Choking? Or just not good enough?
The “C word” may be uttered at some point either later tonight or after a one-game playoff that will decide the wild card in both the American and National leagues on Thursday.
The Boston Red Sox led the Tampa Bay Rays by nine games on Sept. 3. The Atlanta Braves were ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals by 8 1/2 games on Sept. 5. Entering play Wednesday, the wild-card races are even.
“There are going to be people who say they gave into the pressure,” said Doug Gardner, a former team psychologist of the Boston Red Sox. “You see that time and time again. There’s no doubt that there’s some truth to it. It comes up time and time again.”
Choking often has extenuating factors. Take the Red Sox, who lost 10 of their first 12 games of the season. Boston has also been without cogs like third baseman Kevin Youkilis, starters Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz and slugger J.D. Drew for weeks. The Braves have been without center fielder Nate McLouth since the end of July and starter Tommy Hanson is currently on the DL with shoulder tendinitis. And the list of banged-up players goes on.
But both teams should have talent enough to hold on to such a large lead, right?
“I think (choking) first happens individually and then collectively as a group,” said Gardner, founder of ThinkSport Consulting Services in California. “The pressure is on to win. A team like the Red Sox is in a must-win situation. You have Jed Lowrie at third base, instead of Youkilis, and Carl Crawford has been unable to produce all year. You could say they are choking, but you could also argue they are getting exposed.”
Rex Hudler — a member of the first team in the wild-card era to be up by three games (either in the wild card or division standings) with 16 or fewer games remaining to miss the postseason — knows how the Red Sox and Braves are feeling about now. The Los Angeles Angels were up six games in the AL West with 16 games left in the 1995 season, but lost in a one-game playoff for the division to the Seattle Mariners.
“We couldn’t stop the bleeding,” said Hudler, a utility player with the Angels that season. “No matter what we did, it wasn’t working. It was frustrating. You come into the ballpark and try to mess around and stay loose. You try to take your mind off the fact that you not doing what it takes to win. It gets into your bloodstream. It’s painful.”
Gardner said part of the problem is that athletes deal in absolutisms.
“It’s `either/or’ syndrome.” Gardner said. “An athlete thinks he must come through with that hit to make sure his team wins. The focus is on the outcome. It should be on what gives the team the best chance to win. That’s a big difference in mentality. That shifts the focus more on what you can control and you don’t worry about what’s out of your control.”
Gardner said the best athletes are those who have successfully dealt with stressful situations in the past, either in sports or outside of athletics. He also said this current crop of athletes isn’t as adept in handling stressors as those in years past.
“What I’m finding is that this generation of athletes has never really had to think for themselves,” Gardner said. “There’s always somebody there telling them what to do. They haven’t developed those thinking and processing skills.”
Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in “Bull Durham,” was apparently wrong when he said: “Don't think. It can only hurt the ball club.” Gardner contends thinking is preferable as long as a player has his mind focused on the right things.
“The best athletes find a way to slow the game down,” Gardner said. “I define `slowing the game down’ by being able to focus on what you need to do in the middle of havoc. For a pitcher with a runner on first and second, he may feel that he’s falling apart. What you want to do is find a new reality, something I stole from Pat Riley’s book, `The Winner Within.’ As a sports psychologist, you’d like the athlete to find the reality by asking himself what he needs to do get a ground ball. That would allow for a chance at a double play. That’s what successful players have to do.”
Sports psychology is often a drawn-out process and can take months — if not years — to successfully counsel an athlete. Even then, Gardner said there are some who still won’t benefit. (Look up Mackey Sasser, whose career as a major-league catcher was cut short due to his troubles throwing the ball back to the pitcher despite psychological help.) An army of psychiatrists, psychologists and even preachers won’t help either the Red Sox or Braves at this point.
Instead, they have one game — maybe two if a tiebreaker Thursday is needed — not to join the 1995 Angeles, 2004 Oakland Athletics (led AL West by three games with nine games remaining), the 2007 New York Mets (led NL East by 5-1/2 games with 16 games remaining) and the 2009 Detroit Tigers (led AL Central by four games with 16 games remaining).
And as far as choking, former major league first baseman Eric Karros doesn’t like the term. He was on a Los Angeles Dodgers team that lost a division lead in the closing days of the 1997 season to the San Francisco Giants and as a late-season call-up to the Atlanta Braves in 1991, when they overtook the Dodgers on the next to the last day of the season.
“The only way you could choke is if you’re doing it all on your own and there’s nobody competing against you,” said Karros, a FOX Sports baseball analyst who was also part of the 2003 Chicago Cubs team that blew a 3-1 series lead to the Florida Marlins in the NLCS. “Choking, just the word, does not give the credit to those competing against you. There is a pitcher trying to get you out and there’s the rest of the team trying to beat you. Choking, to me, would be an individual unable to perform under mounting pressure. That would be fair to call it choking. Other than that, I won’t be calling it that.”
FOXSports.com National MLB Writer Jon Paul Morosi contributed to this story.