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.