The Importance of Mentality to a Knuckle Ball Pitcher

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It hit me like a freight train. My first professional appearance took place in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the Lincoln Saltdogs. And mind you, I had never really played baseball before. I didn’t play in high school and I only played sparingly on a club team in college. But lets rewind this story a little bit before we get to the bullpen doors opening on that fateful day.

We had to wear decent clothing to the ballpark; collared shirt, nice jeans and shoes that weren’t tattered. One day during the pre-season, after practice, workouts and showers, manager Tim Johnson came into the locker room.

Haymarket Park in Lincoln, NE. Sight of my Pro Debut

“Put your red jerseys on over your clothes and go up to the luxury suites.”

“Why skip?” some of the veterans asked.

He’d ducked out the room without answering.

As the eager rookie, I got my uniform on, made sure my hair looked good and trotted up to the luxury suites. I was the first one there.

Inside the room was an impromptu television studio, complete with glaring, hot lights and a bright green screen that was draped over half the room. The TV people were bustling around checking cords, clicking buttons and focusing cameras. One of them picked up their head and noticed me.

“Good, we can get started. Pitcher?”

I gasped, “Yeah,” still sparkly-eyed ogling at all the equipment.

He threw me a baseball and herded me in front of the bright lights about 10 feet from the camera and said, “Ok, you know the drill, we need 15 seconds.”

I didn’t know the drill. I had no idea what any of this was about. I shielded my eyes from the bright light to get a glimpse of the TV people for direction. I asked them questions with my confused face; gave them a shrug, and just before I opened my mouth to actually ask, “What the heck is this all about?” it hit me…

I was posing for the Jumbo Tron. You know, those little snippets they have of players when they enter the game that play on a loop up on the video board.  And before I could say, “Let’s do this again,” the busy-bee TV man rushed me off the stage.

Massive jumbo-tron on a wet day in Lincoln, NE

And as my eyes adjusted back from the bright lights, I could see that some of my teammates just witnessed the worst intro video in the history of baseball. Laughter erupted. The rookie had made a rookie mistake.

So, let’s get back to the original story…

The bullpen door bursts open and I start trotting in, making my triumphant professional debut. I cringe and sneak a peak at the Jumbo-Tron to see a very confused man, squinting and asking questions to the camera on a 15-second loop. It wouldn’t end until I was done with my warm-up pitches on the mound. Players fell over each other in the dugout laughing.

My emotions were a mix of excitement, achievement… embarrassment, but mostly fear. Fear dominated my body and it sent cortisol and adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was energized and rigid at the same time. I could barely see straight. My mind raced at about 100 miles-per-hour. Time was flying by and I seemed to be on autopilot.

It was one of the worst feelings I have ever had in my life.

I was fortunate that day. I struck out the very first batter I ever faced; not just in professional baseball, but ever… and it happened to be Fernando Valenzuela’s son who was playing for the Saint Paul Saints at the time. I walked the next guy but got a quick double-play ball. I ran off the field shaking and that was it — one inning in relief. I had gotten through it.

And in that one inning I realized that pitching is about mentality, even more than mechanics or fitness. The mind controls the body, and if your mind isn’t right, then you won’t pitch up to your potential. Period.

So I have set out to discover how to get the mind right for the game of baseball. Nobody warned me how it would feel to pitch in front of thousands, and nothing could prepare me for that overwhelming (and slightly embarrassing) experience. I spent years reading, talking to players like Jon Huizinga, learning from sports psychologists like Dave Hilton, and I have come up with the best things I have learned and put them into an instructional DVD — Fingertips of a Safecracker and Mind of a Zen Buddhist.

The knuckleball is incredibly difficult to pull off, and you need to execute it successfully 100 times or more in front of a crowd. You better get your mind right or you simply won’t be able to compete.

Honestly, Fingertips of a Safecracker & Mind of a Zen Buddhist is the most important thing I have to teach anyone trying to learn this pitch.