Can Alan Jaeger Save Baseball's Most Valuable Resource?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A meditating, yoga-instructing, long-tossing pitching guru might have the answer to baseball’s epidemic of arm injuries.
By Joe Flood
Mets pitcher Matt Harvey was having a breakout season in 2013, hailed as “The Dark Knight of Gotham” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Then, in August, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow; it knocked him out for a year. Harvey’s fellow 2013 All-Star hurlers, Tampa Bay Rays lefty Matt Moore and Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins, made it just a few games into the 2014 season before they suffered the same devastating fate.
They’re just a few of the players ravaged by UCL tears, which require the most famous surgery in sports, named for the first pitcher to undergo the experimental procedure in 1974: Tommy John. More than 80 major and minor leaguers have had Tommy John surgery so far this year, part of a steep increase over last decade. Recovery is arduous. Some pitchers never make it back.
Don’t let that carefree approach or his SoCal drawl fool you. The guy may be Zen, but he’s intense.
To stanch the tide of ligament tears, many college and professional teams are turning to a maverick Southern California yoga instructor, Far East philosophizer and throwing coach.
Fifty-year-old former college pitcher Alan Jaeger has set himself apart in the baseball world with a unique regimen that pushes pitchers to throw more, throw harder and do it with the sense of freedom and fun they had as children playing catch. But don’t let that carefree approach or his SoCal drawl fool you. The guy may be Zen, but he’s intense in his own way — unmarried, without children, singularly focused on maximizing the potential of mind and body, in particular, the pitching arm.
“I remember at my sister’s bat mitzvah, I had an All-Star game that day and I wore my uniform under my suit to the synagogue,” Jaeger remembers of his teenage playing days. “We’re a ‘family first’ kind of family, but because I was so serious about baseball, my coach cleared it with my mom.”
Among insiders, Jaeger’s name has become synonymous with “long toss,” the practice of loosening up your arm before games or workouts by throwing the baseball back and forth as far as you can, over 300 feet for many pros. It was standard practice in baseball decades ago, but by the time Jaeger started teaching it in the early 1990s, the focus was on shorter throws, thought to have less injury risk.
Yet more and more players have still found themselves on the disabled list. According to Bleacher Report writer Will Carroll, teams spent an estimated $1.2 billion on injured pitchers from 2008 to 2012 alone. Searching for answers, players and execs started turning to the unorthodox Jaeger. He counts some of the most durable pitchers in recent memory among his devotees, players like three-time All-Star Dan Haren, retired Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, who is on the verge of winning his third Cy Young in four years.
Not bad for a guy who walked away from the game in his prime, in the late 1980s.
A promising pitcher for his hometown college, California State University, Northridge, Jaeger threw a fastball that cut in on righties’ hands and had a rubber arm, something he attributed to his daily routine of long toss. Old teammates remember him as a funny guy, always laughing and pulling little practical jokes. And then one day, Jaeger was gone.
Scouts can come to your game or not. Fans can cheer or boo. All you can control is how you respond.
“Anxiety. Stress. I had never had any of these problems in my life,” Jaeger recalls. But all of a sudden, he had trouble focusing on the mound, found himself getting unusually nervous and, worse, obsessing over that nervousness, letting it take over his life.
So he quit baseball and switched his major to psychology. He lived with his parents to save money and used the intense focus he once brought to pitching to get to the bottom of what had gone wrong in his head. What ultimately worked were meditation and Zen, a philosophy of acceptance and letting go. Scouts can come to your game or not. Fans can cheer or boo. All you can control is how you respond, Jaeger explains, with the been-there wisdom of people who’ve spent a great deal of time in nature or deep prayer or even therapy — whatever way they find of connecting to something deeper inside themselves. With editing help from his novelist mother, in 1994, Jaeger published a book, Getting Focused, Staying Focused: A Far Eastern Approach to Sports and Life.
He also started doing yoga and rediscovered some of the joy he’d felt playing baseball as a kid by returning to his old standby, long toss. Fusing inspirations old and new, he launched a training program for young players and pros looking for an offseason edge — an intense regimen of meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, a series of “J-Band” stretches and exercises done with rubber tubing and, of course, the long toss.
“We saw from a health standpoint, injury and surgeries went down, guys seemed to get stronger, gain velocity and bounce back quicker,” says minor league field coordinator Jayce Tingler of the Texas Rangers, whose team started incorporating Jaeger’s “rear back and chuck it” style of exercise into its system in 2008.
Not everyone is sold. A 2011 study by biomechanics expert Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute found that maximum-distance throws produced levels of strain on college players’ elbows that were “worrisome.” But Bleacher Report’s Carroll, perhaps the first man to turn injuries into a regular reporting beat, says he expected the strain on elbows to be much worse than Fleisig’s study revealed.
“I’m not going to say Alan is the perfect guy for everybody,” says Carroll. “Some players, they’d say, ‘What hell is this hippie doing? I can’t do yoga. I can’t shut my mind down. It just doesn’t work for me.’ ”
But in a field full of contradictory theories and expensive injuries, Carroll thinks Jaeger’s approach has serious merit. “He is one of the best coaches out there,” says Carroll.
Jaeger says he’s hopeful that baseball will eventually crack the code on preventing UCL injuries. Sensitivity to players’ youth has improved, and more college and pro players are practicing the long toss. But what it really boils down to is “a more instinctual approach, a looser, freer way of playing the game,” he says. “Getting out there, being free and throwing the ball.”
- Joe Flood, Joe Flood is the author of the Amazon Best Books of the Month selection The Fires, a history of New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis and fire epidemic. He lives in the Badlands of South Dakota, where he works as a reporter, data analyst and archery coach.Contact Joe Flood