The Orioles addition of Mike Gonzalez was one of the reason I picked the Orioles to finish in 3rd place in the AL East, but just a week into the 2010 season, Gonzalez reportedly has “The Thing,” and is on shaky ground as the Orioles closer.
Some call it the yips, some call it Chuck Knoblauch syndrome, but most in the game just call it, “The Thing.” The reason for the ambiguity is two-fold – because it is a physiological disorder that can come on so fast and so unexplained that no one can really tell you how or why it happens, and secondly, everyone in the game has seen or known someone first hand that has been stricken with “The Thing” and how devastating it can be, so whether out of respect or fear, no one likes to talk about it. Simply put, the thing is when you suddenly and inexplicably lose any and all control of where the ball is headed once it leaves your hand.
When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan in 2000, I got the thing, and then once again when I was in training camp with an independent team in the CanAm League in 2004. I remember vividly standing literally less than ten feet from a teammate of mine and watching the first throw I made while getting our arms loose going sailing five or six feet over his head. He laughed as he chased down the ball and said, “Are you kidding me?” Nope. Sorry. The next one bounced in between us just a couple of feet from my foot.
When you have the thing, the feeling in your hand is like you lost the ability to flex your wrist or loosen up your fingers, as if you are trying to hold the ball in your hand at the same time you are letting it go. Once we got back a couple hundred feet and I was able to throw the ball max effort, my accuracy increased greatly, but my ability to put any kind of touch on the ball or throw half speed had completely gone away. I had to fire the ball back to the pitcher as hard as I could just to have any sense of control whatsoever. Another vivid and anxiety filled moment I remember clearly is sailing the ball over the head of a senior pitcher during a bullpen and watching the ball bounces for 70 or 80 yards to the other end of the football field at the indoor fieldhouse.
Luckily, I was able to overcome the mental issues for the rest of my college career, but I got the thing a second time as I tried to get some sort of professional career going, and even now several years later the feelings resurface from time to time when I throw batting practice and sail one a little too close to the hitter. The thing is very different from someone who just has no control, they at least feel like they know where it is going when it leaves their hand, but the thing is literally having absolute no idea what direction the ball will take or where it will end up.
History of “The Thing”
Rick Ankiel – The 1997 High School Pitcher of the Year made his MLB debut with the St. Louis Cardinals shortly after his 20th birthday. The next year he pitched his way in the Cardinals’ starting rotation and Tony LaRussa gave him the ball in game one of the NLDS against Atlanta where he throws a record five wild pitches in one inning. He gets another start in the NLCS, but only lasts two-thirds of an inning before getting yanked with two more wild pitches and three walks. He implodes again during the next season and while he eventually makes his way back to the big leagues, he scraps his pitching career and moves back to the minors so he can play OF.
Chuck Knoblauch – Former Yankees second basemen Chuck Knoblauch once hit then-ESPN sportscaster Keith Olbermann’s mother in the face with an errant throw. He went from fielding .988 in New York in 1998 to .963 in 1999 and down to .958 in 2000.
Steve Sax – Steve Sax also spent time as the spokesperson of the thing, and a lot of people actually called it “Steve Sax Disease” in the 1980s. A second basemen like Knoblauch, the difference was Sax started his MLB career with throwing issues, making 19 errors in his first full-season and following it up with 30 errors in 1983.
Steve Blass – Blass is probably the greatest example of how the thing can instantly suck the life out of your baseball career. Just a year after finishing 2nd in Cy Young voting after a 19-8 year with 1972, Blass walked 84 in 88.2 innings, hit 12 batters, and had 9 wild pitches in 1973. He was never the same, battling for a couple more years before retiring at the age of just 32 with a career record of 103-76.
Mark Wohlers – Wohlers was an established, up-and-coming closer with the Braves with consecutive 25, 39, and 33 save seasons in the late 90s when he got the thing at age 28. Wohlers walked 33 and had seven wild pitches in just 20 innings and was sent back to the minors and eventually to the DL with anxiety disorder. He only pitched .2 innings in the big leagues in 1999 and 28 innings in 2000 before resurrecting his career with a couple solid years in 2001 and 2002 before arm injuries forced him into retirement.
More stories of the the thing? Let us know below.