sports psychologist & clinical psychology

A SEASON OF HEARTACHE

Baltimore Sun – Aug 31, 2008 – Childs Walker, Jeff Barker and Jeff Zrebiec – Orioles and fans, once full of hope, likely find themselves mired again in a losing campaign.

Just 10 days ago, it felt pretty good – for the first time in a long time – to be an Orioles fan or player.

But in a sport that takes few breaks, that patch of sunshine now seems lost in a much longer run of dark days for the beloved Baltimore franchise.

The very afternoon that manager Dave Trembley’s hiring was announced last week, the Orioles became a national joke with a 30-3 loss to the Texas Rangers. That began a nine-game losing streak, replete with ugly errors and bullpen disasters. To make matters worse, 13 games against division powers Boston and New York loom over the next month.

So, what’s it like to be an Oriole these days? Veteran outfielder Jay Payton compared the streak to “running into a brick wall.”

“It has a snowballing effect,” he said yesterday. “For a while there, when we were playing well, you thought that we were going to get this out or get this hit. When you start losing, you’re like, ‘Man, what’s going to happen next?'”

So, what’s it like to be an Orioles fan these days?

“It’s very, very disgusting,” said Loyal Hartmann Jr., waving his arms in frustration as he stood in front of the Babe Ruth statue before last night’s game.

So, what can be done about it?

Trying to break a losing streak can be like trying to escape quicksand by flailing more violently, said John F. Murray, a Florida-based sports psychologist.

“Sometimes, the harder you struggle to get out, the deeper you get in,” he said. “Baseball is such a mental sport, where players need to be on autopilot most of the time, and that becomes hard.”

It’s the dawn of another September and all the Orioles and their fans have to look forward to is watching other teams compete in pennant races. It’s not so much the eight-game streak that sticks out. Heck, the Orioles lost nine in a row in June. They lost eight in a row twice in 2005. They lost the last 12 games in 2002. To say nothing of the 0-21 losing streak to open the 1988 season.

But Hartmann, a Canton retiree who grew up a Brooks Robinson fan, says he’s never experienced heartache like this season.

“Losing games in the seventh inning and beyond is just a tough way to lose,” Hartmann said. “I’d rather lose 30-3. Our bullpen comes in and it’s like batting practice. There’s balls flying all over the place.”

Josh Rogers, 22, of Dundalk, asked to be described as a “disgruntled fan.” He says he’s made a habit of watching games on television for as long as he can stand it.

“Usually around the seventh or eighth inning, I’ll change the channel, expecting the worst,” he said.

Asked why they continue coming to games, Hartmann and Rogers said they are die-hard fans and cannot imagine deserting their team.

Just when things might have been looking up, the brutal blowouts arrived to slap fans back to the reality of a likely 10th straight losing season.

Earlier in the summer, the club had hired a respected executive in Andy MacPhail. In the weeks that followed, the Orioles had played winning baseball and Trembley, the interim manager, was earning a full-time job. Erik Bedard had pitched his way into the Cy Young race. And the Orioles had completed difficult negotiations by signing No. 1 draft pick Matt Wieters to a club-record bonus.

But then came the ugly losses. Much like the Sisyphus legend of Greek mythology, Orioles fans now feel that whenever the team begins to move up the mountain, it will soon come crashing down.

Team officials are trying to keep the streak in perspective, saying they remain happier with the club’s talent than at this time last year.

“It’s all seemingly going back to that 30-3 loss,” said Vice President Jim Duquette of the skid. “You’re not quite sure how the team is going to react. You’re hoping that they’d be able to come out of that, but that seemed to set off a whole snowball effect. I haven’t been here, but, historically, this is the way things have gone for the last eight or nine years.”

Duquette added: “Until we win that next game, there’s still going to be searching going on.”

Brian Roberts, a veteran of six previous losing seasons, said the players take a measured view.

“It’s unfortunate that this has happened, because we were feeling like we had made some good strides,” he said. “This doesn’t necessarily take away from that. One week of games isn’t going to take away from that in the long haul. That’s the way you have to look at it. It’s not fun, we don’t like losing and we wish we weren’t in this situation. But it’s not the end of the process we are in.”

Murray, the sports psychologist, usually tells struggling clients to have fun and reach for the feelings they had when they were most successful. But that can be harder when a team or player has been losing for a longer period.

“Past results have an impact on how you set your expectations,” he said. “Some of these guys may have an assumption of failure and not even realize it.”

Murray said he would break the problem down player by player and work to remove impediments such as anxiety or low expectations – a process that can take months or years.

Players agreed that they must take individual responsibility for the rut.

“Each guy needs to look at himself in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do to make myself better and make this team better?'” Payton said. “You have to do it, especially going into the offseason. Everybody has to take a couple of steps back and say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t so good here, here and here. I really need to bust my butt this winter and come back with the right focus.'”

Fan negativity can contribute to a losing culture in the clubhouse, said Dr. Eric Morse, a North Carolina-based sports psychologist who has worked with University of Maryland athletes.

“Because of previous experience, the fans move to negativity more quickly, and the players hear that,” he said. “It has to spill over.”

Morse, an Orioles fan himself, said the best advice he can offer fellow rooters is to keep looking for positive glimmers on the horizon.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “But you just have to pin your hopes on the overall direction of the team. The Orioles have made a lot of changes, so as a fan, you try to look past the results and hope the young players are learning how to win.”

Orioles reliever Jamie Walker said the players have to block fans out.

“You sign on for the good, the bad and the ugly, and it’s been … ugly this week,” he said. “To me, what it boils down to is, we are getting paid well to play this game. … It’s hard. But you know what, it could be a lot worse. That’s my motto. I’m not dodging bullets in Iraq. That’s how I look at it. I’m going to bring energy and enthusiasm.”

Jim Hannan knows all about the struggle to stay positive. He pitched on Washington Senators teams that lost more than 100 games in three straight seasons, ending in 1964. He recalls going through a progression of moods during long winless streaks.

“I think you go through a period of almost depression,” he said. “The team gets a psychological framework where it just thinks it’s always going to lose.”

After depression would often come sarcasm.

“We’d say, ‘Well, here we are again. Let’s go out and make another team happy,'” Hannan said. “When it got to the point of sarcasm, sometimes then we’d start winning – or at least enter a period where you win one and lose one – because we weren’t pressing anymore.”

Hannan believes there are lessons that can be derived from losing, a sentiment echoed by Cal Ripken Jr.

Ripken and his brother Billy were members of the Orioles team that began the 1988 season 0-21, the longest losing streak in club history. He has said he learned about playing hard in adversity and about maintaining faith in his teammates. He wrote a children’s book about the experience called The Longest Season.

Ripken also recalled that the season not much fun.

“I wouldn’t wish the 0-21 on anyone,” he said in speech last April to the National Press Club. “That was the most miserable time in our lives.”

Current players insist that they keep the tough times in perspective.

“It’s not hard for me to come to work and do something that I love to do,” Roberts said. “Would it be easier if we were two games out right now? Yeah, probably. But life isn’t always easy. You have to find ways to make an impact when circumstances aren’t what you’d like.”

Walker said the losses have gnawed at him.

“It’s been one of the roughest … weeks of my career,” Walker said. “If anybody says that they are getting sleep, they’re full of it. I ain’t had a good night’s sleep.”
Orioles by the numbers

During the Orioles’ nine-game losing streak:

Runs allowed: 98

Runs scored: 38

Worst loss: 30-3

Consecutive losing seasons: 9 (heading into 2007)

Record since 1997 (last winning season): 652-877

Longest losing streak: 21 games in 1988

Longest losing streak this season: 9 games in June and now

Record since Dave Trembley named manager for next season: 0-9

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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