No Mike Pelfrey Disease

With Mike Pelfrey following his three-balk night of the “Yips” with nothing more worrisome than forgetting to get off the rubber at Fenway before asking umpire Joe West if he could blow on his fingers, it appears the list of Major League victims of “Steve Blass Disease” and its related maladies will remain at 17.

Contrary to most coverage of those unfortunate big leaguers who have suddenly lost the ability to do something extraordinarily fundamental, there appears to be an explanation that covers about a quarter of the sufferers, and maybe more.
The mystery was unlocked after the most recent full-fledged case: Rick Ankiel, who suddenly started throwing pitches for the Cardinals in the 2000 playoffs that veered off the plate by ten or fifteen degrees. Pat Jordan profiled Ankiel in The New York Times Sunday Magazine and revealed Ankiel’s father had been sentenced to prison on drug charges. Ankiel had essentially learned baseball from his father.
Earlier the same year, of course, Chuck Knoblauch’s version of “The Disease” culminated when he hit my late mother with as errant an infield throw as you could make, in 2000. It was well-known that his father had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and he had just deteriorated to the point where he no longer recognized his son. Knoblauch had not only learned the game from his father, but his father had been one of his coaches, and had traveled to literally dozens of his game every year, even in the pros.
As the Knoblauch nightmare reached its end, I was working for Fox Sports, and one of our cable baseball analysts was Steve Sax. In 1983, of course, he too had lost the ability to make the easy unpressured throw to first base. Sax revealed that throughout his crisis, his father’s health was deteriorating, and that he incorrectly believed his Dad had suffered a heart attack. Sax said he’d learned baseball from his father.
If the trend isn’t evident by now, a few months after Jordan wrote the profile on Rick Ankiel, he revealed that his own baseball career – he was a flame-thrower in the Braves’ system in the late ’50s – had really collapsed when he lost all control of his pitches. Jordan told me that he had finally decided that he lost the ability to throw strikes after a falling-out with his domineering older brother, who had taught him the game, and whose relationship with him was predicated almost exclusively on baseball.
Armed with this thread in the Ankiel, Knoblauch, Sax, and Jordan stories, I asked a psychologist friend what she made of this. It wasn’t at all implausible, she said. The pain of loss – emotionally, physically, or mortally – could easily show up in something like baseball. If a player associated baseball from childhood with an older male relative or authority figure, and something terrible happened to the male relative, or to his relationship with that relative, the unconscious could easily rebel. Part of these guys presumably couldn’t bear to play baseball during these illnesses or traumas, because baseball meant Dad or Brother. And the unconscious would try to stop them from playing by taking the easiest thing – a snap throw to first base for an infielder, an ordinary strike from a pitcher – and making it the most difficult.
The first player recognized as suffering from the “disease” – Steve Blass – suddenly lost his ability to throw strikes in the spring of 1973, after nearly eight years in the Pirates’ rotation, including a hero’s role in the 1971 World Series. His career-ending wildness has never been satisfactorily explained, although one of the theories that dovetails neatly with the psychological suggestion of an unconscious desire to stop playing baseball because baseball was a deep reminder of a lost or unavailable male role model, was that Blass was deeply affected by the death of his teammate and good friend, the all-time great Roberto Clemente, on January 1, 1973.
The psychological and family conditions of the other victims generally associated with “Blass Disease” have never been fully explored, to my knowledge. The first recorded case was catcher Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney, who, in 1953, inexplicably lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Courtney, an eminently pragmatic guy who probably would’ve laughed or swung at anybody suggesting a psychological explanation, addressed his “yip” by simply throwing the ball to the third baseman instead. Within a week, the problem had vanished. Courtney played in the bigs until 1961 and the problem never recurred.
Mackey Sasser’s identical problem in the ’90s followed a bone-rattling collision at the plate with Jim Presley of the Braves (later as a college coach, Sasser had similar troubles throwing batting practice to his team). Dave Engle, an outfielder converted to part-time catching by the Twins in the ’80s, developed the same problem, apparently after he inadvertently broke a pitcher’s nose with a return throw. Mark Wohlers, the onetime Braves’ closer, got Blass-like after an injury.
The others with sudden loss of simple skill, haven’t been analyzed psychologically, at least not within my frame of reference. As a minor league catcher, former number one draft choice Mike Ivie had trouble throwing to the mound and in pursuit of base stealers, and wound up being moved to the infield. Dale Murphy had an exaggerated version – his throws to second would often land closer to the centerfielder than either middle infielder.
The others I’ve seen included in the lists of the victims were all pitchers: Joe Cowley, Mark Davis, Clay Kirby, Sam Militello, Bruce Ruffin, Kevin Saucier, and Steve Trout (I’m on the fence on Cowley – he was wild before and after his modicums of success with the White Sox and Yankees in the mid-’80s). To my knowledge there’s also no data on the conditions of their families or their minds.
It is fascinating, though, that of all the players mentioned, the only one I know of to address the problem by seeing a sports psychologist was the old Met catcher, Mackey Sasser. And that was when the batting practice problem arose, in the job he still has, as head coach at Wallace Community College in Alabama. Sasser explained in 2007 that after eleven years dealing with it, he had finally received professional help. There he discovered that his baseball anxieties dated back to his parents’ divorce when he was ten, and how the collision with Jim Presley exacerbated them – and, his complicated relationship with… his father.



    When do you have time to do such great writing?
    And speaking of Pat Jordan, when are you going to come out with your own “A False Spring”?


    Hi Keith,
    Interesting blog! I never made the connection before but it makes perfect sense. Also thank goodness Mike Pelfrey has gotten over his twitches! The Mets do not need more issues with their starters. Yikes!
    Pretty cool to see you on Jimmy Fallon’s show talking baseball cards.


    It’s amazing to see how the game of baseball is so ingrained into the American psyche – specifically the American male psyche – specifically between fathers & sons whether the father or son played or not. My father cannot bear to watch the movie FIELD OF DREAMS because my grandfather never threw a baseball around with my Dad, and that memory is driven into him every time he tries to watch the movie. Dad is also a huge sports fan; my grandfather really wasn’t. When my Dad FINALLY got to see his Yankee heroes in Comisky Park (Mickey Mantle & company) in the mid – 60s, I can just imagine my grandfather wondering what all the excitement was about.

  4. stupidhorse

    Keith you are absolutely the man when it comes to sports writing and reporting… ok got all of the sappy fan stuff out of the way. I wanted to ask a favor of you… I have grown to admire the story of Josh Hamilton and his life. I think the feel good stories of baseball and sports in general are lost in the mix to the “wow” stories of the sports world. Barry, Mannywood, Bloody sock, The rocket, Strawberry and all of the other sad truths to the games heros rule the stories head liners instead of the stuff that I want my kids to see and grow up learning. Dustin Pedroia (even though he is a hated red sox), Hamilton and all the other feel good stories deserve all the attention and more than the AROID stories that people are focus on. Baseball should be about good stories, teamwork, loyalty, hard work, faith and everything else Americans needs to stay positive during todays tough times. A lot of people use sports as a release from everyday life and the bad news in the daily media. I would hate to see my kids learning more about the bad in the game than the good that has carried the sport for so long. Thank you for this opportunity and keep up the great work


    You can include Rex Barney to the mystery list.
    Very interesting article. Bob Hewson Omaha>NE



    You are an amazing writer and tv personality. I have enjoyed watching you from the time of Sportscenter. thank you for your continued coverage of baseball. I remember growing up in the 80’s and hearing about Steve Trout and Shane Rawley issues. Where they also family issued related. It is amazing how each of the issues with these athletes goes back to a mom, dad or brother.

    Continued success and Go Yankees,


  7. udermuder

    is this a possible explanation for andruw jones’ last year? i wondered if he needed glasses or something, everytime i watched him try to bat. but could this be the reason he went south so fast? did he miss the organization he grew up in when he went to LA?

  8. meetthematts

    Hey, Keith… Love your stuff… We were ready to dig Pelfrey’s old mouth guard out and soak it in bourbon to calm him down… If you get a chance, check out our show – we’re trying to do the Daily Show for sports, without a dime and ZERO marketing… It’s THANKS.


    I think Jimmy Piersall might fall into this category. I remember as a little kid growing up in Connecticut playing catch with him in my yard. All in all a nice guy. BTW love countdown.


    Nice article…a focus on an often overlooked idiosyncrancy of the game AND no Barack Obama worship.



    Big thanks for your outstanding analysis and reporting on politics and sports year in and year out.

    And I’m fascinated by this hypothesis about players and their fathers or brothers, et al. But a simple question arises: what about the thousands of other baseball players who haven’t had these kinds of breakdowns in skills. Surely a large percentage of those also lost their fathers or brothers, or had problems come up with them. So why these 17 and not hundreds of others?

    My question doesn’t totally discount your theory, of course. There are lots of psychological syndromes that afflict some people and not others with similar circumstances. But I just wanted to pose the question.


  12. volquez

    In Cincinnati, Joey Votto’s breakout season has been derailed by an apparently psychological stress related problem. No one knows the who or what involved, but this article reminded me that his father passed very recently.

  13. squirehead

    I’ve listened to Blass call the Pirate games for years, but I don’t recall hearing him say what HE thought was the cause of HIS Steve Blass Disease, was it Clemente’s untimely death? He’s a pretty nifty guy, have you ever asked him about SBD? (Not Silent But Deadly, the other)

  14. Mack Rupert

    Hello, you used to write fantastic, but the last few posts have been kinda boring… I miss your super writings. Past few posts are just a little bit out of track! come on!

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