HOUSE CALLS : Ranger Coach Has an Unorthodox Approach to Pitching, Using Hypnotherapy, Biokinetics

Times Staff Writer

You probably don't inquire about the advanced education of anybody who wears a cap to work (never mind the funny socks). Either he's skilled in the operation of heavy equipment or he can throw a slider, but he has probably never taken corporate tax law. Yet here's Tom House, pitching coach of the Texas Rangers, and he has got more degrees than your average business department.

Tom House's academic career so far: He has a B.S. in marketing and a masters of business administration from USC, and a Ph.D. in psychology from San Diego's U.S. International University.

Interesting, no? Well, mildly. Every once in a while a sportsman shows some interest in the life of the mind, and he is heralded far and wide as that season's novelty. Gary Fencik and Ron Darling go from the Ivy League to the big leagues and they are celebrated on magazine covers everywhere. Baseball Manager Tony La Russa of Oakland has a law career to fall back on, and he has become as well known as Miller Huggins. It's a cruel and unfair perception, but a fellow who happens to have an IQ higher than his RBI count is figured a rare bird.

But House is something more than a congenial egghead. His seemingly scattered interests, along with a life spent primarily in the minor leagues, have prepared him to help lead baseball into the 20th Century, to identify talent and devise the best ways of developing it and even to prepare that talent for the inevitable day when it is no longer of use.

"As management becomes aware that there is more to the game than rolling the bats and balls out," he says, "well, maybe I've stumbled onto something."

Certainly the economics of baseball--it has become big business--encourage management to run the game in a more business-like manner. Other sports have become far more sophisticated--track and field, for example--in the identification and enhancement of specific abilities. You have the feeling that today's sprinters are using science (uh, sometimes too much of it) to squeeze every bit of performance out of their training. Baseball is grounded in philosophies that haven't significantly changed since the 1890s. It's so bad at identifying talent that barely 13% have the stuff it takes to get to the big leagues.

So here comes Tom House with his so-called holistic approach, the full benefit of which we have yet to see. So far he's best known for having his pitchers warm up with a football, the idea being that it is impossible to throw mechanically incorrect and still get a spiral out of the darn thing. "But," he admits, "that's not anywhere near the strangest thing we do."

He has got subliminal tapes for his pitchers, for one. Next time you see a Ranger reclined in an airport lounge, assuming the classic position, head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth wide enough open to catch flies, do not assume he is listening to Randy Travis. Rather he could be listening to a tape that is delivering 90,000 positive affirmations per hour.

He has got blood testing, and not for suspected substance abusers. His studies of nutrition, which is more important than apparently most clubhouse attendants believe, show that a sampling of the blood sugar tells him all he needs to know. He has got hypnotherapy, biokinetics, deep relaxation techniques. "It all sounds like sandals and incense," he admits, "but it's not that way at all. It works."

He even has his own word. "I patented and copyrighted 'prehabilitation," he says. This is a process where an athlete is tested for specific physical abilities and where it can be determined what training methods can "complement his genetics."

Beyond having his own word, he also has the lab to do this stuff. He owns Bio-Kinetics in Laguna Hills, where he does much of the same kind of work that Gideon Ariel does--filming of athletics, reducing it to computerized stick figures, and finding flaws in performance and offering suggestions for enhancement. Although House has six cameras at Texas' Arlington Stadium "to data capture" all the pitchers who pass through, he does not deal exclusively with baseball.

In fact, the outfit's income is derived in large part from golfers, fly fishermen, etc. "That's our Black & Decker approach," he says, to show up at a golf confab, say, and do motion analysis at $150 per.

House is properly doubtful that he can single-handedly turn baseball into a kind of Space Lab. "Right now I'm thought of as Weird Science," he says. "The payoff is probably not going to come with me, but with someone of my type further down the road." For the moment he is not peppering old hands such as Nolan Ryan and Charlie Hough with high-tech suggestions. But if the youngsters will hear something they think will work, well, House has even more ideas for them.

He also knows that improvement in the pitching staff alone will not bring respect to his methods. "I was a marginal left-handed reliever and as yet an unproven pitching coach," he says. "The Rangers haven't been burning up baseball. This is still a game where it matters how many World Series rings you see when a guy picks his nose."

But House, who spent six seasons in the minors before making it to Atlanta in 1973, can bring something else to the game. It occurred to him early on that athletes grew up being treated special, with their own rules. Yet, for all their privilege, as soon as they became an ex-athlete, their failure in real life became complete. And so, for his doctoral thesis he produced a paper on the terminal adolescence syndrome of the professional athlete and earlier this year published "The Jock's Itch," a slim book on the "The Fast-Track Private World of the Professional Ballplayer."

The subtitle is almost as long as the book, which comes in at 129 pages. But that is not House's fault. "I sent Contemporary Books 600 pages and they just used the parts on drugs and women." Still, the theme that his research developed emerges here, too.

Basically it's this: "All athletes are obsessive/compulsive personalities. They have to be. But the check points in pro sports aren't what they are in the real world. In sports your check points are a function of what they do on the field."

House, in his book, points out that the less savory aspects of behavior of pro athletes--womanizing, drinking and drugging--are simply traditional devices to pass time in a small, mysterious society that has its own rules. This behavior has been so accepted over the years because, well, it works. Take womanizing, of which Margo Adams was not the first to suggest. For all that goes on, an active player stands only a 30% chance of divorce, House found.

Yet once his career is over, and the prospects of a woman in every town are gone and opportunities thus removed, the rate actually increases to 42%. "Including separation and divorce," House says, "it's 70%. A joke."

His book was intended less as a tell-all--it doesn't tell anything as far as specifics--but a prescription. Athletes who acknowledge their fundamental incapacities in society--they were brought up with different rules, after all--may have a chance to avoid the divorce, the bankruptcy that followed so many of House's teammates when their careers were over.

House has obviously been lucky, having the benefit of an inquiring mind and the academic means to satisfy it. But he learned at the beginning, being a player of marginal ability, that he would have to devise strategies to last in baseball. He learned from older veterans, similarly ungifted, that as far as a pitcher was concerned, "it's not what the pitcher throws, but what the hitter sees."

House would have preferred Ryan's fastball because even with his acquired wisdom he could carve out no grander major league career than is reflected by a 29-23 record over six seasons, his major moment coming when he caught Hank Aaron's 715th home run in the Atlanta bullpen. Still, he used baseball as he uses everything else, as a classroom.

Sometimes it could get confusing, he admits. Such as the time he called home to tell his wife he got his first major league victory and, unimpressed, she broke the news that he had just failed his first economics exam.

But if this dual life could be confusing, it continues to be satisfying. For all his degrees and theories, House is not tempted to leave the field. "An athlete is what I am," he says, lumping himself with all the other terminal adolescents. "I'm most at ease with myself when I have a jock strap on. It's just that I might be bringing a little something more to the party."

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