21 April 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.

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