In the late 1960s, amid the turbulence of the Vietnam War and related social upheaval, the New York Mets baseball club sent one of their most promising young pitching arms to the Marine boot camp in North Carolina. That pitcher was not named Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Ryan or Gentry — he was the infamous left-handed pitcher Tug McGraw.
Known as much for his screwball personality as for his screwball pitch on the mound, the man who shouted, “Ya gotta believe,” to an unbelieving baseball world in 1973, found himself facing a scarcely believable nightmare.
McGraw’s inability to concentrate and corral his talent had threatened to derail his baseball career prematurely. Vietnam also beckoned him with a premature grave. Worse yet, the Marines had broken the cocky youngster down to the core — so to speak. To the Marine, the rifle and one’s marksmanship was both the alpha and the omega of one’s manhood. The drill instructor overseeing McGraw’s basic training pulled a special trick out of his sleeve.
The once-cocky McGraw would not be allowed to shoot left-handed (with his right eye dominant). The prospect of qualifying as a Marine marksman while shooting right-handed forced McGraw to concentrate as never before. Qualify he did, and the ordeal provided a metamorphosis and genesis for his private pitching Renaissance which saw him blossom into one of the major league baseball’s premier relief pitchers.
Another young New York lefthander, Dave Righetti of the Yankees, arose Phoenix-like on the 1981 Yankees and became the Rookie of Year, and a World Series sensation. Yet the following season, the “sophomore jinx” hit and Righetti found himself back in the minor leagues.
The reason? Righetti had developed a fatal flaw. While McGraw could not focus, Righetti could not self-correct his mechanics if they ran afoul in any given inning. The release point, stride, kick, pushoff — a problem with anyone of these things can result in a loss of control and walk. Walks which came around 10 score in his sophomore year.
Back in the minors, Righetti learned his mechanics inside and out. More importantly, he learned how to correct them in mid-game and even went on to pitch a no hitter on July 4, 1983, against the Boston Red Sox.
Even Steve Carlton, the all-time great Philadelphia Phillies left-hander needed cotton in his ears to focus and block out crowd noise. This past summer “Lefty” was voted to the all-century team, and these days Carlton spends his time (according to a report in USA Today) in a Colorado bunker waiting for the apocalypse.
But what happens when young pitchers, especially young left-handed pitchers can’t focus on the mound? This phenomenon has frustrated coaches, scouts and athletes since the beginning of baseball for time immemorial.
Is there an answer to escaping this riddle — this conundrum wrapped inside an enigma? This failed left-handed pitcher believes there is.
Since I cannot offer any credentials as a successful minor or major league pitcher, however, it would be fair to wonder exactly what comprised my baseball life. It would also be intelligent to keep in mind that failure is most often the greatest (and cruelest) of teachers. To begin, there was little league of course. And at the age of 11, our team, coached by my father, won our league championship. That year I had 110 strikeouts in 46 innings pitched.
I was a tall youngster with a smooth pitching motion, which I copied from my idol, Mets pitcher Jon Matlack. (I cried when the nuns at my elementary school wouldn’t let me take “Jon Matlack” for my confirmation name).
Yet, it was in little league that I developed the poor habit — or should I say the poor thrill — of just blowing hitters away. It was a false security, the urge for power and glory. “Veni, Vedi, Vici,” or “I came, saw, conquered.” I thought pitching would always be this easy.
It was also at this time that I developed the good habit of working out everyday. Running, sit-ups, push-ups and weight training. I was in superior physical condition, even as a youngster.
In the ensuing years, from 12 to 14 years of age, I worked with a fine coach, Howard Gershburg of St. Johns University in Jamaica, N.Y., — best known for his work developing lefthanders Frank Viola and John Franco — to refine my pitching motion and pitch off move.
At 14 I played on the New York state Bill Majors National Tournament. I had a high batting average on the team, although I didn’t pitch very much.
As a freshman in high school, I struggled early on (I always hated to pitch in the cold). But in my first game I struck out nine straight in three innings and continued to pitch extremely well in practice until I tore a tendon in my left pushoff ankle.
And that was it for me.
I was not to throw another single pitch again in high school. Instead, I played wide receiver on our varsity football team which we won the New York state championships and became a gold medal sprinter on the track team.
In the ensuing years, I bounded around to Wichita State, then to Dixie Junior College in St. George, Utah, where I met and worked with 1986 Red Sox hero Bruce Hurst, another lefty.
Finally I graduated from Arizona State, and — of course — I met failure and failed, self-destructive promise at every turn along the way.
But why exactly did I fail? What lessons did I learn along the way? What can this article offer to inspire other young pitchers no matter who or where they are — from little league to those on the cusp of major league stardom?
First, there’s the concept of the father-son relationship. There can be no substitute for a father/mentor who comes home in the afternoon to play ball with his son for pitching, hitting and conditioning drills. This of course has become a rarity with the socio-economic destabilization of our day.
Second, the continued search by my father for mentors and coaches with greater expertise, like a Howie Gershberg. Players need someone who knows them in great detail as an athlete. For example, Wade Boggs still calls his father when he needs help. Former Red Sox great Fred Lynn’s dad used to throw tennis balls at his son’s head so he wouldn’t be afraid of the ball.
Third, there is no substitute for real-game experiences. Confidence is best built up by positive experience in real game situations.
Fourth, a complete exercise program, including stretching, running, weight training is vital. Diet, digestion/elimination, vitamins and enzymes also can improve performance. (Moral guidelines are also important as drugs and alcohol can destroy one’s health and indiscriminate sex can send one to an early grave.)
Fifth, both videotape and still photographs with a high-speed lens can help to document a player’s best fundamentals to correct flaws. Where is my release point? How long is my stride? Where are my hands? These checkpoints in a pitcher’s delivery should have a permanent reference point.
In my youth there was no video widely available so my father used 8-mm film. These days video, inexpensive as it is, is a great tool — though it is a far underutilized one. It is a far more sure-fire way to stay in touch with one’s “real pitching” self than let’s say reading “Mayan Wisdom Made Easy” as does a coach at the conclusion of the baseball film Bull Durham.
Sixth, a rudimentary knowledge of kinesiology and biomechanics would also prove valuable in so far as to encourage a young athlete to care for his arm. Scientists once measured former New York Yankees lefty Ron Gaudry’s arm speed as “approaching the speed of sound” at his release point.
Not surprisingly, the shoulder cavity slightly separates and bleeds at the capillary level on each pitch. Ice of course, is usually used to stop this bleeding. An anti-inflammatory might also be a wise choice. Chiropractic care can help release muscle spasms along with professional massage. Additionally, acupuncture is a 5,000-year-old art, which can tap into the body’s energy zones.
TMJ, which deals with the jaw’s temporal mandibular joint — can cause arm, back and neck problems for the pitcher.
Seventh, developing one’s own pitching strategies can never be undertaken early enough. Of course, control is most important. Yet there is something more than mere control. Rather it is the combination of mechanics and focus. Every pitcher who has played the game has, at one time or another, reached that “zone” when, just standing there, he knows he will throw the next pitch — let’s say a curve — for a strike. The pitcher just knows it. This is muscle memory and motor learning at its most heightened sense.
A linkage at this point might be made to hockey great Wayne Gretsky’s father told his son to watch NHL games on TV while mapping where the puck went.
“Watch where the puck goes, put an ‘X’ every time the puck moves around the rink,” the elder Gretzky said.
By following his dad’s command, young Wayne Gretzsky developed a natural “instinct” for knowing where the puck was likely to go. The analogy cannot be any clearer to the young pitcher watching top major league pitchers on TV/satellite dish and charting each pitch.
Learning how to set up hitters and put them away may be the most important aspects of the art of pitching. As the greatest military strategist of all, the ancient Sun Tzu said, “all warfare is based on deception.”
Eighth, always remember to stay within your self, not overthrow and let the hitters hit the ball. After all, the pitcher doesn’t have to strike everyone out. There are seven men behind you (not counting all of the angels in the outfield). Even if the hitter does hit the ball, chances are that somebody will catch it. Better to throw only three pitches and get three long, hard outs than throw fast and wild, followed by walk, walk, walk.
In this way a pitcher will keep his fielders active and “in the game.”
Ninth, balancing power with finesse will make one a total pitcher. Calling to mind my time with Bruce Hurst, I was always amazed at his total control and speed of his curve ball, probably the best of any lefty on the planet.
When Bruce pitched, it was always strike, strike, strike, like a machine. Never once a ball unintentionally in the dirt, even in the off-season workouts.
Watching Hurst pitch in the 1986 World Series, it was easy to see that he first sought to establish strikes with his curve ball. This led to Stage 2 — the hitters soon realized they would have to swing at the curve or it would be called a strike.
With hitters faced with having to hit whatever comes, it’s time for Stage 3 — harder curves in the dirt, unhittable balls. Stage 3 is critical mass for the hitter. Hurst had even major league hitters chasing after pitches in the dirt like the overmatched little leaguers. Now that’s strategy.
But it all begins with control. Control allows the strategy arsenal of the pitcher to expand without limit as cited above at Hurst.
As if to enforce these lessons upon myself in a most redundant way, in 1992 when I was working on a Ph.D. at Texas A&M, I called the role and soon came to the name “Matlack.”
The student was none other than Jennifer Matlack, the daughter of Jon Matlack, my aforementioned boyhood idol. Jennifer and I talked about her father. How he’d been hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Marty Perez, the MVP in the 1975 All-Star Game and a hero in the 1973 Playoffs and World Series. Then there was his “Tommy John” arm surgery.
Another student at Texas A&M at that time was lefthander, Jeff Granger. Jeff had quarterbacked the team to the Cotton Bowl. He was also an all-American pitcher who broke Roger Clemens Southwest Conference record for career strikeouts. Jeff was also a first round draft choice — a million-dollar bonus baby of the Kansas City Royals.
Yet while I saw greatness in Jeff — good morals, all around athletic ability and a great work ethic — there was something missing. Of course, he’d been blowing everyone away from little league to high school to Texas A&M because he threw so hard.
In reality Jeff had no need of finesse to compliment his power. After watching him pitch, I feared that once he got to the majors he’d be just another guy who threw in the 90-mph range and would be hit hard. Jeff was rushed to the majors, and in fact he was hit hard. He soon drifted from Kansas City to the Pittsburgh Pirates and never reached his million-dollar potential. Last summer Jeff’s name appeared on the roster of our local Long Island Ducks minor league team.
Sadly it is an all too familiar tale.
Memory lane, future paths
So next season when the weather begins to warm and the smell of pine tar and cut grass fills the air, I’ll think back on my wasted baseball youth, bruising my father’s shins with my wild pitches, watching the late-night games of Mets vs. the L.A. Dodgers from out West — where Jon Matlack would pitch on his favorite mound, eating Jack in the Box tacos and charting the pitches. And although I won’t be playing, I’ll still miss my father, and the game itself.
Moreover, whether my job as a writer takes me to Cambodia, Sudan, South Africa or even for a ride with the French Foreign Legion, I’ll still plug in my laptop and look up the stats on Andy Pettite, my new favorite lefty pitcher.
Or maybe I’ll find a new name, a new favorite in a few years hence — perhaps you, the young reader with the focus, drive, heart and faith to overcome any odds to harness your ability and make it to The Show. No matter what people tell you, scouts will always be looking for left-handed pitchers.
For example, Harvey Kuen, the ex-batting champion, once offered me a tryout with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987. I met him at a sporting banquet in Phoenix when I was working as a waiter during my senior year at Arizona State. (Sadly, Mr. Keun passed away later that same week.) So you never know — keep the faith. After all I had been through with baseball, from breaking my ankle in high school and missing three seasons, I still made it to a major baseball university and had the chance to tryout with the Brewers.
The fact that things didn’t work out for me is irrelevant. One might easily be tempted to say, “Anthony was lazy and undisciplined, immature, headstrong and wasted his talent,” and on and on, ad nauseam. And that person would be 100-percent correct. Yet, despite all of that, fate had put me in a position where it was possible for me to succeed, to have a chance despite long odds. That is why the reader of this long, frustrating tale should never give up on their own baseball potential or their life in general.
Not ever, even for an instant.
The point being that you never know when your luck will change. Fate is the most mysterious of ladies. And also remember that Michael Jordan, Jose Canseco and Jim Palmer were all cut from their high school teams. Former all-pro New York Jet defensive lineman Joe Klecko drove a semi truck into the Jets Hofstra complex to ask coach Walt Michaels for a tryout.
Former Detroit Tigers players Gates Brown and Ron LeFlore were discovered in prison. Even Larry Bird pumped gasoline for a time after dropping out of the University of Indiana.
Never give up on your potential.
One final thought: In my oddly twisting journalism career, I once had the chance to live and train with special forces of the now defunct South African Defense Force.
Like Tug McGraw, I was forced to shoot my R-4 rifle right-handed. For weeks I sweated and missed day after day under the searing African sun. Yet finally I was able to focus — as did Tug McGraw at the Marine Boot Camp so long ago — and finally qualify as a marksman.
But by that time, mastering the ability to focus had come too late to do myself any good as a wild, left-handed pitcher.
It’s not too late for you.
I spent 13 frustrating years playing baseball, and another 13 years just thinking about writing this article. More than a quarter-century has led me to two simple yet profound words of encouragement: