Monday, September 15, 2008

They are Human, Right?

Sunday, I woke up to Randy Newman's "Back On My Feet Again" as I sat down to a delicious breakfast, and proceeded to read about the pressures that athletes face. Are we not surprised that professional ball players are actually human? That they, too, encounter everyday anxieties and feel unwanted stress on their shoulders? I suppose that society does not care; fans do not want to hear it. Why? Because the athletes are making millions of dollars, hence the "deal with it" message screaming from the public.

Problem is, there is a difference between a million dollar athlete and his million dollar mind. Often, the former becomes history, overtaken by the expectations created by the latter. The result is a million dollar splatter.

Once an athlete makes it to the big leagues or the professional ranks, is he not infallible? Just ask Barry Zito or Vince Young. Zito was the best pitcher in baseball, a former Cy Young winner with the curve of all curves and a free-loving lifestyle that was magnetic to friends and females. And then, coupled with the highest paying pitching contract in history, his boyish, unhittable pitching persona was gone -- along with his captivating personality. Expectations were too heavy to lift, social networks broke and friends dropped like flies. Mental caused maladjustments to the physical. Confidence became cursed. Freedom became flawed.

From "The Mystery of Barry Zito" (NYT):

According to [Giants' pitching coach Dave] Righetti, the mystery was that Zito, inexplicably and without suffering injury, had lost 5 miles per hour off his already modest 89-m.p.h. fastball and, also inexplicably, had lost control of his devastating curveball. “It’s not physical,” Righetti said, sitting in the visitors’ dugout before a game against the Cleveland Indians in late June. “I mean, he’s not injured. It’s a matter of confidence.”

In truth, Zito’s pitching problems are probably the result of both physical and mental problems. “He had speeded up his motion,” Righetti said, “which caused him to overstride.” Zito’s arm has been trailing his lunging body a split second too late. This causes him to lose speed off his fastball and to fling his curveball high, rather than snapping it low across the plate. He lost control of his curve, Righetti said, “and batters weren’t swinging at it. Then he stopped throwing as many curves as he used to.” Righetti said the funny thing was, when Zito threw on the sidelines in warm-up sessions, “everything was locked in. But the game speeded him up. You know, this is a tough game to be on top for years.” He meant that the greatest athletes, who have 20-year careers of peaks and valleys, have the ability to will themselves out of occasional slumps.

“I’ve made mechanical adjustments lately,” Zito said during our breakfast in late June. “My curve and fastball are better now. But your body’s gonna do what your mind lets it do. You have to surrender to the pitch. You try to control the process, not the result. A New Age guy told me that the last thought you have before you let the ball go — I hope the batter doesn’t hit it — determines where it goes. All the preparation, off-season work, can be done in by that last thought.”

Meanwhile, Young lost his mantra (or, followed through on it) -- one that he delivered after Donovan McNabb's controversial comments about the lofty pressure of black quarterbacks compared to their white counterparts. Young explained his belief in doing something else: if a player can't handle playing the position, then get out.

Well, he suddenly did that himself, to the point of questionable return. He became so emotionally unstable, a search and rescue suicide watch was in effect. Rhoden's review recommends not therapy, as Warren Moon counts on now, but a history lesson for the most challenging position in organized sport.

The pressure mounts at all levels. The good thing about the youth aspect, though, is summarized in what Todd Balf writes. When the competition is over, when the tryouts are done, the athlete returns to his true self, where he can act his age.

Says Balf, a 12-year-old can cuddle up and cry when he doesn't reach his goal (as long as his parents are supportive and not obsessed with early specialization and excessive competitiveness). A 30-year-old pro, it seems, has nowhere to go...maybe music is the answer.

Get me back on my feet again,
Back on my feet again.
Open the door and set me free,
Get me back on my feet again.


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