Tuesday, September 6, 2011

It's Called Steve Blass Disease, But You Can Call it Steve Sax Disease Too

Chuck Knoblauch.

Mackey Sasser.

Steve Sax.

Mark Wohlers.

Rick Ankiel.

To a lesser degree, Ryan Zimmerman.

What do these guys have in common? All have been struck by a strange condition known as the yips, which makes the most elementary baseball act, the first baseball activity you do as a kid, the first thing every athlete does to begin the day's warmup--throwing the ball to a teammate--a bewitching, beguiling, and, often, crippling, task. (Low moments in yips history: Knoblauch overthrowing first so badly that the ball went into the Yankee Stadium crowd and hit Keith Olbermann's mother in the face. Vast right wing conspiracy, anybody?)

The condition is called Steve Blass Disease, according to a new baseball novel, The Art of Fielding, from Chad Harbach.

In the novel, which was excerpted by Sports Illustrated in the August 29 issue, Henry Skrimshander, star shortstop at Westish College, is seeing his once glittering prospects as a major leaguer plummet due to his painstakingly detailed yips issues.

A few notables in the crowd for Westish's game, college president Guert Affenlight, Cardinals scout Dwight Rogner, and former MLB star shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez, are discussing Skrimshander's throwing woes.

"They call it Steve Blass disease," Dwight explained to Affenlight. "After the first player it happened to. A pitcher for the Pirates. That was a little before my time."

"Those were the Pittsburgh teams of Clemente," said Aparicio. "They won the Series in '71. Clemente was named Most Valuable Player, but the honor could easily have gone to Mr. Blass. He had an exceptional ability to control the baseball.

"A year later, on New Year's Eve, Clemente was killed in a plane crash while delivering aid to Nicaragua. When the next season began, Mr. Blass could no longer do what he'd always done. It happened  very suddenly. Walks, wild pitches. Two years later, only a few years removed from the height of his career, he decided to retire."

"You think it was related to Clemente's death?" Affenlight asked.

Aparicio sat silent for a long while before answering. "I suggested as much by the way I told the story, didn't I?"

The three embark on a long discussion on the psyche of an athlete who is consumed by the yips.

It's expertly written, Harbach showing a keen appreciation for human nature, and for the nature of baseball.

For the record, Harbach is not the first to use the term "Steve Blass Disease." In fact, it turns up in Chuck Knoblauch's Wikipedia entry:

 In 1999 he began to have difficulty making accurate throws to first base, a condition sometimes referred to in baseball as "the yips", "Steve Blass Disease", or "Steve Sax Syndrome" in more recent years. By 2000, the problem had grown serious enough that he began seeing more playing time as a designated hitter.

The blog Mental Floss offers a brief history of Steve Blass Disease, reaching beyond sports to Hollywood to detail the victims of this dreaded malady.

After his promising debut, let us hope the author Harbach never gets the writing yips.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a similar dialogue occurs in paul auster's "sunset park"