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An Arm Problem Dr. Jobe Can’t Fix

Lots of guys have had trouble negotiating the 60 feet 6 inches between the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box with control. Nolan Ryan and the young Sandy Koufax come to mind. Some guys never make it to the big leagues because they can’t handle it.

No one has had more trouble with the strike zone from 60 feet away than Mack Daniel Sasser Jr.--not the fabled Steve Dalkowski, who wild-pitched his way out of baseball, not Walter Johnson as a rookie, not any flame-throwing right-hander in history.

Which is remarkable because Sasser is not required to throw a 90-m.p.h. hummer. The ball doesn’t have to curve over a corner. He doesn’t really have to worry about a baserunner. There is no umpire to please. He really didn’t have to worry abut walking anybody. He just has to get the ball there with a toss a teen-age girl could make.

Mackey Sasser is not in the starting rotation. Mackey Sasser is a backup catcher for the New York Mets.

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Now, a pitcher with a 3-and-2 count and the bases loaded might have to contend with flop sweat. A film might come over his eyes and he might strain to get the baseball in just the right place. But Mackey Sasser can get stage fright just thinking about throwing to the pitcher’s mound. Half the time, he walks the ball out there.

Catchers wash out of the big leagues because they can’t handle the knuckleball, can’t throw runners out stealing, can’t call the big pitches or can’t block the plate. But Mackey Sasser has no trouble with those. Earlier this season, he was about to hit the road because he couldn’t lob the ball back to the pitcher. Peanut vendors in the stands could hit a customer a hundred feet up but Mackey couldn’t hit a 6-foot, 200-pound teammate 45 feet in front of him.

It’s an axiom of baseball that baserunners steal on the pitcher, not the catcher. But, inMackey Sasser’s case, the runners would bypass the pitcher’s motion. They would wait for Sasser’s motion. As soon as they saw the ball rolling around between third and the mound, they would take off.

It was embarrassing. Interestingly enough, it was not all that unusual. Dale Murphy, no less, had to give up a promising career catching because he began having trouble keeping the return throw in the infield.

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No one knows why it happens. Fat, 50ish politicians, even Presidents of the United States regularly toss out a first pitch 60 feet with no problems.

Mackey Sasser could make the 125-foot throw to second base with plenty on it to gun out a baserunner. He could whip the ball down to first base in a hurry for a pickoff. He made a couple of great throws while playing right field last month. But, when he’d look out to the mound, where he had plenty of time and where the pitcher would be holding his glove up for the routine throw while scuffing the mound with his foot, Sasser’s heart would pound, his palms sweat and his aim would go wildly AWOL.

Yogi Berra once said the worst thing you could do on a ballfield was start thinking. Sports are played on instinct, muscle memory. Do you really think that, if a player gave much thought to it, he would be able to catch a long fly for the final out of a World Series with the winning run circling the bases in front of him? It has to be a reflex action, like Pavlov’s dog. Otherwise, paralysis ensues.

Sasser is unable to pinpoint when his trauma emerged. Probably when a throw caught in the end of his fingers and slithered out to the mound and set him to wondering--and worrying--when it would happen again.

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Usually, when an athlete begins having trouble with this routine part of the game, he is back driving a truck within a year. But Mackey Sasser is a born .300 hitter. He could hit the ball back through the pitcher’s mound with no trouble at all. In fact, the Mets made a catcher out of him to keep his bat in the lineup. He promptly became the Pacific Coast League’s all-star catcher.

He was harder to strike out than a mosquito in a hot tent. He had the reputation of a guy who could get a bat on a BB.

“I liked catching,” Sasser recalled the other night as he sat in the Mets’ dugout at Dodger Stadium. Sasser has batted .285, .291 and .307 in his three years with the Mets. “I thought I had found my spot. Can you imagine? A left-handed hitting catcher who can hit .300? I could write my ticket.”

Instead, his ticket seemed to be back to the instructional league.

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The Mets were ready to try anything. Psychiatry. Hypnotism. Numerology. But Sasser continued to fret return tosses to the pitcher as if they were moon shots off Canaveral. They would arch, bounce, trickle. The shortstop had to stay loose or the official scorer might have to credit Sasser with a run batted in. For the other guys.

It’s nothing cortisone can cure. The whirlpool bath has no effect on it at all. Nothing Dr. Freud--or Dr. Jobe--can fix. Pure logic isn’t always a help.

Some years ago, when Steve Sax, then with the Dodgers, had trouble with the 60-foot throw to first base, that eminent Viennese psychoanalyst, Tom Lasorda, took his second baseman aside for some advanced psychological counseling.

“How many guys you think can bat .280 in the big leagues?” he demanded. Then, he added, “How many can steal 50 bases?”

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When Saxie answered, “Very few,” Dr. Lasorda threw the curve: “And how many do you think can throw a baseball 60 feet? I’ll tell ya! Millions! Half of them women!”

History doesn’t teach us if this sub-Freudian approach to the problem helped but the facts of the matter are, Steve Sax seems to be able to keep from throwing the ball into the box seats.

Perhaps the eminent Sigmund Lasorda should get Mackey Sasser on his couch. Chances are, he’d show little patience with the problem.

“Look!” he’d shriek. “You don’t even have to get it in the strike zone! And not even Nolan Ryan at his wildest ever threw 40 wild pitches a game!”

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