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Curing baseball’s dreaded Steve Blass disease

Steve Blass

In this section, Dr. Sharon P. Misasi and Dr. David Kemler of Southern Connecticut State University will answer questions about sports psychology and how it relates to our athletes, and the games we play.

Q: There is a phenomenon in baseball that not many players like to talk about. It’s like something out of the Twilight Zone, enough to make a grown man run out of the room in terror.

It’s called “The Thing,” or “Steve Blass disease,” after the Connecticut native who first fell victim to it.

Their entire careers, baseball players are counted on to make accurate throws, whether playing in the field or pitching. The ones who reach the major leagues have made those throws countless times, over and over, for years. It is a prerequisite of the job, much in the way that knowing how to turn on a computer is a prerequisite to writing for a website.

Chuck Knoblauch once hit Keith Olbermann's mom on a routine throw to first base. (AP Photo)

Chuck Knoblauch once hit Keith Olbermann’s mom on a routine throw to first base. (AP Photo)

But every so often, like in a recurring horror movie series, a player will lose the fundamental ability to make an accurate throw. Whether it’s to first base, home plate, or simply back to the mound. It gets in their head like some kind of science fiction pandemic, and every fundamental instinct they have is turned upside down. Their careers are never the same thereafter.

“The Thing” first happened to Steve Blass, a Canaan native who was once one of the best pitchers in baseball. In baseball’s famous “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, Blass was a top Cy Young candidate, finishing 18-6 with a 2.12 ERA. He also pitched the Pittsburgh Pirates to the 1971 World Series title.

But in 1973, Blass suddenly lost all fundamental ability to throw the ball. As Kirk Robinson wrote in the book Steve Blass, Cured:

“He hit batters, he walked people, he threw pitches worthy of Nuke Laloosh, throwing behind hitters, bouncing pitches, terrifying mascots, and generally looking as lost as an Amish buggy on Broadway… And then his career was over. A disease was born.”

Since then, former Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, and former Cardinals pitcher and current Houston Astros outfielder Rick Ankiel have fallen victim. Knoblauch once unleashed a throw that hit television personality Keith Olbermann’s mom in the stands.

How do you explain this phenomenon, and what can be done to cure it?

A: This type of phenomenon is often traced to our biological reaction to fear and anxiety. We often choose to fight, flee, or freeze from a potentially dangerous situation.

In this case, the athlete freezes and cannot access his or her motor memory. Instead, the brain/nervous system freezes in the hope that the threatening situation will go away. However, because the athlete is performing in front of thousands of people, the freeze response does not work very well.

In fact, the person tends to over think and tries to consciously control the cognitive response (over thinking) and this only leads to further freezing on the behalf of the athlete. The key to recovery is to realize that the person is different than the performer/performance.

Only then can therapy and recovery be effective.