Chapter 49: “Baseball in Paradise”

Chapter 49

 

 

The NFL and NBA drafts have become large media events over the years, with ESPN type networks broadcasting every pick. After each selection, the analysts evaluate the decisions using 3D charts and guest appearances like they are dissecting a presidential election unfolding live before America’s eyes. Entire evenings of TV are dedicated to this coverage. It is a form of entertainment all in its own, and with almost eight million people tuning in to watch night one of the football draft, deservedly so. For basketball meanwhile, nearly three million viewers watch to see where their favorite college superstars will land.

The MLB draft is lucky to get 300,000 viewers. With over forty monotonous rounds, plus supplemental picks, the process of drafting over 1,000 selectees drags on like the last few seasons of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” There are a few “preordained celebrities” to track, but the hard numbers are that most will never be heard from again. Those that do resurface, usually won’t for years. While the NFL draft allows you to follow your favorite college star directly from college football Saturdays right to NFL football Sundays, the MLB draft follows a different, less appealing pattern.[i]

The majority of high school and college players know their chances, and yet still believe that they will defy the odds. And for a few, they do just that. A couple years removed from the game, I knew a handful of Major Leaguers from their “past life” as student-athletes. They were of the chosen few who cut through the thick of the jungle, laughed at the Baseball Gods, and lived to tell the tale. I was proud to have competed against them, or with them, but seeing their names on Fantasy Baseball rosters would always seem surreal, as would seeing Facebook list their occupation as “works for Cleveland Indians.” Why? Because the very act of making it as far as they did meant they had breached my reality and entered into another world that I couldn’t touch.

Most never made it this far though, or even close to it. Their baseball world ended as most do, in a buried high school or college stat book. The actual figures may not be known to all, but there is no mistaking just how difficult it is to make “The Show,” even after you have been drafted. It is estimated that only 5% to 10% of the Minor Leaguers will make it to the Major Leagues, if only for just one day. About 1.3% of all college players will be part of this percentage, while no more than .015% of high schoolers will ever don a Major League uniform. (That’s roughly the chance of a thief guessing your four digit PIN number on the first try!) The rest of the pie comes from free agents and international players, of which the number grows each year. Thus, when a scout tells you to “sign now,” know what you are getting and giving up when writing your name on the contract.[ii] [iii]

As a result of all these factors, nine of out ten people watching the Major League draft live are either hard-core followers, potential draft picks, and/or their family and friends. I was one of those nine as I sat by my computer screen and watched “Jeff Dennis” flash up on the screen. There was no commissioner who came out onto the main stage to announce, “In the 39thround, the Oakland Athletics select left hand pitcher from Binghamton University, Jeff Dennis.” Jeff didn’t get up and don the newest A’s hat while flashes went off in unison. Instead, a post appeared on the online draft board displaying his name. Within five minutes, he was off the page, replaced by the next six picks which followed him.

Getting drafted was an exceptional honor, but being so far down in the draft meant that you were no more than a body and a prayer to the organization. Far removed from the lottery picks, you were most likely awaiting a $1,000 offer and a free trip to some obscure part of the country. If lucky, you’d get tuition thrown in upon the culmination of your playing days. The odds were astronomically low of cutting through the weeds and making yourself well known to a club. Thus, when Jeff was chosen so late in the draft, everything changed.

When we had lost to Stony Brook a few weeks before I had the notion that it would be the last time I’d see one of my best friends for a while. Going into his junior year, Jeff was already planning to be a Minor Leaguer come that summer. He had been talking to a lot of scouts throughout the season and was (rightfully) being hyped as a big prospect. Standing 6-foot-6 from the left side of the mound, flirting with 90 mph, and being an engineering student were all on his side. Being from Binghamton, isolated from the baseball hotbed and all that this brought with it though could tip the scale gently enough in the wrong direction. Although many people chirped in Jeff’s ear about his prospects, come Judgment Day only a 39th round selection was to show for it. For Jeff, having left the 99% for the more elite 1%, this was not good enough. Though not without risks, eventually Jeff turned down the Athletics’ offer and returned for his senior year, hoping for “greener” pastures next season.

A gambler has to be willing to sometimes play the odds and lose. There are instances when intentionally walking a batter is the correct move for example, but that far from guarantees it will turn out for the better. Choosing which school to attend, figuring out which of two exams on the same day to study more for, or deciding to make or not to make a move on that pretty girl in the bar who might have a boyfriend nearby all have odds. You can take the road that has the greatest chance of success, but it’s important to keep in mind through the decision making process that correct decisions don’t always equate to correct outcomes. This truth baseball players know very well. Jeff had made his assessment, precisely calculated his odds as only an engineering student can, and made a choice to return to school. Then, it was the Baseball God’s turn to throw the dice on his behalf.

When Jeff reported to his summer baseball team in the Coastal Plains League, I thought for the first time that he might actually be coming back. “1 more time around the block???” I texted him the morning before I left for Hawaii and the start of my own summer season. When I woke up on June 9th it seemed like another warm and sunny summer day in Connecticut. I checked my phone but there was still no answer from Jeff. Walking outside, the late morning breeze off the water was a welcoming start to go along with the cup of iced tea I sipped on the porch. I fixed my eyes on the horizon and fantasized that I could see Hawaii out in the distance. In fifteen hours it would no longer be a figment of my imagination. “Go enjoy yourself Ken,” Jeff typed back as I stared out onto the ocean. “I will see you in the fall.”

I had nine weeks in Hawaii to largely ignore life back on the mainland and play baseball without any strings attached. The pause allowed me to see the world under a different lens and experience the island full tilt. It stirred an internal debate about whether it was better to be young and free on the island but without money, or to be more settled and wealthier but without youth. On one hand I had the opportunity to live unconstrained, the desire and ability to go out and meet people, the experience of living with amazing individuals, and the chance to go on thrilling adventures. On the other hand, I lacked the resources to enjoy the finer restaurants along Waikiki beach, the expensive volcano tours over lava fields, and the fancy hotels that came cockroach and prison-mattress free.

I imagined having the financial ability to pay for day long fishing trips and “open tabs” at the bar would have been nice, but by summer’s end I had come to terms with the fact that swimming (for free) in the light blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and drinking $.50 cans of Natural Light was more than sufficient. The summer became a flawless blend of youth, baseball, and exploration. It was easy to hype up Hawaii as being an amazing place, and I feared that playing baseball there might disappoint. It doubled any of my wildest expectations.

The schedule was a checkered board of baseball and leisure time, going back and forth between the two in a seamless affair. Each day allowed for a nine inning game and ample amounts of free time, a treat brought on by the fact that field space was limited. Some chose to “buy” bikes at Wal-Mart to get around for the summer, but this plan ultimately failed as the store refused to take back the bikes at the end of the season, knowing full well the scheme being attempted. Bikes also required a permit, a lock, a helmet, and the risk of being stolen. Thus, I chose to buy a bus pass. By the end of the summer the woman’s voice saying “Next stop is Ala Moana. This is the Kalihi Transit Center bound bus”was ingrained into my head, never to leave.[iv]

For $50 a month (which in Hawaii seemed to get you a gallon of milk, but in our college world was a lot of money) I could move about the island so that the beach and rainforest were always accessible. It also allowed me to get to the dock where I swam with sharks. It gave me the ability to hike through rainforests and jump off a 60-foot cliff into a bottomless natural pool of water. The bus took me to where I went surfing and swam at the famous Waikiki Beach. It dropped me off at Diamondhead, an old volcano, which I successfully climbed to the top. It drove by the Dole pineapple fields, as well as the site where the ABC show “Lost” was filmed.

Though not accessible by bus, over the summer I managed to view the amazing seaside cliffs on Kauai by helicopter, to attend a Luau and eat pig cooked in a fire pit, and to consume “pupu” (appetizers) at beach resorts while sipping piña coladas. I visited Pearl Harbor and reflected over the U.S.S. Arizona memorial, still leaking oil. I snorkeled with man-sized fish and turtles. I partied at the University of Hawaii and ran on Hawaii’s famous rainbow track.

Most college summer leagues are built upon the various towns that host teams. With this, each team becomes a special part of that community, showing up at summer camps and volunteer dinners, as well as in newspaper headlines. There is an established home field, and a sense of separation exists between the teams. The Hawaii Collegiate League broke down all of those barriers. All six teams were really one and the same. We lived at the same place, the University of Hawaii’s off-campus housing, played at the same fields, and ate the same prison grade food each afternoon. To control and monitor six teams’ worth of guys would have been nearly impossible so instead of trying to do so the league simply let us be. “Here is your key. Be down at the buses at one for practice tomorrow,” said the van driver on day one. “What team am I on?” I asked. Flipping through some notes and making some semi-coherent comments he finally said, “Hawaii Aliis. Best of luck.”

Our living facility lacked charm and was in need of a serious makeover, however it had a bed, a kitchen, and a common area to congregate. The food we were served, usually large cans of vegetables and mystery meat was dreadful, however with all of us on tight budgets we consumed it like a tornado taking apart a small town. If we could sneak in a second plate of “curried meat” and rice, we had dinner as well. But all of these “nuisances” mattered not. We had baseball. We had each other to live, explore, and party with. We had Hawaii.

The games were played a half hour away, both teams sitting side by side on a yellow school bus on the way to the field like elementary school students, all staring out onto the rolling hills and beaches of Oahu in total awe. The fields, buried deep into a county park, were now lined with well-manicured palm trees and island flowers of all colors and forms. Just over sixty year years earlier the exact spot where the baseball fields now lay had witnessed Japanese planes fly directly overhead minutes before bombing Pearl Harbor. If one could step away from the stress of the next at bat and breathe, what a sight he would behold. That such a tropical and beautiful place could exist in this world was humbling to a kid from Connecticut. Opening my eyes and relaxing in-between blunt force traumas from the pressure I packed into each game, I could finally see the magnificent world of baseball which was in front of me.

There were drawbacks, such as the lack of spectators, but we made due without. There were also day-to-day aspects of the league that I noticed right away were problems. The main one, a lack of batting cages, however became a blessing in disguise. With no opportunity for any extra hitting, the Baseball Gods had finally taken off the swimmies and forced me to sink or swim. I had registered tens of thousands of swings over my life and knew what I was doing. Everyone realized this except myself.

I started the summer red hot, but in the middle of the season started to slump badly. Was it the wood bats? The lack of practice swings? Perhaps the heat was getting to me? Every slump has a low point than can only be seen from ashore once the slump is over. Mine was an 0-for-5 day with three strikeouts. The last strikeout came on a pitch thrown 84 mph right down the center of the plate. The ball laughed at me as I swung over the top of it. Flabbergasted, I looked back at the catcher’s mitt to make sure there was an actual ball. I couldn’t find the words to express my momentary state of dumbfoundness.

All I could do was go home and play the song “You had a Bad Day,” by Daniel Powter. The stunning drive along the coast back to our barracks usually lifted my spirits, but the simple 3-minute 54-second song was a good insurance policy. Neither however solved any of my hitting problems. I had relied so heavily on my “mood” and “feel” as a hitter that I was very prone to “market risk.” It was a live or die strategy. Walk up to the plate, take my swings, and if I was hitting well I would hold my own. If I felt out of sync, perhaps because I thought I hadn’t prepared adequately for whatever reason, I would play a lot of Daniel Powter.

And that is when good fortune smiled on me and finally the Baseball Gods loosened their tight grip around my body. Something began to click. Suddenly hitting became easier. My mindset shifted the way a coastal strip can be altered by a hurricane. Trying to sort it all out was like attempting to explain advanced calculus without understanding basic algebra first.

Practice is vital to top performance. Neither glamorous nor overly exciting, it takes effort and discipline to show up every day and prepare properly. Practice is repetition and over time the routine can start to feel mundane. When the nearest game is still many moons away and you are tired, it becomes easy to take a day off. You can certainly afford one day away, but is two Ok? Is a week off an essential break from the game or a period when you aren’t getting any better?

Though practice is imperative, practice for the simple purpose of saying you practiced makes little sense. Like so many athletes over the years, I had gotten into the habit of practicing every day without stopping to ask, “What do I need to work on today?” or “What am I hoping to get out of this workout?” The doldrums of mindless training had made me “baseball dumb.” I thought for example that I had to take one hundred batting practice swings per day to stay sharp, never questioning the logic or truth behind the belief.

Then, circumstances throughout college began to change this perception. As time progressed, I no longer had the time or opportunity to get my full regimen of swings in each day. Stubbornly, but also progressively, I began to learn how to make the most of tee-drill swings, front toss swings and curve ball machine swings. I didn’t like it, but it was all there was. Then came Hawaii, and an extreme in absorbing “efficient practices.”

Extra batting practice was important, but having the confidence to know that I could go up to the plate after taking a day off from hitting (or a week off between live at bats) and still rip the ball was critical. Although attacked by a nasty slump in Hawaii, I soon discovered how to use a multitude of drills and methods to stay prepared. Every swing became a focused and meaningful act.

When some of our games were moved to an alternate field, one that had a batting cage where I got to take a few cuts before the first pitch, I embraced the swings like they were precious diamonds. My average quickly thereafter steadily rose. Finally it felt like baseball in paradise. The new scenery of our secondary field put on the finishing touch. Placed inside an old volcanic crater, the field had a postcard-like backdrop, with green mountains disappearing into rainforest clouds behind the outfield fence.

So after fifteen-plus years in the game, I had finally figured out how to practice. But that alone couldn’t explain why hitting changed for me. Some of it had to do with being physically stronger, faster and more mature. Mentally, however, was where the real transformation, a decade-plus in the making, occurred. When I met my roommate, Kurt Steinhauer, I initially saw a stereotypical Southern Californian. He was a well-built, muscular kid with long blond hair and a swagger. He was in a constant state of being “chilled out” and enjoyed surfing and biking. I assumed he could mash the ball, and was proven right, but I did not yet have an ounce of appreciation on how he went about doing his business. To Kurt, hitting was a skill to be studied and fine-tuned. An eventual 27th round draft pick in 2009 by the New York Mets, Kurt was significantly undervalued entering Minor League baseball. If a scout had sat down and talked baseball with him, he would have jumped to a top ten round pick.[v]

The Baseball Gods had granted me a blessing by putting me in the same room as Kurt. Although he was a more talented player than I was, we were able to speak the same language. I saw where he succeeded, and he saw where I failed. It gave me the unique opportunity to listen to Kurt talk about the science and art of hitting and then see him carry out his strategies in a game. It was like a chess novice watching Bobby Fisher play after talking strategy with him before the match.

Kurt was not on Fisher’s level, but he had excelled in understanding how much of baseball occurred under the hood. Everyone was spending all of their time and effort focusing on the five physical tools; batting average, power, speed, throwing and fielding, that little time and effort was put on one’s mental tools. As I digested Kurt’s wisdom, I saw that what was going on between the ears was where the difference lay.

I realized that in baseball some of the top players are not five tool athletes. There will always be the David Wright superstars out there where pure physical talent trumps all (not to say he also isn’t mentally sharp), but the main core of Major Leaguers have mentally learned to play off their strengths and mask their weaknesses withinthis realm of the five physical tools. Put another way, most Major Leaguers have learned how to master this sixth, less tangible tool.

Not every player can hit for power, so an individual with plus speed for example must focus on hitting ground balls and beating them out. He must learn to get on base. This is a mental adjustment as much as a physical one. The player must begin to look for certain pitches that can be easily put on the ground, search for large holes in the infield, stop trying to hit home runs, and even change where in the box he stands.

Most players are taught from an early age to focus on improving all five tools (power, arm, speed, average, and fielding) with vigor, and wind up inadvertently ignoring the sixth tool, the mental game. Without this last tool, the glue, they are given little direction on how to most efficiently develop their tools to their specific skill set. Kurt opened this door and allowed me to peer into the darkness. Once able to see inside, I could confront what parts of the game I was good at, what parts I should be good at, and what parts I was not good at. Once I knew where my strengths and weaknesses were and how I could use these to my advantage, I was able to start building out my game to certain, more logical specifications.

I had some pop in my bat, but was not a home run hitter. I had speed but was not a top base stealer. I would get my fair share of hits but never led the league in average. I was a good fielder and had a good arm but this did me no good at the plate. I was however, a very good thinker. My strength then had to be in my mental preparation, and how I approached my at bats. That was the area where I could outperform my opponent. That in fact was my best tool, but ironically the one I had been trying to bury since I was nine years old. Until I talked with Kurt and read his bible, Ted William’s book, “The Science of Hitting,” I did not understand this. If anything, I had been doing everything in my power to block out this sixth tool. As I read the book, each word brought about enlightenment to my baseball soul.

Being an avid reader of sports magazines, I read dozens of stories about how certain people wouldn’t have gotten to the level they achieved but for a certain “Mr. X.” The magazines however did not report on all the individuals that never found their “Mr. X.” It seemed that as I progressed up the college baseball ladder from freshmen to elder classman, the “one break” I was looking for continued to elude my grasp. Coach Folli tried as he may, but as the volunteer assistant coach at BU, his decision making power only went so far. Like a light breeze on the open ocean, I needed a small but constant push in the right direction to help me get to the right place mentally and physically. As it turned out Ryan Howard, Ted Williams and Kurt were the closest things I had to a “Mr. X.”

Ryan Howard, Ted Williams, and Kurt broke down hitting to its core. They challenged me to think about my approach and my plan at the plate, much like authors F. Scott Fitzgerald or Emily Dickinson forces one to critically analyze sentence structure. Ted Williams described the thrill of facing a pitcher when you have a game plan. It was a mental challenge to store and log all of your at bats, and to then ultimately use them to your advantage as the at bat, game and season evolved.

Emulating the great Ted Williams, I became a guess hitter. By assessing what the pitcher was throwing and how he was getting me and other hitters out, I was amazed at how often I could accurately predict the next pitch that was coming. For years people had told me to not think at the plate, but for me thinking was good. As long as I was thinking strategy and analyzing my circumstances as opposed to mulling over details and mechanics, I was golden. Part of me felt stupid, part of me felt betrayed, that I had spent so much time and effort trying to not think. Now I was spending my effort doing the exact opposite.

From that day on, hitting flowed like water down a mountain. I had always given the pitchers credit, but once I realized that they missed their spots on a consistent basis, had constant sore arms, and had as much insecurity on the mound as I did as a hitter at the plate, their mental edge quickly evaporated. I started to mash the league’s pitching, but more importantly, hitting became a pleasurable challenge, not a job.

I hadn’t known that fear had spread throughout my body and placed its claws onto my stomach until it was finally removed with a scalpel. I had been tricked into thinking that my nervousness was normal, that it was nothing more than some pregame jitters. But the anxiety of missing out on an opportunity and underperforming had taken a serious toll on me.

By the end of the summer I had found a cure. I was no longer nervous. If I made an out, I simply stored the information in my head and moved on. If I had a bad game, I did the same. Others’ reactions or accomplishments meant little. I had always told myself that I was a solid college hitter, but until my summer in Hawaii I never truly believed it. By summer’s end though I knew I had something special in my back pocket for the upcoming season. What opportunities lay ahead, however, was still a mystery known only to those sometimes cruel Baseball Spirits.

And so after seventeen years of hitting, things began to come together during a few week stretch 3,000 miles away from home. I was now twenty-one and had three years of college experience. I had learned how to slow the game down, how to deal with failure, and how to adjust to constantly changing conditions. To go along with that, I had created a swing that allowed me to effectively hit both fastballs and breaking balls. With the combined increase in physical and mental strength, a new hitter was born. I was far from a perfect hitter, and even farther from being the end product I knew I could be, but given the circumstances and timeline, I had reached where I wanted. Now, I had one final college season to leverage it.

Our last game of the season took place on a hot and humid Tuesday afternoon. It was the Hawaii Aliis, dressed in red and navy, versus the Waikiki Surfers, playing in their bright orange jerseys. The game became my sendoff, and a prime example of my makeover. I entered the game with a relaxed and positive mindset, already a 180 degree change from my normal tentative mindset. After all, I was playing baseball minutes away from the sandy shores of Honolulu’s beaches.

In my first at bat, I ripped a line drive to left field on an outside fastball, going with the pitch for an easy single. The second time up the pitcher tossed in a change-up, followed by a curveball, both missing the outside corner by an inch. Without another dominant pitch, the pitcher was now fully exposed. I had seen him revert back to his fastball throughout the day and had just seen two straight off-speed pitches come in for balls. I knew it was time to sit dead red.

I passed on the predictable fastball, validation that I was hot on the case, despite the umpire docking me a strike on the marginal call. Before, I would have buckled under the weight knowing that some part-time umpire without a day job had screwed me. I would have looked for anything close to the plate the rest of the at bat in both hope and prayer that the pitcher would make a mistake. The mental games I’d play fretting about the hole I’d be in if I did miss the 2-1 pitch would be agonizing.

But this time I knew I had the pitcher set up. I had lured him in and now just had to press the big red button to drop the trap door. He had just missed outside with one fastball and allowed the other fastball to be driven for a hit in my first at bat. On the other hand, his two off-speed pitches had only barely missed the outside corner and were by far his more effective pitches that day. Like a perfectly synchronized watch, on cue he hung a curveball which I put it into deep right center for a double. I ended the day 3-for-4.

I returned from Hawaii burnt as a piece of toast, both literally and figuratively. My body was exhausted from “relaxing” in paradise. Even in a setting like Hawaii, two months of non-stop baseball was tiresome. The players would often joke every summer about how “lucky” the teams were who missed the playoffs. In my three years of summer ball in fact I had been blessed to have never won a playoff game. This meant that I could escape ahead of most of the other players, which was considered a piece of good fortune because we were all worn down after the 100+ games we had played between college and summer ball. At that point we just wanted a few weeks off before school started.

As I boarded the plane to head back home I was physically tired, but mentally rejuvenated. I couldn’t put it into words, but I knew I was leaving Hawaii as a different hitter and as a different person. Having not shaved for a few days, I was startled to see an older looking face staring back at me off the reflection of the airplane window. Almost overnight I had become one of the seniors that had looked so old and mature when I first stepped onto Binghamton’s campus three years before. In a few short weeks I would be heading back to Binghamton for my last go-round. It was time to start thinking about life after baseball.

 

 

SOURCES:

[i]http://mobile.businessweek.com/articles/2013-06-05/baseball-gets-ready-for-americas-least-watched-draftBaseball Gets Ready for America’s Least Watched Draft; By Ira Boudway; June 05, 2013

[ii]http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=6&ved=0CHUQFjAF&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmrdawson.wikispaces.com%2Ffile%2Fview%2FProSportsOdds.doc&ei=fUe0T-epB8L-6gGf3_HfDw&usg=AFQjCNGik3cwh7UJGy1FIw2tYhkQ3AGn2w

–High school senior players who go on to play NCAA men`s baseball: Less than three in 50, or 5.6 percent. NCAA senior players drafted by a Major League Baseball (MLB) team: Less than eleven in 100, or 10.5 percent. High school senior players eventually drafted by an MLB team: About one in 200, or 0.5 percent. Drafted baseball players almost always go to a minor league team. These teams abound; there are over 150 of them, compared to 30 in the majors. The big leagues have 750 players, yet the 2004 draft alone took 1,500. Hence some estimate that only one in 33 minor leaguers ever makes it to the pros. If that’s correct, the chance of a high school player making the big leagues is one in 6,600, or 0.015 percent. That’s roughly the chance of a thief guessing your PIN number on the first try.

[iii]http://www.vrdc.cornell.edu/info4470/projects/~gcg29/introduction.php

[iv]http://www.thebus.org/route/routes.asp

[v]http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=steinh001kur

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