It’s every ballplayer’s worst nightmare. They pick up a baseball and get into the throwing position. They get the right grip on the ball. The leather is smooth. The stitches are raised and bumpy. The ballplayer then goes into their windup and throws the ball. But instead of going where they want it to, the ball finds its own mysterious path. The scorekeeper gives them an error and base runners advance. Everyone has watched them fail. Self-doubt creeps in. Most can deal with it and move on, but some re-live the nightmare over and over again. Some get a bad case of “The Yips.”
The yips was a term coined by golfer Tommy Armour to describe involuntary movement while a golfer is trying to putt. This is obviously not a great thing to have happen when one is trying to stay still and in total control of their body. The yips eventually led Armour to abandon tournament play. Since Armour, the yips has spread like a plague through other sports. And while the definition of the yips between sports is not the same, the outcome is: the athlete fails repeatedly.
Baseball and The Yips
In football, the yips refers to a placekicker who has lost their reliability. Basketball yips is when a player, once dependable, now struggles to make a free-throw shot. In tennis, it’s when somebody’s serve suffers. And in baseball, it typically means a player who has lost their ability to throw the ball accurately. Over baseball’s long history there have been many ballplayers that have succumbed to the devastating mental grip of the yips. Some of the most notable are Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel, Steve Blass, and Steve Sax. But none were more affected than Mackey Sasser.
Ankiel and Blass were pitchers who lost their control. Knoblach and Sax were second basemen who lost the ability to throw to first base. Sasser, catcher for the New York Mets when his yips developed, lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. That’s right, a catcher who struggled to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Not good.
The earliest evidence of Sasser’s difficulties was when he was with the San Francisco Giants in 1987. One of the Giants’ coaches threatened to fine Sasser $20 every time he hesitated to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Following these not-so-good coaching tactics came a collision at home plate in July of 1990, after Sasser had joined the New York Mets. The jarring encounter left Sasser with a badly sprained ankle. Even though the injury required more time to heal, Mackey had been hitting the ball well and Mets manager Bud Harrelson decided to keep his hot bat in the lineup. So after only eight days off Sasser was behind the plate. To deal with the pain of catching on a bad ankle, Mackey would stay in his crouch and flip the ball back to the pitcher, thus alleviating some pressure from his ankle.
The oddities became a mental block and Sasser started stumbling backward and having to tap his mitt several times before throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Also, pitchers, such as David Cone, had to chase errant throws from Mackey numerous times during a start. Sasser didn’t know what to do so he sought the help of hypnotists and psychiatrists, but to no avail.
Following the 1992 season, the Mets traded Sasser to the Seattle Mariners. Mackey stayed with Seattle for two seasons, playing a total of 86 games with little success. After a fourteen-game stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1995, his big league career came to end having never conquered the yips.
But Sasser wasn’t one to go down without a fight. Following his playing days, he got a job as a baseball coach at a junior college. And even though he was no longer playing, the yips were still alive and well. Enter doctor David Grand. Sasser and Grand worked hard to conquer Mackey’s seemingly unbeatable yips. The diligent labor paid off and Sasser said goodbye to the yips and hello to a fruitful career as a coach who could throw the ball around with his team. And not only did he defeat the yips, but now he helps other players with similar problems.
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