The Diamond Between Your Ears

He’s never felt more at peace and more anxious in his life than when he’s standing in that one spot. I guess you could say that’s a bit of a contradiction, but you of course would say that because you don’t know. You’re uneducated. And that’s not your fault. Only a handful of guys really ever experience the exact feelings that he did on that pile of dirt, ball in hand. Some like to call it “sacred ground,” but again, that’s what “some” like to call it. The mound that he likes to think of is much more like a sweat-box of a haven, put on display for thousands to see. But that’s his interpretation. And only the man standing in that particular spot during a particular time can decide it’s meaning to him. The definition of the pitcher’s mound varies between every single pitcher who has ever stood on any mound during any game. It’s just its nature. But whatever the definition the man chooses for the mound, he must realize that this determines the game he will be playing. Yes, my uneducated friends, the game is baseball. It will always be baseball. But pitching itself is a game inside of baseball, and it’s only field is between your pair of ears. The story you’re about to hear is not a “bottom of the ninth, two out” thriller, but rather one specific night in a man’s every-fifth day struggle. His mound was a blind date that you could be sure would be rough, but had the chance to turn out sweet in the end. “My endings were bitter sweet, but sweet none the same. My name is Ryan Anderson, and my story, my struggle, my life was strikes and balls. Why I would ever choose to rest my life on every pitch, I do not know. All I can say is, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

The night was June 25th, 1975, and the Cincinnati Reds had traveled to Dodger Stadium to play none other than the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers boasted the best record in the West, leading their division by almost five games nearing the halfway point of the baseball season. The Big Red Machine was beginning its 9-game road trip in Los Angeles, hoping to steal the first of three from the Blue Crew. The clubhouse smelled of chewing tobacco and old shaving cream, with guys walking around in towels and shorts, laughing and talking obnoxiously. The mood of the Dodgers that night was one of light-heart; it was early summer, the team was taking care of its every opponent, and no one could complain. It was the dim mood of a player sitting in the far corner of the room that brought a contrast to the happiness of the rest of the team. Ryan Anderson was sitting in his locker in a pair of athletic shorts and a t-shirt, arms laying across his knees as he stared at the ground. No one bothered to ask what was wrong, even though it was written plainly across his head hanging head. Consoling a rookie was a job that no one wanted. Ryan sat alone, and he neither looked disgusted or upset; he just looked defeated. And God only knew how defeated he felt. “Today, yet another day,” he mumbled to himself. “I could’ve been starting, could’ve had a couple wins under my belt, but no.” He remembered every one of those “coulda-shoulda” starts that he had; the miserable pitches, the extra-base hits, the home runs. A soaring earned-run average was the only thing under his belt. The promise that he formerly carried with him had all but disappeared. “Highly touted,” he mumbled on, “what a load of bull shit.” He began to put on his uniform once more, a proud ritual that had faded to a sad routine. He was tying his spikes when his catcher, Mitch Reilly, walked over. He was short next to Ryan’s 6’ 6” frame, and his black-haired buzz-cut could be looked down at by the lanky pitcher. He was the warmest of all the veterans, always encouraging, and Ryan had demanded him as his catcher for every one of his starts. “Skip said he’d like to see you. Said it’s rather important, and I’d be putting you in a bad spot if I didn’t tell you to get your ass to his office quick as ya can.” As if I’m not already in a bad enough spot, thought Ryan to himself. But his formerly dark mood changed to one of anxiety. Have I been traded already? No, that can’t be it. The trade deadline was too far away for any deals this early. I’ve probably been demoted, reassigned back to Triple A. Back to the farm, he thought remorsefully.

Coach Howard was a stout man with a booming voice. He was clear and to-the-point with all his players, and Ryan was no different. The coach had pulled him from the rotation back in mid-May after a few abysmal starts from the promising rookie. He’d been clear and to-the-point with him then too. “You’re control is atrocious, Anderson. You can’t locate your fastball, you’re hanging your curveball over the middle, and your change-up is a ghost of its former form.” Ryan had knew it was coming, but each stinging comment was still not any easier to take. The coach’s voice had changed tone then, saying, “Ryan, it’s not what you may assume it is. You’re not a wash-out. You haven’t lost your ability as a pitcher. It’s a head-game. Between your two ears. Every pitch has to be purposeful. You have to have mound-presence. Those seven, eight, even nine innings, you and that mound have to be best friends. Even if you’re chained to it, you have to be confident in the job you’re doing.” Ryan took every word to heart. He accepted them. But it didn’t make him feel any better. He’d been throwing about 70 pitches every five days in the bullpen ever since. He focused all his energy on everything coach told him; mound presence, confidence, letting loose. But one concrete thought stayed in his mind; this was the last place any starter wanted to be. The last situation any rookie wanted to be in.

Coach Howard beckoned Ryan into the room after the pitcher knocked on his office door. “Take a seat, Anderson.” The thrower eased himself down in front of the coach’s desk and sat there earnestly, waiting for the news of being sent down to the Triple A farm system. But to his surprise, it never came. The coach only sat up and clasped his hands on his desk and asked, “How’s your arm been feeling? Your bullpen sessions going okay?” The coach stared fervently at his player’s perplexed face while he replied. “Um, I guess they’ve been going fine. I pump the strike zone, each corner, just like the session tells me too. I bury my curveballs in the dirt, try to land it on the outside corner, and cut the hitter off on the inside. The change-up is coming along too.” Ryan stared back at his coach in confusion rather than in anxiety. “Ryan, I’d like you to make the start over Wesley tonight. He just hasn’t been cutting it with the amount of walks he’s given up. I like our chances with you on the hill. The bullpen coaches have liked what they’ve seen from you, and I’m confident you can be effective as you always have been.” Ryan had never experienced such a change in mood as his heart leapt into his throat in excitement. Another chance! But coach continued, “There’s only one thing I need you to do.” He paused and sat back in his chair before he went on. “I need you to be confident.” Ryan felt his anxiety start to soar again. But clenching his hands, a wry smile forming over his face, the pitcher replied, “Coach, I won’t let you down. And a promise is a promise.”

Mental preparation was all that Ryan Anderson could think about as he hurried down the dank corridors of Dodger Stadium back to his team’s clubhouse. As he entered the room with a new gusto, Mitch Reilly was the first to take notice. “So hot stuff, I hear we have a date, am I right?” He was referring to the news of Ryan’s start. “How did you-wait just a damn minute. You knew the whole time?” Ryan asked in delighted disgust. Mitch couldn’t help but let a wide smile form over his stubbly face. “It wouldn’t be a Midsummer’s Night Dream without you my friend,” he said laughingly. They had bonded rather quickly as most pitchers and catchers do. But once one relationship between those two positions is made, any disruption could be catastrophic in terms of the pitcher’s mindset. Ryan already had enough mindset problems, but coach had apparently already completed one step of his mental preparation; Mitch was his starting catcher.

Ryan Anderson’s blue and gray uniform was filled with pride again as stared into the mirror of his wooden locker, placing his hat on his head. He turned his body and head and stared at the back of his jersey; a stitched patch of letters read Anderson, and under it the number 12. He thought about what it meant to stand on that mound representing an entire city. It may have been one small hill of dirt to some people, but to him, it could sometimes be a mountain. Tonight had to be a different story. Every batter he faced would be a private battle. But Ryan reminded himself of one fact; you’re not here for nothing. You weren’t highly-touted for anything but the fact that you are special. You got it. You have the charisma, the mound presence, the confidence. You lost it for a while, but everyone loses their way. This is the game you love. Go out and play it like you always have; fearless. There’s nothing to lose. At that moment, Ryan Anderson felt the surge that every man as felt in their life. It’s their call, their beckoning by an immaterial power, whether it be God or any spirit. A man needs to follow that call. Ryan Anderson followed it out of now-empty clubhouse, down the dark hallways of glorious Dodger Stadium, and into the passage that led to the dugout. He could hear the screams of Los Angeles, awaiting yet another ball game under the lights. Chills ran down his spine and sudden beads of sweat began to form on the back of his neck and as he traveled down the corridor, he focused on two things. “Every pitch is purposeful. Each batter is a battle. Use the pitches, win the battle. Focus. Confidence. You got this.” As Mitch hollered from the dugout down the hall, Ryan Anderson heard only echoes. He was in tune with the game. The game between his ears.