Why you should care
Sometimes when you’re struggling, you just need someone to tell it to you like it isn’t.
All-Star. Rookie of the Year. Los Angeles Dodger. Insanely talented. Ridiculously good-looking. Even funny. Steve Sax was not just on top of the world in 1983, he was orbiting it in a self-propelled jet pack. Then one day, the ascendant baseball star inexplicably rocketed back to earth. Only he didn’t quite hit it. In fact, when it came to making even the most routine throw, the 23-year-old Sax sometimes found — as Crash Davis taunts another baseball head case in the film Bull Durham — he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a f*cking boat.
Golfers call it the yips. Dart players label it dartitis. And for a while, baseball players called it Steve Sax Syndrome. Out of nowhere, even the most habitual aspect of your performance — throwing the ball back to the pitcher, moving the putter back to putt — becomes almost impossible, even for a world-class athlete. You get stuck in your head, and practice can’t help stem the tide of unforced errors. Rather, the more you work on it, the worse it seems to get. Many ballplayers — Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Blass — have gone through it, but few emerge intact. Steve Sax was one of the lucky ones.
By the All-Star break in July, Sax had made 24 errors.
It began innocently enough in the ninth inning of a game against the Montreal Expos in the first week of the 1983 season. Sax, fresh off being named the National League’s Rookie of the Year the prior season, was the relay man on a ball hit to the outfield. The runner was held at third but Sax threw it home anyway — badly, causing it to short-hop and careen away from the catcher, allowing the runner to score. The miscue was all over the news that night. And soon it was all over Sax’s head. “I made [that] error,” Sax recently told This Great Game, “and then I made another one, and pretty soon I let doubt and fear creep into my psyche. And when that happens, you’re a goner.”
And sure enough, it got worse. Even the most mundane throws to first base became erratic projectiles that landed in the bleachers above the first base dugout. Opposing fans began wearing batting helmets and taunting Sax with bedsheets adorned with bullseye targets. But it was more than embarrassing, it was career-threatening. “I went to bed with it. I woke up with it,” says Sax. “I was the laughingstock of the league.”
By the All-Star break in July, Sax had made 24 errors and had four multi-error games. In practice, the Dodgers would blindfold him, and he could make the throw just fine. But come game time, it was a different story. Sax thought about quitting, but Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda never lost faith in his young star and kept him in the lineup. One day during batting practice, the colorful manager pulled Sax aside and gave him a pep talk.
“How many people can hit .300 in the big leagues?” Lasorda asked.
“How many people can steal 40 bases in the big leagues?”
“How many people can make the throw from second to first? Millions!”
But it would take another father-son chat — between Sax and his ailing father — to really make the difference. As Sax chronicles in Shift: Change Your Mindset and You Change Your World, he went to the hospital mid-funk to visit John Sax after he’d suffered his fifth heart attack. Steve talked about his throwing difficulties with his father, a tough, taciturn man who had grown up during the Depression and whom the younger Sax considered invincible. According to Sax, his father told him, “One day you are going to wake up and this problem is going to be gone,” confessing that he had suffered the exact same problem in high school, but his confidence had eventually returned and he overcame it.
Six hours later John Sax died. It was the last conversation his struggling son had with him. But buoyed by his father’s words, Sax persevered, slowly regaining his confidence over time. Baseball became fun again. The taunting fans disappeared. Sax didn’t make a single error in the last 36 games of the season. By the time he retired in 1994, he was a five-time All-Star with 444 career stolen bases and two World Series rings.
Two years after his retirement, Sax’s mom, who had known his dad since the fifth grade, told him the truth: His father never had a throwing problem.
“He lied. He didn’t want to see me fail, so he lied,” Sax recalled a few years ago to The Arizona Republic. “He bailed me out on his death bed. And it changed my life.”