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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Knowledge = Mental Edge

If you’re drafted as a baseball player, you’ve obviously got some talent. As you work your way through the system, though, you inevitably start discovering new strengths and new weaknesses. And, to me, this is the moment that separates great players from the rest. Great players draw on two things here, specifically: 1) an unshakeable confidence in their abilities; and 2) a knack for not only learning new things about those abilities but also for remembering and applying those lessons, which they do constantly. And as you might expect, # 2 is often one of the main sources of #1.

There’s so much tacit knowledge required to excel at a game like baseball, and you need to develop that knowledge as quickly as possible. As a pitcher, some of the most important learning comes from studying veteran pitchers and asking them about what they did and why they did it. Other ways to learn include talking with catchers who know how to get guys out (and also with batters, if they’re willing, to get them to say which pitchers they have trouble with and why). Greg Maddux was one of the best examples of this I’ve ever seen, and it’s not as common as you might imagine. I remember Ted Simmons, for instance, toward the end of his career, wondering why more young pitchers weren’t asking him about the things he didn’t like to see as a hitter so they could try them on opposing batters. And the same thing goes for hitters: you need to pay close attention to what others do that seems to work well, and then try to notice the details about your swing that are perhaps holding you back.

Once you develop this trove of knowledge you’ll need to work to maintain it. I always tell young high school and college players to study hard and learn how to think, since the intellectual skills they gain in the classroom will go a long way in helping them retain and apply what they learn on the baseball field. Throughout my career I saw a lot of talented players that really struggled with this mental aspect of the game. Despite their talent, their on-field instincts never really progressed, and they were unable to improve past a certain point.

To be sure, baseball is a game of split-second reactions and finely-tuned physical reflexes, which may seem contradictory to all this cerebral stuff I’m talking about here. But I think it’s also true that these instincts rely heavily on knowledge gained through previous experience. Take base running, for example, a skill that relies as much (if not more) on prior learning as it does on pure physical ability. If you’re naturally quick but don’t have a sense for situations (e.g., when to take a chance and when to stay put), then you’ll literally be going nowhere fast.

Not only will all this mental work help you move up as a young player, but it will also help compensate for diminishing physical abilities later in your career. In fact, I’d bet it’s the same as in many other careers—when you start losing your edge your best weapon is what you’ve got stored in your head. And, trust me, that hard-won knowledge can be a powerful asset. Just think of how many seasoned “older” players have been more effective in certain ways than their younger, more talented peers.

In short, the mental side of game isn’t just a matter of learning to relax, being confident, and trying to keep your focus—it’s about first doing the mental work that will allow these positive states to emerge on their own.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Getting Drafted--My Experience

I was drafted in June of 1974. I played high school ball at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon, and by June of my senior year, during my American Legion season, I starting noticing more scouts at my games. I got to know one Phillies scout in particular, Bill Harper, who was good friends with my high school coach, Jack Dunn. I knew Bill liked me, and about two weeks before the draft I got a call from the Phillies inviting me to a pre-draft workout at Veteran’s Stadium. It was exciting, to say the least. My Dad and I flew back to Philadelphia, and we got to watch the Phillies play the Giants before the workout the next morning.

A lot was going through my mind during the tryout, as you can imagine. Mostly, though, I couldn’t believe the humidity. It was just sweltering. Portland has never known the type of humidity you get out there on the East Coast. I didn’t bring a bat, either, I remember that. First they wanted to see us hit with wooden bats (aluminum bats had just been invented, and that was really all I was used to), so I walked up to the bat rack to find a collection of—no kidding—the most massive bats I’d ever seen. They were just huge to me. (Mike Schimdt, Bob Boone etc. were with the Phillies at the time). I heaved one out of there and went out to hit. I was really nervous. My hands were sweaty, and I didn’t do that well (I think I hit maybe one off the wall). Then they took us out to the outfield for the sixty-yard dash, and I had the great misfortune of being paired up with Willie Wilson, one of the fastest guys to ever play the game (at the time he had a scholarship to play halfback at the University of Maryland). There I was, this tall, skinny guy, about 6’ 4” 200 pounds, with only decent speed, matched up against Willie Wilson. As soon as they yelled “Go!” Willie was already ten yards ahead of me. I left the workout pretty sure I hadn’t impressed the Phillies all that much, at least not in the speed department.

The draft was a couple of weeks later, and it’s interesting how it differed from today’s draft. Without the Internet or any major sports media outlets around, none of us had any idea which teams were interested or even really what our chances were. I knew the Phillies might draft me, but I had no idea whether any other teams were interested. As it happened, I was picked 5th overall by the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies took Lonnie Smith 3rd, and the Padres took Bill Almon as the overall #1 pick. I honestly had no idea I’d go that high, nor did I have much of a clue about what it all meant. I barely knew where Atlanta was on a map, let alone where their minor league clubs were located. In fact, the whole minor league system was pretty much a mystery to me. All I knew was that Hank Aaron had been with the Braves, and he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. You could say I was a little na├»ve.

Soon after the draft my dad and I negotiated my contract with Bill White, the scout for the Braves. They offered me a $52,000 signing bonus. I didn’t have an agent--it was just me and my dad--nor did I have information about what comparable players were signing for, but $52,000 seemed incredible to me. I remember talking with my parents about it, and they asked, “Well, what do you think? Do you want to go to college (I had signed a letter of intent to go to Arizona State) or do you want to play pro ball?” I told them I wanted to give baseball a shot. So I signed.

Later I found out that Bill White had sent a telegram to Eddie Robinson, the GM for the Braves, during our negotiations. He told him that it was all going well and that he thought they might be able to get me for as low as $65,000 (!). So much for my negotiation skills, I thought. I mean, $52,000 seemed like a major victory!


Padres: Bill Almon
Rangers: Tommy Boggs
Phillies: Lonnie Smith
Indians: Tom Brennan
Braves: Dale Murphy
Brewers: Butch Edge
Cubs: Scot Thompson
White Sox: Larry Monroe
Expos: Ron Sorey
Angels: Mike Miley

Twitter Questions

Thanks everyone for all the blog questions on Twitter! I'm planning to answer a lot of them...stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

I love documentary films. And, like much of the music I listen to these days, most of my favorite documentaries I found through my kids. Now, you may think documentaries are too boring to “count” as movies—they’re too slow, too straightforward, without any special effects, etc. To me, though, this is exactly what makes them (the best ones, at least) so entertaining. That is, they’re great because they’re entertaining in an active rather than a passive way. Hollywood and its endless cycle of “cutting-edge” special effects has really perfected the passive entertainment experience, but active viewing is something different altogether. It’s hard to explain, really, but there is just something fascinating about watching incredible stories about actual events and actual people, without all the polished visuals and witty dialogue. That extra layer of realism has a powerful effect on the way I respond to the characters on-screen. Indeed, when truth is stranger than fiction, you can’t help but look at your own life in a different light.

Take Werner Herzog, for example. He’s the legendary filmmaker behind Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Encounters at the End of the World, and many more (all recommended, by the way). I don’t think you could invent stories more compelling than the ones he’s documented. Somehow you leave his films feeling more alive than you did going in.

Of course, many documentaries come with a built-in agenda, but, if you know that going in, it can give the film some added complexity that keeps things interesting. This is another bonus of the documentary format. Whether or not you are persuaded by a particular message, I don’t think you can deny that documentaries have a unique ability to inspire action (or inaction!).

All that said, here’s a list of some of my favorites (the italicized blurbs are from imbd.com).

The Cove (2009)

Using state-of-the-art equipment, a group of activists, led by renowned dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taijii, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.

For all you baby boomers out there, you may remember Ric O’Barry as Flipper’s original trainer. He believes that Flipper, the famous TV dolphin, didn’t just die but actually committed suicide from being in captivity, and he’s since dedicated his life to animal rights. The Cove is a shocking and thought-provoking take on our ethical responsibility toward living creatures of all types, dolphins in particular. Highly recommended.

Inside Job (2010)

‘Inside Job’ provides a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008, which at a cost over $20 trillion, caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nearly resulted in a global financial collapse.

You’re sure to have an opinion after this one. You might even get angry. Really angry. As someone (like the majority of us) who’s always tried to be prudent with their money, I walked away from Inside Job feeling like the financial crisis wasn’t a random accident but the logical result of one of the greatest scams we’ve ever seen. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re out of the woods yet.

Food, Inc (2008)

An unflattering look inside America's corporate controlled food industry.

At times educational and at times stomach-turning, Food Inc. is a must watch for anyone interested in where our food comes from (a pretty universal concern, I’d say, even if you have never really thought about it). I sometimes wonder how many people turned vegan or vegetarian after watching this, in addition to all the people who surely started making a greater effort to buy local. Even if you don’t go vegan, you’ll never look at the label “corn-fed” on a package of beef the same way again! One of the most harrowing parts of the film is the connection between agribusiness (and the mass production it entails) and E.coli breakouts (E.coli, as far as I know, is rare on smaller, locally-owned farms.). A remarkable documentary.

Dear Zachary (2008)

A filmmaker decides to memorialize a murdered friend when his friend's ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son.

If you remember the ‘50s TV show Lost in Space, you’ll remember the B9 robot who sends out a public warning whenever he senses danger. Picture me right now as B9, flailing my arms about and shouting DANGER, DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! I recommended Dear Zachary to a friend of mine recently without warning him beforehand what he was in for, and I learned my lesson.

He and his wife were shocked.

It’s true, this film is an absolute mindbender. And it’s definitely not a standard feel-good flick, though you will feel good—very good—at times. Indeed, Dear Zachary is one of those rare movies that captures the entire range of human experience, from one extreme (extraordinary goodness) to another (unbelievable evil). You can’t watch this movie and not be profoundly moved. You’ll be horrified at the ineptitude of certain legal systems and the insanity that people are capable of. You’ll also marvel at a real-life display of unconditional love on the part of Zachary’s grandparents. Highly recommended. (And remember, you’ve been warned :)

Man on Wire (2008)

A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century."

The old footage of the Twin Towers is reason enough to watch Man on Wire, but luckily the story is completely gripping, too. It’s amazing that without the Internet around (this was back in 1974) many of us probably never even heard about Philippe Petit’s daring caper when it happened (I don’t remember anything about it, at least). A great film.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

A film about the former US Secretary of Defense and the various difficult lessons he learned about the nature and conduct of modern war.

I barely missed getting drafted into the Vietnam War. I registered for the draft in high school, but the war ended right as I was graduating. Watergate and Vietnam were all over the news when I was growing up, though, so to hear McNamara essentially apologize for his actions during that era, to see him emotionally moved—this all really hit me hard. The Fog of War really made me think about the unintended consequences of any decision to use military force, not only for entire countries but for the men and women who have to make those tough decisions. The parallels between McNamara’s eleven lessons and our situation today (and the various wars we’re involved in) are hard to miss. We’d do well to listen.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pete Rose? I Think It's Time

I was called up to the major leagues in September of 1976. One of the first—and still one of the best—teams I played against was the ’76 Cincinnati Reds, who were just coming off a dramatic World Series victory against the Red Sox the previous year. Nicknamed the “Big Red Machine,” the Reds were absolutely stacked with talent, including one of the best players I ever played against, Pete Rose.

A lot of negative things have been said about Pete over the years, of course, despite his legendary career. I’m often asked whether I think Pete should be in the Hall of Fame, and, truthfully, it’s not an easy question to answer. Here’s my take. As we know, Pete is serving a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball for gambling on the Reds as a player-manager, which also means he’s ineligible for the Hall of Fame. I can’t say I disagree with the way the votes have come down against him over the years: rules against gambling are necessary to protect the integrity of the game, and they must be enforced if they’re to be useful. Gambling cannot be taken lightly.

However, I think Pete has already paid perhaps the highest possible price for his bad decisions—he never had another career opportunity in baseball. To me, then, the question comes down to the scope of the lifetime-ban rule. As it stands now, if you’re caught gambling (regardless of whether you were betting on your team to win or lose), you’re given a ban that 1) prohibits you from being employed by Major League Baseball again, in any capacity, and 2) is in effect until the day you die.

The first part makes perfect sense to me, because to preserve the integrity of the game MLB simply cannot employ players and managers with a history of betting on games, period. And I agree that the direction of the bet shouldn’t matter. If you bet on your team to lose, well, that’s obviously a problem. Less obviously, if you bet on your team to win, you still compromise the essence of the game. For example, if you’re the manager, you may rush your star closer out there before you would otherwise, perhaps even if he needs to rest that day. Your best pitchers may get too many innings for their own good. Being too invested (literally) in controlling the outcome of the game is sure to put people and intelligent decisions at risk.

In my opinion, however, part 2 doesn't make quite as much sense as part 1. A “lifetime” ban seems excessive. Will it really be necessary to keep Pete out of the game when he’s in his 80s? I mean, really? He’s already lost any chance to have another job in baseball, and as I see it, that’s the essential point of the punishment anyway, to hurt the offender in terms of their career and livelihood. That’s a steep penalty to suffer—as it should be. But a ban that persists long after retirement age? What if, as an alternative, we take the amount of time Pete’s been out of the game so far—22 years—and make that the standard punishment? Maybe round it up to 25 years and call it the “Pete Rose” rule. In my view, this would accomplish everything the lifetime ban was created to do (25 years out of the game will pretty much ruin any career).

Pete’s clearly paid for his poor decisions, so I think the time has come to look at his career and legacy in a fresh light. He served his punishment—he never had another job in baseball and he likely never will. Just think about that for a minute. We do and should believe in justice, and violations should be reprimanded. But isn’t it possible that, at this point, keeping Pete out of the Hall of Fame may say more about us than it does about him?