sports psychologist & clinical psychology

MIND GAME: CROSSWORD CRAZE HITS DEVIL RAYS’ CLUBHOUSE

Bradenton Herald – May 15, 2005 – Roger Mooney – One across: Nickname for rebounder Rodman. Lance Carter moved to another clue. Boston hockey great. Three letters. “Orr,” Carter said, and with a pen, he wrote the name of Hall of Famer Bobby Orr in blue ink.

It was four o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-April. The first pitch for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ game at Tropicana Field wasn’t for another 3 hours, 15 minutes. Carter and fellow Rays pitcher Travis Harper completed a long-toss session 20 minutes earlier. The players didn’t have to be on the field to stretch before batting practice for another half-hour. Now what? Why not warm up the brain? Crossword puzzles.

“In baseball there’s a lot of downtime,” said John F. Murray, Ph.D., a clinical and sports performance psychologist from Palm Beach. “Anything players can do in between, cross-train mentally, I call it, can give them a little breather and help them come back stronger.”

Crossword puzzles?

“I think it makes sense,” Murray said.

Baseball, it’s been said, is a timeless game.

If you believe that, you should watch time drip by before a game.

Players reach the clubhouse at least three hours before game time. Some arrive one to two hours earlier than that. Batting practice is scheduled for 1 hour, 15 minutes. That leaves nearly three hours of free time. Some players need that time to receive treatment for injuries. Others lift weights. Some watch film of the opposing pitchers or of themselves hitting.

Subtract another 15 or 20 minutes for a pregame meal, and you still have a lot of time to fill.

What to do . . .?

“Being bored can be a problem for athletes,” Murray said. “You can lose your edge. So anything you can do to occupy your mind is good.”

After his throwing session with Harper, Carter began a ritual he follows almost daily, at least when the Rays are home. He showered and changed into his batting practice attire – white uniform pants, green Rays T-shirt and green pullover warm-up jacket. He grabbed the classified section of a local newspaper, opened to Page 2, folded the paper into a small rectangle, reached for a pen and sat down in front of his locker.

Soon Harper appeared at his locker, which is to the left of Carter’s. Then Trever Miller, another member of the Rays’ bullpen whose locker is next to Harper’s, joined in. Together, they work through a crossword puzzle.

“I’m not very good at these,” said Carter, the former Manatee High and Manatee Community College standout. “I usually wait for Trever.”

There are four televisions in the Rays’ clubhouse. On this afternoon, players had their pick of the Cubs-Padres on one screen and ESPN Classic on another. One set was tuned to a music video channel. The one closest to Carter’s locker, for some unexplained reason, showed an infomercial touting a revolutionary new mop designed to make our lives easier.

Carter ignored the miracle of the once-dirty floor now sparkling clean. He was deep into his puzzle.

“I do these to kill boredom,” he said. “And to avoid sports writers.”

His wit obviously sharp, it’s his word power that could use some building.

“I’m learning a lot from these,” Carter said.

Like . . .

“Well, first and foremost, how to spell,” he said. “Different meaning for phrases and words.”

Harper leaned over.

“Worm,” he said.

“Worm?”

“One across. Dennis Rodman’s nickname. Worm,” Harper said.

“Dangit. I knew that,” Carter said.

Card games are popular in some clubhouses. Former Rays Esteban Yan and Felix Martinez used to play dominoes.

On a counter just inside the Rays’ clubhouse and on a table inside the visiting clubhouse, you’ll find a small stack of the newspaper sections that carry the crossword puzzle. Grab one quick. They go fast.

Greg Maddux, when he was with Atlanta, was spotted in the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field breezing through a crossword puzzle as if he were writing out a postcard.

Former Rays coach Frank Howard used to find a quiet corner in the tunnel under the stands and make his way through a puzzle. Once he found himself the answer to a clue.

New York Yankee Tino Martinez, who played in Tampa Bay last season, likes his pregame crossword puzzle.

So do current Rays Rocco Baldelli, Josh Phelps and Travis Lee.

“There’s a lot of dead time in this game,” Miller said. “You need something to fill up the time. Crosswords are as good as any. I think if baseball players took all the dead time in this game and used it to study, we’d all be doctors and lawyers.”

Carter shook his head.

“Not all of us,” he said.

Rays manager Lou Piniella occasionally works through a puzzle in his office while talking with reporters before a game, sometimes paying more attention to the clues than the questions.

“What do you think about your next series with the White Sox?” he was asked.

“Hmm?” Piniella said while filling in a word that sometimes can be used to describe himself.

“Testy.”

“I do them to take my mind off the game,” said Piniella who started the habit during his playing days with the Yankees.

A June 2005 edition of Dell’s Crossword Puzzles sat on the top left corner of his desk blotter.

“I can finish the ones early in the week,” Piniella said. “On Sunday, I can only do half.”

The puzzles, for those not in the know, become increasingly harder as the week moves on, with Sunday being the toughest.

Studies have shown crossword puzzles and other games that force participants to think, like chess, checkers, backgammon and word jumbles, can lower the risk of dementia as we grow older. Even ballroom dancing has its benefits.

A study published in the June 2003 issue of the “New England Journal of Medicine” found the risk of dementia in senior citizens who do four crosswords a week was lower then those who did one crossword.

If puzzles help the old, can they also help the young? Especially a major league pitcher who has to use his mind as much as his arm during a game?

Remember, Yogi Berra said 90 percent of baseball is half mental. But then Yogi read comic books before games, and Superman and Flash Gordon didn’t seem to hold him back.

“No,” Piniella said. “(Crosswords) don’t help like that. It’s just to take your mind off the game.”

That alone, Murray said, means they work.

“What can it hurt? It keeps you relaxed. It keeps your mind off the task,” Murray said. “And there’s nothing wrong with taking your mind off the task.”

Especially when that task includes pitching to a lineup that features Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa and Javy Lopez or hitting against the likes of Jon Garland and Johan Santana.

Or managing the Devil Rays.

It can’t be all baseball all the time.

Otherwise, one can become, uh, testy.

Murray, who works with athletes from different sports, knows of tennis players who turn to video games during a match that’s delayed by weather.

“Same thing,” Murray said. “They’re just trying to stay sharp.”

Miller, the unofficial crossword champion among the players (assistant trainer Ron Porterfield is champs among all Rays) sees the mental benefits from the puzzles.

“Like anything else in life, if you don’t use your mind, you lose it,” Miller said. “With crosswords, you have to go back and find things in your memory, unlock doors from high school.”

But, Miller said, he doesn’t think doing a crossword puzzle in the afternoon will help him retire David Ortiz with the bases loaded that night.

“I don’t think this area of your mental ability will translate to how you play on the field,” Miller said. “I would say chess. The ability to play a few moves ahead, to develop strategy.”

Miller played chess before games during a few of his minor league stops.

Chessboards are not found in the Rays’ clubhouse, just TVs and crossword puzzles.

Miller’s choice is the crosswords, confident they will help him long-term, but not so sure they will help him in a few hours, even if Murray said thinking through a puzzle, much like Carter’s mid-afternoon long-toss with Harper, “is warming up the brain.”

Miller pointed to a clue, mentioned the answer and watched as Carter filled in the boxes.

“I’d rather be doing something like this,” he said, “than sitting in front of a TV set watching SportsCenter for the 15th time today.”

Loren Nelson, Sports Editor

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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