

"Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical."

Yogi Berra is credited with that bit of wisdom. Funny thing, it is true. Baseball is a mental game. The pace may be languid, and the physical action sporadic, but the athleticism required to play professionally is a rare trait. A small percentage of the population has that kind of talent. A small percentage of those athletes make it to the big time. What separates the ones who stick from the ones who don't is mental. Fortitude. Perseverance. Desire. And what separates the greatest players is their ability to learn--to adapt and adjust. To maximize what they have and acquire new skills. Jim Kaplan's new book, The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century, brought this point home.

Mr. Kaplan relates a story about Juan Marichal telling Willie McCovey that he was going to change his approach before a game, asking him to play deeper in left field. It was June 15, 1963, at Candlestick Park and the opposing team was the Houston Colt 45s (later Astros). McCovey, amazed that the red-hot Marichal would be messing with things coming off a shutout and five straight wins, obliged nonetheless. Marichal explained that the Colts had hit him hard last time, and he needed to give them a new look. Here's Kaplan:
After consulting his notes on opponents, Marichal had concluded that Houston players were getting a preview of the coming pitch by reading his grip. Abandoning his high leg kick, he hid the ball, brought his hands together belt high and pivoted quickly.
McCovey wound up making a play on the fence late in the game to get an out and help preserve Marichal's no-hitter. Warren Spahn had the same attitude. Here's more from Kaplan:
"I don't pitch the hitter the same way from season to season," said Spahn, who could remember pitches he'd thrown 15 years prior. "Why? Well, I think hard about hitters and try to think the way they think. So there's always the possibility that the hitter may have given considerable thought to the way I pitched him in the previous year and he might be looking forward to those pitches next year."
A little later in the same chapter:
Like Spahn, Marichal had an extensive mental book on hitters' weaknesses. "This is a guessing game," he said. "I'm always trying to guess what the hitters are guessing. I haven't gotten any better, only smarter."
On July 2nd of the same 1963 season, Spahn and Marichal would pitch a 16-inning 1-0 game in San Francisco that Willie Mays would end with a home run. Spahn was pitching for the Milwaukee Braves (now Atlanta), the club he had come up with when they were still in Boston. That game is the subject of Kaplan's book, but it's really about two men, two ballplayers from different backgrounds and different generations. Their personal histories and their accomplishments on and off the field are interwoven throughout the account of the great pitching duel. Spahn was 42, and just about at the end, while Marichal was 25 and just beginning his exceptional run of great seasons (familiar to every Giants fan). Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander in baseball history, died in 2003 aged 82. His son Greg supplies the forward for the book.

Stories about baseball before the era of division play and free agency naturally contrast sharply with much of today's game. But the game itself, and the contest of wills between the participants, remains the same. I get the feeling that Mr. Kaplan is nostalgic for a lost era of baseball, before Twitter and ESPN and whatnot. I was nine years old when the NL West and NL East were created, and I was in high school when Andy Messersmith was granted free agency. I'm not sure I've known anything but modern baseball. I remember though, when people watched the play on the field and not Jumbotrons or iPhone screens. So I can relate to his longing for some of those bygone things.

Read The Greatest Game Ever Pitched and tell me what you think.


(I've cross-posted this from my other blog Ten Pound Press.)


Anonymous said...

I really like that. The athleticism and the skills are what get you noticed and ultimately what gets you there in the first place, however, the samrts and creativity are what keep you playing.

This has nothing to do with anything, but I was wondering...who is your (not just MC) second favourite team behind the Giants? I think I have a new one this year and I'm a little ashamed (not the Dodgers).

M.C. O'Connor said...

My parents are from Boston. My mom is a huge Red Sox fan--she grew up in Roxbury, not far from Fenway Park. As far as she is concerned, Ted Williams is the greatest player of all time (and a war hero, to boot). I learned to love baseball (and the Giants) because she always had the radio on when I was a kid (I grew up in the SF Bay Area). My dad taught me how to play ball, but my mom taught me how to be a fan. One of my earliest baseball memories is the 1967 "Impossible Dream" Red Sox team (Yaz, Lonborg, Petrocelli) that lost to the Cardinals (Gibson, Cepeda, Flood) in the Series. My grandmother (mom's mom) was an immigrant from Ireland, and was also huge Sox fan. I can remember her furiously hollering at the radio (which made her accent even more impenetrable) whenever they'd screw up. So the Sox have always been my second team. I was in high school when they lost in 1975 to the Reds in that epic Series. My uncle and cousins on the East Coast are all Sox fans, of course.

I'm not sure why I never became an A's fan. It just seemed like the Giants took my loyalties first (the A's came to Oakland in 1969, I was already hooked on Willie Mac, Bobby Bonds, and Tito Fuentes by then). Then I grew to hate them when they kept stealing the Giants thunder. Now I'm sort of lukewarm on them. I'd actually hate to see them leave the East Bay but I wouldn't have a problem with them re-locating to San Jose or whatnot. There are a lot of good A's fans in Northern California and I appreciate good fans and would not like to see them get screwed by greedy owners and etc.

Short question, long answer!

M.C. O'Connor said...

We are now listed in the "Player News" feeds section of Baseball-Reference!!!!

Anonymous said...

Yay! That's good to hear!

I only asked because I've recently been smitten with...the Angels (gasp). I know, it's horrible but let me explain. I love Dan Haren. They got Dan Haren. I love Jered Weaver. They have Jered Weaver. Their top prospect, Mike Trout, is a NJ native. Their young Centerfielder, Peter Bourjos, IS FAST (I like fast). They also have Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui - my favourite Yankees while I was still a fan of them. Hideki always seemed to be clutch and Abreu was the first Venezuelan that I knew of in baseball so I immediately identified with him (I was so glad when the Yankees traded for him).

When I think of the franchise, I think of the West coast Mets. I still like the Mets (though only as an old friend that I don't talk to much anymore).

It's hard to be mad at them from 2002 since I was only ten and was blissfully unaware of teams that weren't the Yankees or Mets. Funny story, as a kid I used to think that the other teams were just around to give the Yankees (and to a lesser extent, the Mets) a team to compete against. I didn't even consider that there were fans of other teams.

In short, they have a lot of guys that I like and not many that I don't like (not a fan of MikeS though).

I like the Giants 900 times more than them.

Zo said...

"One of my earliest baseball memories is the 1967 "Impossible Dream" Red Sox team (Yaz, Lonborg, Petrocelli) that lost to the Cardinals (Gibson, Cepeda, Flood) in the Series."

I, too, cherish this memory.

Brother Bob said...

It's okay to have random feelings about other ballclubs. I have mixed feelings about all the clubs in CA. Well, not he Doggers. I truly hate them. I sort of like the Red Sox, probably because they're the anti-Yankees, and I hate the Yankees almost as much as I hate the Doggers.