Smoltz escapes losing rut with shrinking pitch


October 24, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

ATLANTA -- All right, I know it's the World Series, but first a warm-up joke, courtesy of the Woodman:

So a guy goes to a psychiatrist's office and says, "Doc, we got a problem. My brother thinks he's a chicken."

Doc: "Why don't you bring him in so he can get some help?"

Brother: "We need the eggs."

Which brings us to John Smoltz.

Apparently, he didn't need the eggs. Smoltz, who plays for the Atlanta Braves, began consulting a sports psychologist in July, and suddenly he was the hottest pitcher in baseball. This is a trend that has not gone unnoticed. And when he took the national stage last night, the future of the grand old game hung in the balance.

In baseball, rabbit's feet are permitted and encouraged.

So are rally caps.

So are wearing the same underwear for a month, never stepping on a chalk line and consulting palm readers.

It's a game where superstition is science, and science is superstition, and the only doc anybody wants to know from is Doc Gooden.

But there was Smoltz, who was 2-11 at the All-Star break, and fairly desperate, if not quite suicidal, trying to figure out what was wrong with his pitching, when somebody said he ought to get his game shrunk.

In walked Dr. Jack Llewellyn, a sports psychologist who used to pitch a little in college, who has been working with baseball players since 1976, talking about something called positive visualization. Here's the scary part: It seems to have worked.

Smoltz and Llewellyn got together at the All-Star break, after which Smoltz was 12-2, then 2-0 in the National League playoffs and finally, last night, making his Series debut with the whole world watching.

A good performance last night was going to make Dr. Jack the Sigmund Freud of the pastoral game. Traditionalists were prepared to be shocked. These are the guys who think the only worthwhile advance in the 20th century was the pop-top can. You know they had to feel cheered when the Twins broke in front.

Your typical baseball man's ideal pitcher is Jack Morris, who was once young John Smoltz's idol. Morris is a throwback. He's just mean and nasty and is the kind of guy who wouldn't flinch when the doc yanked the bullet out of his leg. But there are precious few Morrises left in the world. No, sir. Most players would resort to exorcism if it would help them hit the curveball, or, for a pitcher, get it over the plate.

Besides, this is pretty painless. You don't have to lie on a couch. You don't even have to go to his office. Here's how it works: The doc gets together a little videotape of your best work, and you watch it together. Come to think of it, it's a lot like ESPN.

"I got six hours of tape," Dr. Jack explained. "I picked out six pitches -- three to right-handed batters and three to left-handed batters. A great fastball, a great curveball and a great slider.

"The entire tape is 2 1/2 minutes of vintage Smoltz."

They look at it together. They see what he's doing when he's doing it well. The idea is, when you're on the mound, to remember this tape, to step back for a moment and focus on how it was that you were successful.


"The important thing is recovery speed," Llewellyn said. "My position is what separates good pitchers from great pitchers is speed of recovery. In John's game against Pittsburgh, he gave up a leadoff home run to [Orlando] Merced. He stepped off the mound and visualized what he needed to do. Who knows what would have happened if he'd done that early in the season?"

Told you it was simple. And maybe it'll catch on.

In some cases, it may be catching on too well. Dr. Jack, who has clients on four teams but who has been with Smoltz the entire second half of the season, is a hot property. And, not surprisingly for a psychologist, he gets some weird calls.

"I got a call from a woman who wanted a drug for her daughter to help her get up for a swim meet," he said. "She told me her daughter had lost the will to win. I asked her how

old her daughter was and she said she'd be seven in two months. I get some real sick puppies."

Smoltz had a sick game that got well. Dr. Jack has to get some of the credit, He saw all of his games but three in the second half. Included in those three were both of Smoltz's losses.

Now, they just talk. "It can be about anything," Smoltz said. "It's golf or the family, whatever. We don't even talk baseball."

But he's there. He's there every game behind home plate wearing a red shirt, the same red shirt. He says he wears the shirt so Smoltz can pick him out if he needs to find him to help focus. I think he just wears it for luck. You see, in the end, it's just baseball.

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