Friday, March 11, 2005

The man who couldn't throw straight

What if you were born with a special talent, an ability that gave you an opportunity to rise above the masses and achieve potentially great success in your chosen field? You can do something - decipher complex mathematical formulas, sing beautifully, run extremely fast, resolve medical and scientific quandaries, play a musical instrument, jump really high, write spectacular prose - that the average, mild-mannered citizen can't.

But what if you couldn't fulfill the possibilities your gifts promised because of a mental block, something in your brain that just didn't allow things to click as they should, even if it was a repetitive action that seemed simple?

These were the thoughts running through my mind when I read about Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals, whose baffling major league career as a pitcher came to an apparent end on Wednesday. (Curiously, he's already listed as an outfielder on the Major League Baseball website and his pitching statistics have been taken down.)

Why should I give a $#!t about some baseball player, Ian? He's changing positions - so what? What's the big deal? Why should I care about some overpaid athlete? Let him try my job for a week.

Hey, I hear all that, okay? And I'm almost inclined to agree - except for the fact I love baseball, and Ankiel has suffered from one of the more perplexing maladies to occasionally affect a professional athlete: he can't throw the ball where he wants to, no matter how hard he seems to try.

During the 2000 baseball season, as a 20-year-old, Ankiel looked like he could've been one of the all-time pitching greats. He won 11 games for the Cardinals, wielding a wicked curveball that arched high, then dropped sharply through the strike zone, landing perfectly in the catcher's mitt. Hitters looked foolish trying to swing at it - if they weren't frozen in place, wondering how a baseball could move like that. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

Then something happened. Suddenly, that curveball wasn't curving. It would sail three feet over the catcher's head or two feet to his right. Hitters didn't have to bother swinging at any of Ankiel's pitches - though they occasionally had to duck out of the way - because the ball was nowhere near the strike zone. He was a real-life "Nuke" Laloosh from Bull Durham. Or Ricky Vaughn from Major League. But this was really happening. It was like watching someone try to walk, only to stagger, stumble, and then finally fall down.

Was the problem mechanical or mental? Ankiel didn't know, and neither did his coaches. He was sent down to the minor leagues in 2001 to find his control. He met with psychologists. But he never could completely regain the ability to throw a baseball accurately over home plate.

This kind of mental block has happened to other baseball players. A few years ago, Chuck Knoblauch of the New York Yankees couldn't make the seemingly simple throw from second base to first base. His throws would launch into the stands or get drilled into the dirt. 20 years earlier, Steve Sax of the Los Angeles Dodgers had the same problem. In the early 1990s, New York Mets catcher Mackey Sasser couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher.

Think about that: a professional athlete couldn't get his body to do what he wanted. An action that countless players are able to execute - with varying levels of success - was nearly impossible for this guy. I'll go back to my other examples (some of which might be a stretch): What if you were a brilliant mathematician, but couldn't write numbers down? What if you could compose brilliant prose in your mind, but struggled to type out a coherent sentence?

What goes on in a brain that doesn't allow someone to carry out an apparently simple, routine act that virtually everyone else takes for granted? What does that feel like?