Seemingly, baseball is a simple game to understand and follow. He who has the ability to perform in a superior manner on the field will succeed in the game. Yet, how a player gains that superiority is done in a vastly different manner in baseball than it is in other sports.
Generally in football, if you are physically strong and tough, and/or can run quickly, you are more likely to succeed. In basketball, athletic ability – the running and jumping and agility – is essential. Soccer, hockey, track and field, you name it, superiority in the physical realm is necessary for success.
While it helps to have the physical tools – and scouts make a nice living finding players with athletic tools to play the game at a high level – there is the mental side of the game that cannot be ignored. In many ways, the success of a baseball player’s career is tied to the ability to develop the mental tools to enable the physical tools to play out. That development is first cultivated in places like Hickory.
It was in my first 140-game season with a minor league front office in 2005 that I learned the phrase, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Physically that’s true – tarp pulls will teach that to you quickly – but I learned mentally that’s true when you close out the final day of nine-straight, 17-hour days, and customers are unhappy and don’t really care at 10:30 p.m. that you arrived at 8 that morning for a tarp pull and your only food was a hot dog from concessions.
But the effects of the mental side of the game on player performance never really crossed my mind until I began covering the Hickory Crawdads in 2010.
It’s not just the physical effects played out on weary-eyed athletes, who pull into the clubhouse just a few hours after coming home at 6 a.m. from an overnight bus trip… after losing a game… during which some poor soul probably had a coach, manager, rover, teammate chew on them for some sin committed on the field… in a game that expects success despite the overwhelming odds of failure… And they do it up to 30 straight days without a day off.
With the physically-draining weariness, there comes the stresses of life: making ends meet at home… wondering about families and girlfriends miles away… facing sudden upheaval and uprooting after a promotion, demotion or trade – or a release…worrying about doing enough to stay on the team… earning the respect of teammates.
Many of the players who come to Hickory deal with the extended baseball season for the first time. With all of the stresses that are listed above, still they play 140 games in 152 days and they are expected to perform well.
My epiphany moment in this came when I interviewed pitcher Neil Ramirez – now with the Chicago Cubs – back in the summer of 2010. Ramirez, the first round pick of the Rangers in 2007, came to the Crawdads in 2009. The former high school player of the year in Virginia came to Hickory with worlds of ability. But with control issues, much of that time he was a hittable pitcher that searched in vain for the magic he once had over hitters. Ramirez returned in 2010 and it was more of the same until he found a groove over the second half of the season and things clicked.
As I asked and walked through his struggles, it suddenly dawned on me to ask this question:
“Is this game more mental than you thought it would be when you were drafted?”
Ramirez’s answer was interesting to me:
“Yeah! Unbelievably more mental than I thought it would be. Everybody talks about it before you get drafted; it’s the 90% mental, 10% physical sort of thing.
You think that, oh, my ability will speak for itself. It doesn’t matter whether you throw 95, or 87, like Greg Maddux did, and he was successful. That’s because they was so headstrong mentally. They knew what they wanted to do with the pitch and they knew they were going to execute it.
That takes a mentally strong person to go about your business the right way. Mentally, it’s tough, but I think that’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes baseball such a great game.”
I thought of Neil as I glanced through a series of interviews I did with this crop of players over the past week – two pitchers and two hitters. The key word that popped up over and over again was confidence.
Eight games ago, Jose Cardona was struggling as a number-nine hitter. One week later, he’s at the top of the order due to an injury to Michael De Leon and suddenly he’s on a 16-for-30 streak. He talked of his mindset and how confident he felt at the plate. His tools and routine hasn’t changed, just the results.
A week ago, the collective lineup looked limp during a 1-5 stretch. Suddenly, they have 38 runs in four games and double-digit hit totals in five straight. Cardona talked about how much confidence that team has right now at the plate.
A month ago, Luke Tendler struggled to hit a fastball. A homer in the all-star game last month seemingly set him afire and now pitchers can’t get a fastball by him. In several interviews I’ve done with Luke, he’s harped on trusting his abilities and staying the course and it will succeed. It’s easy to do that when you are hitting .320, harder to do so at .220. To his credit, he has seen the process through.
Brett Martin talked about having the confidence to throw a changeup at any point in the count. Last year, he was afraid to throw it.
Nick Gardewine talked of the confidence to challenge the same lineup that battered him around six days prior.
The players that come to Hickory (or any A-ball team) have the ability to do their assigned tasks on the field: hit a fastball, learn and throw a new pitch, etc. They wouldn’t be here without those pure baseball abilities. But like Ramirez said, it’s the ability to have confidence in what they can do, even in the face of adversity that will set them apart down the road.
If you want to figure out the players that will go on to bigger and better things, look at how they fail, in a game of failure. It’s easy to stand tall in baseball when things are going well. But those who stand tall while getting shelled – which happens in baseball often – and shake it off prior to the next outing or at bat, those are likely the players to look for in the multi-tiered stadiums at a later time.