- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

Quickly, the New York Yankees went from sewing up their seventh straight American League East title to checking the wild-card race. A 10-1/2-game lead over Boston on Aug.15 had shriveled to as little as two Wednesday before a doubleheader sweep of Tampa Bay provided a little cushion. But things still look precarious. The Red Sox are playing like the best team in the league. The Yankees have pitching issues.

Maybe, Harvey Dorfman says, there is more to it than that.

Dorfman is a sports psychologist, baseball’s foremost shrink to the stars. He works with dozens of players, has written four books (including “The Mental Game of Baseball”) and has counseled several big league teams. Currently, he remains on call as a member of super agent Scott Boras’ staff.

“When a few people start to struggle, some of the others take it upon themselves to pick up the slack,” Dorfman says. “When you make mistakes, you try harder. If you try harder, you get out of the pattern, the performance pattern that you establish when you’re at your best.”

In other words, they’re trying too hard, right?

“Look, I don’t know the answer [about the Yankees],” Dorfman said. “But I do know, because I’ve seen it, that if I see you struggling and I think we’re in trouble, I’m gonna try to turn it up.”

Leo Durocher once said of the collapse of the 1969 Chicago Cubs, which he managed, “They didn’t give me 100 percent. They gave me 140 percent.”

On Aug.14 of ‘69, the Cubs led the New York Mets by 91/2 games and ended up eight games out of first. The Amazin’ Mets, seemingly touched by divine intervention (and great pitching), played superbly. The Cubs, a galaxy of stars that included Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, went 8-17 in September.

Jenkins, who won 284 games over a 19-year career, said the subject of 1969 always comes up. Decades later, he still can’t provide a decent explanation. It is difficult to pin down why, in a sport keyed upon individual performance, good teams collectively go bad.

But there might be something to Durocher’s assessment in that the Cubs probably wore down. It isn’t that they tried too hard, Jenkins said, but they were always out there trying, period.

Durocher rode his eight position players hard, not that they would have wanted to come out of the lineup. At 38, Banks played in 155 of 162 games. Randy Hundley caught 151 games, an unheard of number today.

“We played so many games in a row, and we didn’t use our bench,” said Jenkins, who now lives in Arizona. “I think some of the guys might have gotten tired. But Leo kept the same lineup. He wanted to keep it going.”

Mainly, the Mets played remarkably well while for the Cubs, “things just snowballed,” Jenkins said. “It was like one person caught a cold and it went through the whole team.”

Are the Yankees, who lost to the Orioles 14-8 last night at Camden Yards, headed for a similar debacle? Will they join not only the ‘69 Cubs, but such noted belly-floppers as the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, the 1978 Red Sox and the 1995 California Angels? Dorfman has no clue. But he does know this: When some players start to press, others follow. Soon it becomes an epidemic.

“The muscles tighten,” he said. “The hitters try harder, they squeeze the bat and then they come through the hitting zone slower. A pitcher’s arm is gonna be tighter rather than looser. Players will say, ‘I’m trying harder. I’ll contribute more to compensate.’ They can’t do that.”

The gold standard of fold-ups, the ‘64 Phillies, blew a 61/2-game lead with 12 to play while World Series tickets were being sold. For 40 years, manager Gene Mauch has been criticized for overusing his two aces, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, down the stretch. But they did not pitch that poorly. And also, no one else wanted the ball except for Art Mahaffey, according to Bunning. Mauch, however, had little faith in Mahaffey, leaving few options.

Playing 45 straight games also didn’t help. But mainly “we weren’t that good of [a] team,” said Bunning, now a U.S. senator from Kentucky. “We just played well. We were maybe the fifth- or sixth-best team in personnel in the National League. We just played well over our talents most of the year.”

Bunning, who pitched a perfect game in June of that season and played during a time when a psychologist would have been tossed out of the clubhouse with the laundry, prefers more tangible explanations.

“When you run short of pitching going down the stretch, all your weaknesses are exaggerated,” he said. “All your mistakes are emphasized, the fact you blew a ground ball and couldn’t pitch over it. That’s a big deal. We played 150 games as well as anybody in the league, and we struggled for 10.”

The Phillies actually won their last two games, including a shutout by Bunning on the final day. But it was too late to catch the Cardinals, who finished one game ahead of Philadelphia and Cincinnati.

In 1995, the Angels led Seattle and Texas by 11 games on Aug.9. But a 12-27 finish topped by a one-game playoff loss to the Mariners kept California out of the postseason. “We just couldn’t score,” St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds, who played for California (now Anaheim), recently told a reporter.

Edmonds, who was in just his second full season then, noted that to provide a distraction from the skid, someone put the magic number up in the clubhouse. Bad move.

“I don’t think we won a game after that,” he said.

The best thing to happen to the Yankees this week was Tampa Bay, which lost all four games to New York. There was the controversy over asking for a forfeit because the Devil Rays were unable to make it to New York on time because of Hurricane Frances, but it may, in fact, have been a welcome diversion. Just to be safe, manager Joe Torre called a couple of meetings. According to reports, he thought his team was too tense.

The Devil Rays series, interrupted twice by postponements, seemed to have a calming effect. The rebounding Yankees had won five straight and 11 of 16 before last night’s loss at Baltimore. They had expanded their lead over the Red Sox, who played late last night in Seattle, to 31/2 games. New York and Boston are scheduled to meet six times in 10 days starting Friday.

“Right now, we’re playing with confidence,” Torre told reporters Thursday. “As long as we continue to play aggressively and feel good about ourselves, then it doesn’t matter what the other team does.”

Still, their pitching bears watching. This is a team that gave up 22 runs to Cleveland. Except for Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who rejoined the team in midseason, the starters have been hurt, inconsistent or just plain ineffective. And now Kevin Brown is out at least three weeks after breaking his left (non-pitching) hand punching a wall. Compounding the problem, relievers Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera have, for much of the year, been 1-2-3 in appearances in the American League.

“The No.1 thing is pitching, plain and simple,” said ESPN commentator Harold Reynolds, a former major leaguer. “If pitchers pitch, you win. If they don’t, you don’t win. A lot has to do with how their pitchers have been used all year long. If you have to go to the bullpen all the time, like the Yankees, you get to a point where you can’t do it anymore.

“They’re a good team, but the pitching’s not there. It’s not a pressure thing or feeling the heat of the Red Sox. The Red Sox are playing great baseball, and the Yankees aren’t pitching.”

Then again, pitchers who take the mound believing they have to throw the ball through (as opposed to punching) a wall or snap off the world’s nastiest slider don’t make the situation any better.

“When you’re losing, [you feel like] you’ve got to make a perfect pitch, you can’t make an error, instead of just letting it go,” Reynolds said.

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