Seattle Times – Jun 1, 2005 – Steve Kelley – Fear doesn’t strike out as A-Rod steps up to the plate – Every player talks about the transforming magic of the Yankees’ pinstripes. Each gushes about the sanctity of Yankee Stadium.
But the players also understand the enormous expectations and the pressures that come with those pinstripes.
Eventually every Yankee, even Derek Jeter, will experience the wrath of a stadium crowd. It’s as inevitable as a delay on the D Train.
In a little more than a year as a Yankee, third baseman Alex Rodriguez already has run the emotional gantlet. He has experienced the exhilaration of a pennant race, followed by the devastation of a history-making playoff loss to the Boston Red Sox.
Who knows what it is like to be A-Rod in New York?
To carry all those heavy expectations every day. To listen to the boos that tumble on him from almost every park in the American League. To feel like he has to play like a Hall of Famer every game to justify the largest contract in big-league history.
This season, he has been exceptional. Rodriguez is leading the American League in home runs, runs scored, RBI and slugging percentage. He is third in on-base percentage and fourth in batting average.
So who knows what combination of stresses and successes led him into therapy? But last week Rodriguez, perhaps the world’s most image-conscious athlete, announced he is seeing a shrink.
“A-Rod making a statement like that, an athlete of his stature saying that, could advance sports psychology by 10 years,” Dr. John Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., said by telephone this week. “A-Rod’s efforts will hopefully go a long way toward removing the stigma of getting the help of a sports psychologist, be it for simple mental skills training, or serious counseling.”
Murray, 43, worked with Jim Bauman (now a U.S. Olympic Committee psychologist) at Washington State in 1998, and has worked with the University of Florida and the Miami Dolphins. In his private practice, he has counseled numerous golfers, cyclists and football and tennis players. This week he started a Web site “CongratsARod.com”Â he hopes will take the psychological pulse of the athletic community.
“I see it a lot of times, especially in the traditional sports like baseball and football,” Murray said, “where the players might be somewhat reluctant to seek the counsel of a sports psychologist when they’re feeling panicky, or they’re choking, or they’re losing the motivation and wanting to quit. It’s a case where we need to break down barriers.”
Baseball, probably more than any other team sport, is susceptible to psychological problems. The daily seven-month grind, the contemplative pace of the game, the fact that, at its heart, baseball is a one-on-one sport, can make players emotionally vulnerable.
In 1971 Pittsburgh’s Steve Blass pitched two complete-game World Series victories. The next year, he won 19 games. The next year, he walked 84 batters and struck out only 27. And in 1974, his last season, he pitched one game, walked seven and never pitched again.
St. Louis’ Rick Ankiel, who is attempting a comeback as an outfielder at Class AA Springfield, never rediscovered the strike zone after his infamous playoff implosion in 2000.
Reliable-fielding second basemen Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, all of a sudden, had difficulty making the simple throw to first. Catcher Mackey Sasser often had to double-clutch just to throw the ball back to the pitcher.
“What starts as a slump, like going three games without a base hit because of a slight technical or mental flaw, suddenly takes on a life all its own,” Murray said. “Players can lose confidence. They can lose focus. They have trouble managing their energy problems, which leads to anger, fear, even apathy and boredom.
“What players need to know is that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in seeking counseling. Why should there be a stigma? Hopefully, some day we can get to a place where seeking help is commonplace.”
Murray said athletes have to remember a simple message: “As tough as things can get, the mind is even tougher.” And he offers the case of tennis professional Vince Spadea as proof.
In the midst of a record-breaking slump, Spadea came to Murray . Once ranked as high as 19th in the world in 1999, he lost an ATP-record 21 matches in a row and, by 2001, his ranking had fallen to 229th.
“He was ready to quit tennis. The fire had died,” said Murray. “He spent a year and a half living in a cellar. He needed something to re-ignite the fire that was the reason he became a tennis player in the first place. He needed to believe in himself again.
“When he was winning, I don’t think he really appreciated how great he was. I think success happened so quickly, he didn’t realize how good his life was. He was very reluctant to come to me, but he listened. All he really needed was a pep talk.”
Spadea, 30, won his first ATP tournament last season in Scottsdale, Ariz., beating Andy Roddick in the semifinals. He finished 2004 ranked all the way back to 19th.
Spadea needed to hit rock bottom before he sought help. Who knows what moved A-Rod to seek therapy?
Maybe he too needs a pep talk. Or maybe he needs to talk about a childhood where his father left the family when Rodriguez was 9 years old.
Whatever the reason, it took courage for him to make public this very private part of his life. And for this, all of us who have jeered A-Rod now should cheer him.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.