The mind matters for baseball’s iron men

Baseball’s regular season begins one week from today, and the 162-game transcontinental hike won’t end until just before Jim Tressel (supposedly) dons his game vest for the first time this fall.

Don’t be fooled by the absence of shoulder pads: The everyday rigor of baseball’s six-month odyssey makes it one of sports’ most grueling tests. Icepacks will be in demand every night from April through September. There will be strains, sprains and more serious injuries. The wear and tear helps to explain why only two big leaguers — Ichiro Suzuki and Matt Kemp — appeared in every game last year.

But that is only part of the story. At this time of year, aspiring workhorses also must work to prepare the most important baseball tool of all.

The mind.

"Most guys in the big leagues are so well conditioned that if they had to play 162 games, they could — but I don’t think they necessarily believe they could," Cal Ripken Jr. said in a Wednesday telephone interview. "Once you’ve gone through a full season and finished strong with no ill effects, it frees you up mentally. You can tell yourself, ‘I have it in me to do it.’

"Every season after that, you feel like it’s just a matter of you getting ready — physically, emotionally, mentally. You feel like it can be done. That’s the biggest hurdle."

Ripken, of course, is the sport’s leading expert on what it takes to show up for work every day. He played in a record 2,632 consecutive games, from May, 30, 1982, until he took himself out of the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup on Sept. 20, 1998.

"My first two years in the league, I played with Cal," said Steve Finley, the former All-Star outfielder. "He taught me a very important lesson: When the manager asks if you can play, you always say yes. When the manager asks if you need a day off, you always say no. Cal had some of his best days when he probably shouldn’t have been on the field."

(That must be what Tony La Russa was talking about last week, when I asked the Cardinals manager to identify the most common trait among 162-game guys. "Mental toughness," La Russa told me.)

In recent years, perfect attendance over a full season has become quite rare. Only one major leaguer, Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder, appeared in every game during the 2009 season, followed by Kemp and Ichiro last year.

There was a similar decline at the 155-game threshold. Only 39 players hit that mark last season — the lowest total in eight years, according to STATS LLC.

"In the spring, you talk to guys from other teams, and at the end of those conversations, you always say, ‘Hey man, have a good season — and stay healthy,’"Astros lefty J.A. Happ said. "Everybody knows how hard it is. It’s a constant battle with your body. You break it down, and you have to build it back up."

Another measure of player durability — the number of disabled-list stays — supports the notion that big leaguers are having greater trouble staying on the field.

In 2008, the disabled list was used a total of 527 times — an average of nearly three cases, per month, per team. That was by far the heaviest season over the last decade, according to STATS LLC.

The second heaviest? 2009.

The third? 2007.

Major League Baseball’s drug testing program probably has something to do with the trend. No longer can players take steroids to avoid injuries or recover faster; amphetamines aren’t available to help with day games after night games. Still, it’s difficult to say PED testing is the sole reason. For example, 10 major leaguers played every game in 2005 — the first year in which MLB’s testing program stipulated suspensions at the big-league level.

Other factors could be at work, too. More rigorous medical testing — particularly with head injuries — may result in earlier, more precise injury diagnoses. Also, rising player salaries could compel teams to use the DL more frequently in order to better care for huge long-term investments.

The irony is that a movement toward younger (and cheaper) position players should populate rosters with fresh legs that are, in theory, less injury-prone. The current generation also can take advantage of newer amenities, such as premade meals distributed by healthy-eating companies.

But youth and nutrition can only help so much.

"If you feel perfect for 15 to 20 games per season, that’s a great year," Finley said. "Most of the time, you’re battling something. It’s a part of your life in this game. And it always seems like, when you’re feeling the best, that’s when you go 0-for-5."

Ripken, 50, believes in a close link between mental and physical preparedness, and Fielder, 26, seems to agree. Earlier this spring, I asked Fielder how he reacted to the news in December that his Milwaukee Brewers had acquired ace Zack Greinke. Fielder said he was watching “Desperate Housewives” with his wife, Chanel, when he found out. He didn’t immediately call or text his teammates about the big trade.

"In the offseason, I’m off, man," Fielder explained. "I don’t really talk about baseball. I practice it. I go to the cage. But I like to be off. When I get here (to spring training), I’m not going to take a day off. So when I’m off, I need to make sure I get all my batteries charged."

Similarly, Ripken worked hard and worked smart throughout his career. Former teammate Mike Bordick describes Ripken as the best prepared player he’s ever seen, but Ripken allowed for flexibility in his routine, too. He would lift weights after games — but only for as long as his energy permitted. And Ripken recalls that he didn’t take batting practice on the field for the final six weeks of his MVP season in 1991.

"My stroke was so much on the money that I didn’t need those extra reps at that time," he explained. "You can conserve energy that way. It doesn’t mean you’re short-changing yourself. When you’ve got it, you don’t have to take 100 extra swings just to make sure. You just have to have a consistent routine that you draw confidence from. That goes a long way psychologically."

Finley learned so much from the time he spent around Ripken that he was able to mimic Cal’s accomplishments — twice, anyway. Finley was a 162-gamer when he was 27 years old — and again at 39.

Finley believes that all those years of experience actually made it easier the second time. But it wasn’t easy, which is an important distinction. There is nothing easy about The 162.