Paul Lehner was a good outfielder. He played for the old St. Louis Browns, the Detroit Tigers and several other teams in the '40s and '50s. He was also a very good hitter. But there was a time when he ran into a problem, and suddenly he discovered that he couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield on Sundays. It had nothing to do with religious or other scruples; he just couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield on Sundays, and Sundays were the days for doubleheaders and other crucial games. This went on for some time—and then the team’s trainer approached him, sat down with him and got him to unburden himself about this “Sunday jinx”. Then the trainer told him about a famous doctor , he had read about in a newspaper; this doctor had discovered some new pills that were supposed to help hitters. The trainer had ordered a batch, and he said that when the pills arrived in a week or so the two of them should quietly give them a tryout.
The pills arrived, just in time for a Sunday doubleheader. Before the game Lehner went behind the dugout and swallowed two of them. The game started, and in his first three at-bats he went hitless, so he started wondering if the pills were any good—then, in his fourth time at bat, he blasted a tremendous homer into the bleachers. In the second game he went 4-for-4, including another homer—and that was the end of the “Sunday jinx”; he started hitting again.
A simple placebo—and it worked. For that moment in time, the trainer was a troubleshooter.
Ed Lopat once observed that a pitching coach needs to be something of a psychologist. Very often when a pitcher or other player runs into a problem it’s nothing to do with mechanics or repertoire, it’s between the ears, and the coach, or manager, or even another player, has to be able to spot the problem and deal with it. And one doesn’t even need to have an advanced degree in psychology; what he or she needs is common sense, a hunch, a sixth sense or some other form of ESP—and some expertise in some unexpected area. Lopat, one of the top troubleshooters in the major leagues, once talked about a situation with rookie Whitey Ford: the kid had started one game and was quickly blasted from here to Timbuktu and back with every pitch he threw being turned into line-drive extra-base hits. In the fifth inning first baseman Tommy Henrich ran out to the mound and exclaimed, “Whitey, that first-base coach is calling every pitch you’re throwing!”—and that was the first indication that Ford might be telegraphing his pitches. The next day pitching coach Jim Turner and extra pitching coach Lopat took Ford into the bullpen and had him throw from the stretch, because that was when the problem was occurring. Turner was puzzled and kept scratching his head—but Lopat, who had been watching with a sardonic smile on his face, had spotted the trouble at once (he had this eerie ability to zero in on a problem instantly). Ford, all unawares, had been positioning his glove hand one way for a fastball and another way for a curve, and because he was a southpaw it was no problem for the first-base coach to read the signal and alert the batter. Lopat took Ford aside, quietly told him what he was doing wrong, and worked with him to correct the situation in that bullpen session. Ford won his next start.
You do indeed observe a lot by watching, as Yogi Berra once said—and rightly so.
Let’s look at a couple of workshops Lopat conducted for a bunch of high-school pitchers during one summer, at a playing field near Yankee Stadium. The first one took place on a Saturday, and Steady Eddie had his hands full from the beginning. There was one 17-year-old junior who was seriously considering giving up on the game, and the problem was immediately obvious: his high-school coach was a child’s garden of misinformation who mandated—no other word would do—that the only way to pitch was over the top, and that was not the kid’s natural delivery. That coach would not let him throw anything but fastballs—over the top—and would not allow him to even think about a curve ball or even a changeup. Nor would he listen to anyone—parents, teachers, even other coaches, nobody. It was his way or the highway, and that young pitcher was exceedingly upset over the situation. So Lopat decided to do something about it. Unknown to all but a very few, he had a good working knowledge of the use of hypnosis as an adjunct to his work as a pitching coach, and he used one of those techniques. He sat down beside the kid, told him a couple of things about strategic pitching, then gradually got him into a state of deep, quiet relaxation—and then asked him what he felt was his best pitching delivery. The kid replied without hesitation that his was a good strong 3/4 delivery. Armed with this information, Lopat set about clearing Junior’s head and demolishing a whole slew of misconceptions and mistaken ideas, restoring his confidence and belief in himself. He then ended up by making a snatching motion with his hand and exclaiming “And THIS is what you do with a mosquito!” The upshot of it all was that the kid transferred to another school with a coach who knew which end was up, and he graduated with honors and went on to university where he became one of the aces of the mound staff. (As for that child’s garden of misinformation—he was fired.}
The second workshop featured a young pitcher who inexplicably had lost his curveball—actually lost his feel for the pitch—and was unhappy about it. Steady Eddie went after that problem with a simple but highly effective exercise. He told the pitcher to get off the mound, sit down on a bench, and pick up a baseball. Speaking quietly and steadily, he instructed the kid: “Feel it. Feel all 108 stitches on the ball. Feel the smooth surface of the ball. Get the entire sense of the ball…let it talk to you. The next day, get up on the mound, but don’t throw the ball. Just repeat the sequence. Next day, go into the bullpen—repeat the sequence—and then just stand there with the ball in your hand, and start thinking—about what it would be like to .throw a good curveball. Now, the day after that, take a good catcher into the bullpen with you, and throw ten pitches, always thinking about what it feels like to throw a good curveball. Take a three-minute break, and throw fifteen more, always with the sense of what it feels like to throw a good curveball.” The young pitcher followed Lopat’s instructions and recovered his feel for the curve, and it became his best pitch.
There are so many instances where a troubleshooter may be needed. A pitching coach with something extra up his sleeve can rescue and restore a faltering hurler, or a batting coach with a new and different idea can get a slumping hitter back on track. And even something as potentially threatening, such as a nightmare about losing it on the mound, can be stopped in its tracks before it even gets started, if the right troubleshooter is there to go after it.