Kelly McDermid: The Yips

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Pitchers fear power hitters. Hitters fear high inside heat. That’s what we as fans think any way. We think that because those are the things we would fear. What Average Joe wouldn’t be scared standing at the plate against the monster that is C.C. Sabathia? We take our fears and place them upon the pros we watch day in and day out. But athletes aren’t like us. If they shared our phobias, they wouldn’t be where they are. Their fears are of a different nature, especially baseball players. They fear the omni present force that hangs like a black cloud over all athletes. The Yips; the dreaded, mysterious, and possibly career killing Yips. We don’t often see a player get fully overtaken by them. The occasional errant throw to first, a wild pitch, or a misplayed ground ball, these momentary lapses are chalked up as errors. We as fans don’t tend to think much of them outside of the singular moment of frustration with a given player. Yips are different though. Yips are the continuation of error. The inexplicable loss of skill (most often throwing), that seems to manifest at random.

Some claim to understand the yips. Hell, there are even websites like this one http://yipsbegone.com/ where doctors claim they have THE CURE for Yips. But Yips can’t simply be cured by some Tony Robins knock off. We are talking about an emotional shift happening in the mind that only those afflicted can understand. Unless you’ve had the Yips, you don’t fully understand. These men understand the Yips all too well.

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Pitcher Steve Blass: After helping the Pirates take the series in 1971 and posting career best numbers in 1972, in 1973, Blass went 3-9, saw his ERA jump to nearly 10.00, and had only 27 strikeouts to his 84 walks. He was dropped to the minors where he continued to struggle and then disappeared from baseball.  Looking at his career stats, it’s shocking to think that he had “it”, and then suddenly “it” was lost into the ether. 

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Second Baseman Steve Sax: Sax succumbed to the Yips in 1983, losing his ability to make the throw to first. He committed 30 errors that year, 21 in 1984, and 22 in 1985. He was so afflicted that in many circles, the Yips became known as “Steve Sax Syndrome”. The same thing happened with Chuck Knoblauch from 1999-2000. Where Sax recovered, Chuck spiraled. The issue got so bad Knoblauch was moved from second base, to left field, and finally to DH until he soon retired.

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Pitcher Rick Ankiel: The most recent victim to fall to the Yips. In 2000 Ankiel went 11-5 with a 3.50 ERA. In Game 1 of that year’s NLDS things had been going swimmingly, until the third inning. Rick gave up 4 runs on 4 hits, and 4 walks. The icing on the cake were his 5 wild pitches. In Game 2 of the NLCS Ankiel got the start again and was pulled after 3 runs on 20 pitches, 4 of which were marked wild. After a disastrous stint in the minors, Ankiel moved to the outfield where luckily his career has recovered.

These men know the Yips. And so do I.

In 2002 I moved from Seattle to Indiana. I don’t recommend anyone ever do such a thing. I arrived at my new High School as just another face in the crowd, but I figured when baseball season came around, I could join the team and make some friends. Baseball had always been one of the only things I was ever good at. It took a long time, but after struggling as a kid, I practiced year round and actually got pretty good at pitching and hitting. I wasn’t out of this world or anything, but I could throw hard, had some weird off speed stuff, and I could hit for contact and power. I figured I would at least be good enough to make the JV team. JV or Varsity… I didn’t care. I just wanted to play. 

Tryout time came around. I was there with my old hat and glove in hand, ready to give it my all.  The level of talent that showed looked decent enough, but I knew I would be able to hold my own. It had never dawned on me that I might not make the team and would continue to be friendless. That is, it didn’t dawn on me until that first day of the tryouts. No longer was I thinking about my adequate hitting and pitching abilities. Now I was gripped with the fear of screwing up, the fear not making the team, the fear of remaining the new kid who sits alone at lunch. 

It came time to pair up for catch (warm ups). I found myself standing thirty feet away from some kid I’ve never met before, waiting for me to throw the ball to him. Everyday prior to this point, throwing him the ball was the easiest thing in the world. But at that very moment, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the concept of a throwing motion eluded me. 

The first time I hurled the ball, it went fifteen feet over this poor sap’s head. He watched the ball soar high above him and then turned to me, shooting a look that said, “Are you kiddin?” Like I was putting him on, and this was just a goof. But it was no goof. It was very real. He continued to stare at me, waiting for me to say something about my atrocious throw, but what the hell could I say? I then did the only thing I could think to do. I began moving my arm and shoulder around like I had pulled something. I then offered,  “Sorry, it slipped right out.” The, “It slipped right out” excuse works only once in a short game of catch, and I had used it on the very first throw. Why did throwing this little ball of leather and string suddenly seem like the most difficult thing in the world? Again I went through my motion, and fired. This time the ball skipped off the ground ten feet in front him and then bounced over his head. This continued for another fifteen minutes.  It was the longest fifteen minutes of my life. Not a single throw was on target. It was if I had been right handed my whole life and then suddenly decided after fifteen years it was time to try to throwing lefty. I had lost complete control of my motor skills.

I went home that day in a state of shock. I didn’t know what to do. I asked my Dad if he would come out back and throw it around for a bit so I could figure out what was wrong. We went out back, and everything was fine. I threw with velocity. I hit him in the chest. It was like nothing ever happened. I breathed a sigh of relief with the realization that I still had some semblance of skill. Despite my embarrassment the day before, I returned to the tryouts on the following day. 

Warm ups went fine. I thought I had it shook, until it came time to throw batting practice. Then the Yips came roaring back. What made things worse was the sound the ball made when it ricocheted off the chain link enclosure. Anyone who turned their head to the noise would find a kid noodling throw after throw, and then occasionally trying too hard and nearly taking a batter’s head off with an errant fastball. It went on like that for the entire afternoon, until I was finally pulled. What confused me most, was while I was unable to affectively throw; my ability to hit the ball hadn’t changed at all. I was seeing it well, making solid contact, and swinging through everything. But when it came time to take the field I became a laughingstock each time I needed to make a play. Tryouts were supposed to go on for a full week, by the third day, I already knew it was over for me. Word had spread. I was the kid trying out for the baseball team, who couldn’t throw a baseball. 

That summer, despite my recent shame, I joined a rec-league and again, it was like nothing had ever happened. I could throw, catch and hit just fine. Things were normal. Up until the following year. A new school meant another baseball tryout. On the first day, we split off to warm up in a basketball gym. My first throw went wide right, plunking the side of a basketball rim. But I shook it off. I got my composure together. As the tryouts went on, I continued to hit and field with ease. Near the final day of the tryout, I blew out my arm playing long toss. It was never the same after that. Tendons went out of whack, never fully healing. Much of the velocity I once had was gone. I had made the team but much of the season was dedicated to rehabbing, and even when I did get back I was used mostly as a pinch hitter. The pain in the arm had caused me to change my swing, which also didn’t help matters. And that was that for me and baseball.

The closest I get to playing these days are company softball games. That isn’t exactly the level of competition that I had in my years of Yips. Yet still, every time I pick up the ball part of me thinks this might be the day they come back. They still haunt me. My greatest fear is that the Yips will rear their ugly head in some other facet of my life. In baseball, Yips were my undoing. But I’ll be damned if I let them get the best of me anywhere else.

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Kelly is a man/boy living in Los Angeles. He writes, makes videos, drinks whiskey, and cares too much about sports. He’s also got a cool pet fish named Raspberry Beret. Check out his Artist of The Week Column every Friday at entertheshell.com, his comedy videos with the Cleveland City Chuckle Squad, and for everything else follow his tumblr and twitter.

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  1. oldtimefamilybaseball posted this
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