: September 19, 2008
From Our Readers' Submission Vault: Steve Newby's Meditations on Pitching
Our Readers' Submissions Vault
Roaming through the vault, we found this piece which first appeared on our pages in 2001. It\'s an unusual article for a Friday morning; unusual, to be sure, for any more, an almost stream-of-consciousness rumination on the qualities that place pitchers "in the zone." The author, Steve Newby, references Ken Keasey in this article. Well, Keasey might have written it:
by Steve Newby
We got our first television in September of 1957, a black-and-white Zenith with a metal cabinet painted to resemble blonde wood. I was in second grade at Lincoln school in Dodge City, Kansas. My Dad died of a massive heart attack four years earlier in the room where the deliverymen set that big old TV, and I watched in anticipation as they performed their rite.
The set was on the living room floor, one guy was on the roof installing the antenna, and his partner was drilling a hole in the wall to receive the brown ribbons of cable. One cable came through the wall and went to a brown box called a rotor. The rotor pointed the antenna on the roof toward the various broadcast signals. Another ribbon hung loose from the wall with lugs soldered to it to send the signal to the TV set.
When the hole in the wall was properly drilled, the inside guy went out and laced the cables through little brass standoff brackets. He took care that the cables were flat, not twisted, and that the wall brackets were lined up all straight up-and-down. Nice neat work. Very professional.
There was no verbal communication between these two men. My uncle Mac used to say "Done so many of them, we don\'t even fight about them any more". Finally the man came down from the roof. Dizzy Dean would have said "he clumb down", just as the runner had "slud" into second. The ladder was put back on top of the panel truck, and the older of the two men went back around the corner of the house to make sure everything was ship-shape. He picked up a small piece of brown cable lying on the ground and put it in his pocket.
Without a word, the two men walked into the living room, picked up the set, sat it on a metal stand. One connected the antenna cable and the rotor cable, and the other guy plugged it in.
When the knob was turned, an electro-magnetic sound unlike any I\'d ever heard before occurred, and the screen turned into a rolling snowstorm. There was a smell from those old tube-type sets, very pronounced when the set was new, and I loved it. The men made adjustments, "made a picture", got Mom to sign something, delivered a short spiel about the controls, and left to go do the next one.
The television delivery and installation ritual was similar to Carlton Fisk coming to the plate. The tugging at the sleeves, pulling up the jersey collar, swinging the head to loosen the upper vertebrae, gripping the bat and orienting the grain to be perpendicular to the anticipated vector of the incoming pitch, and finally stepping in, digging in, and stroking across the plate as if to say "I dare you to put it right here." Always the same formal procedure, every at-bat. Done it so many times he didn\'t even fight about it any more.
That\'s one of the many things that baseball taught me. Practice. You can practice lots of stuff in life. You can practice Catholicism, Freemasonry, alcoholism, baseball, TV set installation, prayer, gambling, lying, medicine, meditation, law, the eight-fold path, politics, engineering, thievery, or any of the other ten thousand things.
You can become a novice, competent, proficient, good, really good, fantastic, great or the very best, but never perfect.
My first televised baseball was the 1957 World Series - Milwaukee Braves vs. New York Yankees! I saw Spahn, Shantz, Ford, Burdette, who pitched three complete-game victories, including two shutouts, Larsen, and of course, Hammerin\' Hank Aaron with a .393 average for the series and 11 hits, including a triple, three home runs and seven RBI. I was hooked. We\'d skip out of school if the teachers did not bring a TV for the World Series. It was like Ramadan, like Easter, Like Yom Kippur. It was national front page news.
Tell me how it was, if you can, that so many thousands of young men of my era used to rise every morning of the sweltering, non-air-conditioned American summers, wolf down bowls of Wheaties or Cheerios, and find something at which to throw a ball? I don\'t recall any Boy\'s Life articles instructing us to do so. There were no merit badges for throwing balls at walls or front steps. I\'m sure most of us thought we were the only ones in the world doing it.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a similar theme. Select individuals got the message and began the ritual with no apparent reason. I threw balls against the concrete front steps and asbestos siding at 1508 7th Street the way Richard Dryfuss piled those potatoes up to resemble Devil\'s Tower. It\'s written that Tony Lucadello, the great upper-Midwest scout responsible for the signing of 50 (that\'s right, fifty!) major leaguers, had prospects build walls to throw against.
Tony would check up on his prospects by anonymously driving by their homes and checking to see if the grass was worn out in front of the walls.
It was, after all, a very private thing. It was a flight of fancy. Some of the more tortuous throwers made up elaborate rosters and rules. Some of us found that a tennis ball gave you more action. The purists went for bald tennis balls.
Wanna get the soft hands you need for second base or shortstop? Field grounders, pops, and line drives with a bald tennis ball. You\'ll have a relationship with your hand, eyes, glove, and reflexes unmatched by a 5-ouncer.
Many of us stayed at it, throwing and sweating, until another guy came along to play catch. Perhaps a couple of guys would fall by so you could play flies \'n grounders, or "say hey". 2 or 3 could attract 2 or 3 more, and you could start a game of work-up. Maybe a couple of little brothers would show and you could have some 6-man games with the little brothers constantly in the outfield, never batting. They would stand there in that 102° heat for hours so that they could say they had played with you.
J. N. was usually the first to arrive. J. N. had an old glove that his dad had given him. It looked like Rizzzuto\'s glove, or maybe Ty Cobb\'s glove, but J. N. sure knew how to use it. Embossed into the leather palm, it appeared to read "Deep Well - Too Muddy" It actually read "Deep Well - Pro Model", but every time J. would make an incredible catch, or a routine "can of corn" and catch it Negro-League (basket) style, he\'d shout "Deep Well - Too Muddy!"
I made it when I was thirteen. I quit thinking on the mound. This wasn\'t something I accomplished with my own will power, but by the continuous and unrelenting practice of throwing the ball. After thousands of hours the body became so familiar with the rite that the mind was free to fly.
In this sacred place with no right or wrong, no doctrine, and no conventions, I made no choices, debated no decisions, followed no scouting reports, left behind what I knew of the hitters, and delivered unhittable stuff as fast as batters would step in to look at it.
A power greater than my mind took over when I escaped from the prison of self will, and for a few innings, it was as good as it gets.
I have been on a few times. Really on. When operating from the platform of being a good pitcher, driven by hours and hours of practice, talent, study and experience, absorbing the words that Diz and Pee Wee used to describe those great games as if they were Abraham and Moses, I was a good pitcher.
I pitched Little League, Pop Warner, and American Legion Ball. I won 7 and lost 2 for the 82nd Airborne Division. The scouts and cross checkers came to look, but Uncle Sam had other ideas for me. I no longer regret the path that took me away from baseball, that took me away from seeing how good I could become at the game, but I did for many years. I was young and ambitious, wanted to try and do it all, did quite a bit of it. My big mouth wrote quite a few checks that my ass couldn\'t cash.
I could set a batter up when he was walking from the on-deck circle. I knew how I\'d open, base my second pitch on what he showed me on the first, know how I\'d get out of it if I had a blind Umpire and went 2 and 0, and had a current inventory of how my stuff was working. Those beautiful, dirty, scuffed-up balls definitely gave the pitcher the advantage. All this, of course, was pitching the way that I was taught.
The early sixties in Southwest Kansas offered little in the way of eastern thought. Leary, Metzner and Alpert were at Harvard, struggling to publish and teaching young, impressionable minds that "man was the sum of his social roles".
Bob Dylan was a student, caught between a social role and much higher destiny. Woody Guthrie was slowly dying in Brooklyn. I was practicing Zen Buddhism on the sandlots of the Oklahoma Panhandle, Southwest Kansas and Eastern Colorado ten years before I\'d ever heard of it.
Confidence builds when you do well in the early innings, but as it builds, the temptation to think rises proportionally. The ego is telling you that you are the doer of the deed. If you are on, the crowd, the bench, the coach, the catcher, and even the Ump are telling you that you are the doer of the deed. To remain Zazen on that 10-inch hill in front of peers, family, the guy the local paper sent, and prospective girlfriends is a rarity.
Bob Feller recalls the way it was for him on Sunday, October 2, 1938 in NOW PITCHING - BOB FELLER (Birch Lane Press - 1990). The Tigers were at League Park for the last two games of the season. Hank Greenberg had 58 home runs, seriously challenging Ruth\'s record of 60, and American League pitchers had been pitching around him for two weeks, not only out of loyalty and sensitivity to the Babe, but of latent anti-Semitism.
Greenberg played in every one of the Tigers\' 154 games that season.
Hank had 110 rbi\'s at the all-star break that year, yet had not been selected for the all-star team. He finished the 1938 season with 58 home runs, a .315 average, and a .683 slugging percentage. He struck out only 92 times, and was walked 119.
Feller: "It was one of those days when everything feels perfect-your arm, your coordination, your concentration, everything. There was drama in the air because of Greenberg\'s attempt to break Ruth\'s record, and the excitement became even greater when my strikeouts started to add up. I got Detroit\'s rookie second baseman, Ben McCoy, on strikes in the first inning, and then I really caught fire. I struck out the side in each of the next three innings."
"Greenberg came up eight times in the doubleheader and got a double in four trips against me in the first game and three hits, all singles, in the second game. We weren\'t pitching around him. We were willing to pitch to him and take our chances. If he broke Ruth\'s record, then more power to him. And we didn\'t exactly shut him down-four hits in eight trips including a double wasn\'t anything to be embarrassed about. But he didn\'t get the home runs when he needed them. We stopped him at 58. The Babe\'s record was safe."
"There was a record broken that day, but it wasn\'t Ruth\'s-it was Dizzy Dean\'s. I broke his major league record of 17 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, the one I tied when I set the record for the American League in 1936."
It\'s even more challenging to be mu-nin (Japanese for no-mind) if that\'s what you\'re about. Ken Kesey said "you\'re either on the bus or off the bus", and dying the ego death right out there on the mound in front of everyone is a prime example.
It\'s a different bus, though. A power or force greater than you is doing the steering, but you still have to pull on the oar.
I had no control whatsoever of when I would pass from the chamber of self-will into the sunlight of freedom, but it was always welcome, and usually surprising. I recall one time in the 5th inning of an American Legion game, I struck out the first two batters, and the 3rd guy got on top of a slider for a weak grounder and the easy out. We ran to the bench, and Mike Keck, my catcher, plopped down beside me.
Mike hit last inning, so he didn\'t start pulling his equipment off immediately. His sweat soaked chest protector retained the odors of the last several seasons, and the last several catchers.
"You are really on tonight." He said.
"Yeah. I had to put the sponge back in the mitt. Your breaking stuff is incredible. I quit giving you signs in the second inning."
I went out in the 6th and got hammered. Greg reminded me of my mortality, God bless him.
It\'s my belief that the superstition regarding not talking about a no-hitter while it is in progress comes from this point of spiritual law. The pitcher has entered the special holy place and some rookie reminds him between innings that he\'s not gonna live forever. It\'s like the door bell ringing during some great sex.
It\'s also a faith issue.
"If I have even just a little sense, I will walk on the main road and my only fear will be of straying from it.
Keeping to the main road is easy, But people love to be sidetracked.
When the court is arrayed in splendor, The fields are full of weeds, and the granaries are bare.
Some wear gorgeous Clothes, Carry sharp swords, and indulge themselves with food and drink; they have more possessions than they can use.
They are robber barons.
This is certainly not the way of Tao." -- Lao Tsu
I\'m not the only guy who ever pitched this way. Many came before me, and many will follow. I didn\'t get to see every pitcher in every game. Every now and again I see someone who could be doing it, but I can\'t go in his kitchen to see if there is anyone at home.
Kevin Costner\'s character approaches this glorious paradox in For Love of the Game, but his conscious effort to "still the externalities" separates his technique from what used to happen to me.
A few clues that someone is into a "higher state" on the mound:
1. Works quickly - the rhythm is his - not the batter\'s.
2. No disagreeing and shaking off the catcher.
3. Absolute trust of the infield with and without men on base.
4. Lack of emotion or facial expression.
5. No verbal or non-verbal communication with anyone except the catcher.
6. Sits quietly and usually alone between innings.
7. Never looks at the scoreboard.
8. Almost always wins the game.
Here\'s a list of some of the guys that I thought might "be there" - from time to time - I\'m sure there were more - but I was only born in 1950!
There are pitchers that achieved the results we achieved by talent, practice, and the marshalling of the human will. They also may be familiar with that holy place, I just never saw the evidence.
These would include:
So, if it can be done both ways, why bother with all this spiritual surrender? Why not concentrate, bear down, learn the hitters, shake off the catcher, brush \'em back and go like Sal Maglie?
Because of the Sermon on the Mount, that\'s why. Read it sometime. There\'s more baseball in spiritual writing than the Sporting news. You just gotta wanna hear it.
Steve Newby is a technical writer for the City of Oklahoma City. He and his wife Vicki live on a small farm and love to take their grandchildren to ball games.