In 1951, the New York Giants called up a promising centerfielder from AAA Minneapolis. Unlike the present team, the midcentury Giants preferred to play their young stars, for better or worse. Unfortunately, for the rookie center fielder, it was for the worse. He would start his career by going 1-for-26 in his first seven games. After the last game of that stretch, the 20-year old outfielder approached his manager, Leo Durocher, and pled for mercy.
“Mr. Leo, send me back,” the rookie asked. “I can’t play here.”
Durocher, ever the tough guy, did not acquiesce to the wishes of the young outfielder; instead, he gave the player 502 more at bats. The result: the rookie would become the greatest centerfielder in major league history, while helping the Giants to a World Series title in the process.
This of course is the story of Willie Mays, not of Aubrey Huff. But it is relevant insofar as it illustrates the perils of anxiety. Mays, according to author and baseball enthusiast Ray Robinson, felt the pressure of expectation. When Mays did not meet expectation, “They (the fans) made him sound like a Stepin Fetchit character,” Robinson claimed.
Stephin Fetchit is the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, an African-American comedian/actor who was said to be the first black actor to become a millionaire. Perry made his millions by portraying himself according to stereotype, which for black Americans meant “befuddled, mumbling, [and] shiftless.” These were the terms fans equated with Mays, who became so distraught over public perception that he was convinced of his impending failure. And so, he asked to for the leave he would not get.
Bufuddled, mumbling, and shiftless are reminiscent of the unkind adjectives flung at Huff, especially following last week’s 9th inning blunder against the Mets. Perhaps Huff’s standing with fans is most exemplified by David Mehrwein of WrapUpp.com. Said Mehrwein, “Every time Huff comes up to bat, I have this sinking feeling in my stomach – knowing he won’t do anything productive. He has become infamously known among my friends as ‘Mr. 4-3.’”
“The Giants need to cut their losses, admit to another mistake in overpaying a player,” Mehrwein concludes, “and move on with Brandon Belt at first base.”
Huff plays under a microscope. If it is not comparisons to the magic of 2010, then it is the constant reminder of the younger, more talented player that waits in the wings. He has become the player that fans love to hate. This fact, combined with his looming marital troubles, has rendered Huff ripe for a mental breakdown, which his on-field performance has shown.
The cases of Joey Votto and Khalil Greene
Anxiety is a double-edged sword for athletes. On the one hand, it helps drive performance. Eldon Snyder and Ronald Ammons of Bowling Green State University found that anxiety can optimize motivation. That is, in order for a player “to remain on the team, and receive the benefits of inclusion” the player “must perform in a way that helps the team win ball games.” The result of this anxiety is that “the player is always motivated to ‘do something’ about failures in order to maintain an acceptable performance.”
Conversely, Snyder and Ammons caution that “One’s performance builds, sustains, or detracts from one’s baseball self-image, and promotes embodied positive or negative emotions.”
In other words, anxiety is going to exacerbate the player’s current emotional state. If he’s self-assured and content in life, then anxiety is likely to improve his performance. If his wife is filing for divorce while he’s trying to rebound from the worst season of his career, it is likely to compound his problems.
Joey Votto certainly experienced this. In 2009, Votto was placed on the disabled list for what the Reds called “stress-related issues.” While away from baseball, Votto was “miserable,” finding it difficult to cope with the passing of his father. Votto’s on-field performance bore little sign of his injury, unlike Khalil Greene.
Greene’s 2009 season was something of a nightmare. He broke his left hand punching a storage cabinet, causing him to miss two months of the season. Then, after being traded to the Cardinals, he would bat just .200 before being put on the DL.
Though Greene doesn’t talk at any length about this disease, USA Today’s Jorge L. Ortiz surmised that Greene “wages a constant, exhausting battle trying to push away negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. In the last two seasons, that has been more difficult as his performance has declined, feeding into his fear of failure and leading to sudden outbursts.”
“Rest” sometimes makes things worse
Greg Dale, the director of sports psychology at Duke University, suggests that anxiety is heightened by expectations, fear of failure, and added attention from the media and fans.
“It can become very debilitating to where you begin to almost paralyze yourself and you can’t perform something that comes very natural to you,” Dale notes. “It starts building upon itself.”
The effect of this, according to researchers at the University of Amsterdam, is that “anxiety perturbs mechanisms that mediate action-specific effects on perception.” Such perturbing, if you will, can take the form of “distract(ing) or shifting attention away from task-relevant information.”
Huff’s missteps against the Mets certainly fit this description.
The question remains how to best handle sports-related anxiety. Allan Lans of Columbia University cautions “feeling depressed is not depression” and anxiety “is normally part of any performance.”
This is why Lans believes putting a player on the DL “makes no sense at all.”
“Baseball is a wonderful thing,” Lans argues. “When the game starts, the only thing in the world is the game itself. It’s a treatment. Why do any of us go to games? Turn off the cell phone and everything else goes away.”
The DL certainly worked for Votto. But for every Votto, there is a Dontrelle Willis. Conversely, for every Willis, there is a Willie Mays, a player who grits it out and succeeds.
Only time will tell what side of this equation Huff will be on.