Baseball, a mind game

Posted: Oct 09, 2003 12:00 AM

Fox Sports celebrated this week as ratings for the first round of baseball's playoffs were 21 percent higher than last year. Part of the increase arose from the new presence of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, teams with big fan bases. Part of the interest involved the personalities of the managers and their scrappy teams.

New York Yankees manager Joe Torre has seen it all and reports it humorously: "When we lost, I couldn't sleep at night. When we win, I can't sleep at night. But when you win, you wake up feeling better."

Dusty Baker of the Chicago Cubs emphasizes tough-mindedness rather than superstitions, about which he said, "For five years in the minor leagues, I wore the same underwear and still hit .250, so no, I don't believe in that stuff."

And look at players such as Trot Nixon of the Red Sox. Asked by a post-game interviewer what his thoughts were as he prepared to bat in the bottom of the 11th inning of a must-win game on Oct. 4, Nixon said, "I asked for the Lord to quiet my nerves." After praying not for a Cadillac but for grace under pressure, he hit a homerun to win the game -- and soon, "Nixon for President" signs were seen in Massachusetts.

Successful baseball at all levels requires physical ability but also the will and spirit to use it rightly. Ted Williams once said, "Hitting is 50 percent above the shoulders." And Yogi Berra is reputed to have uttered the same thought more memorably: "Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical."

That was certainly the case in the Oakland vs. Boston series, a gut-gripper in which four of the five games went into extra innings or were decided by one run in exceptionally dramatic fashion. After the Oakland A's won the first two games, the turning point came in the sixth inning of game three, when not one but two A's runners bizarrely forgot to touch home plate.

The first twisted his ankle while bumping into the Red Sox catcher, who was lunging for an errant throw. Focused on pain rather than duty, the runner hopped around so long without touching home that the catcher had time to retrieve the ball and tag him out. The second runner, rounding third on a ball hit into the outfield and hindered momentarily by the Boston third baseman, assumed the umpire would automatically let him score. When he stopped running, the catcher tagged him out.

Compare those mental errors to a gruesome situation in the fifth game when two Red Sox players desperately running to catch a pop-up collided skull-against-skull in center field. The centerfielder suffered a concussion but a third player had the presence of mind to pick up the ball and fire it to second base to throw out an Oakland runner.

As writer Paul Gallico once noted, "No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result so cleanly defined."

The Oakland-Boston series culminated with the A's batting in the bottom of the ninth inning of the decisive game five, trailing by only one run, bases loaded, two outs. An Oakland pinch-hitter took a called third strike to end the game and the series, saying afterward, "I didn't want to swing at a bad pitch." But baseball hall-of-famer Lou Brock years before had summed up that situation: "Show me a guy who's afraid to look bad, and I'll show you a guy you can beat every time."

The series ended with pain for Oakland fans, and devotees of three of the four teams that remain in the chase will also have to be satisfied with Tennyson's understanding that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.