As has been previously noted, the distribution of divine justice by the Baseball Gods can be a seemingly random affair. But sometimes they will apply it with a telling vengeance. Such was the case this week when the heart and soul of a team, widely viewed as lacking either, was visited with a baseball disease the name of which professional ballplayers dare not speak. Out of fear of contracting it, they’ll call it “The Monster.” A television announcer referred to it as “a Thing.” It’s more generally referred to as “Steve Blass’ Disease” or the “Steve Sax Syndrome.” In sports psychology they’ll state its name: the Yips.
During Game Two of the ALCS, Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve got the Yips. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the former Gold Glove winner could no longer be relied on to make an accurate throw to first base on a routine grounder. An excellent fielder who made no throwing errors during the regular season made three in two games. They accounted for some unearned runs and the Astros lost both contests. Those two losses were enough for the no-name Tampa Bay Rays to finish them off in the best of seven series.
The Yips are a mysterious, rare, and nasty affliction whose effects can be fatal to a career. Daniel Bard was a very good short reliever for the Boston Red Sox during the 2010 season and much of 2011 when he contracted them. By 2013 he was sent to the minors where he languished for five years without recovering before throwing in the towel. His fastball was still lively and he had great control in the bullpen. But on the mound under game conditions his confidence was shot and he couldn’t throw strikes. He mentored younger pitchers, teaching them how to throw his nasty slider. When he retired he became a franchise player coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It’s tempting to attribute Altuve’s case to guilt. When his team’s cheating was exposed they showed little contrition or humility. Instead, “Our critics are jealous, whining losers” became their rallying cry. Their clubhouse looked arrogant and hubris-riddled and their season became The Vindictive Validation Tour. Their performance during the regular season was less than convincing. They backed into the playoffs as a wild card team with a losing record and somehow showed up on the doorstep of the World Series. Something had to give and it turned out to be the self-confidence of the player who had previously embodied the spirit of the team.
The Yips become a vicious cycle of self-questioning and adjustments. In real time, as they say, we watched Altuve’s face on television in high definition close-ups suffering the baseball tortures of the damned. It wasn’t hard to see the fear and dawning recognition of fate in his eyes as he watched the precise havoc the gods were wreaking on him and his team. Afterwards, Astros’ manager Dusty Baker, known for working well with players, could offer up only the cliched bromide, “Flush it.” Remarkably, he continued to hit well and his team came back to even the series. The Astros were teased with a final opportunity toward the end of Game Seven, failed, and went home.
Sometimes the Baseball Gods get it right. This season Daniel Bard, at the age of 35, decided to make a comeback attempt and was picked up by the Colorado Rockies. He overcame his nemesis and held the Yips at bay for a Covid-abbreviated season during which he threw very well. Pitching in a mile high ballpark where routine flyballs can go into orbit, he fashioned a 3.65 ERA with six saves.
Altuve will probably handle his current challenge and move on. Effects can linger due to worries about it recurring. However that works out, a couple of observations are now inescapable. During the 2020 ALCS, Altuve got the Yips and undeserved redemption eluded the Houston Astros.
Jerry Howard’s “Baseball Notes” appears weekly during the baseball season, playoffs included.