In the 1980s, Maddon, then a minor league instructor with the Angels, began working with Ravizza. As a result, Maddon has long argued that the mental component of baseball is the sixth tool for which players should be evaluated, along with running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power.
That is to say that baseball has come a long way from when Ravizza began, when the first question from skeptical ballplayers would be: Where did he play? Or even from 2005 when Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield, upon hearing that the team had hired its first sports psychologist, said: “I don’t believe in it. I think it’s for people who are weak-minded.”
“There’s still remnants of that, but it’s changed,” said Maher, who has been with the Indians for 24 seasons. “The players know this is a hard game, and they want everything working for them. The focus on sports psychology has become more positive and it’s on performance rather than ‘what’s your problem?’ You’re an elite athlete; you’re not here by chance. How can we help you get better?”
This view is reflected in job titles. Sports psychologists are now often referred to as mental skills coaches, which might be semantics but also reflects how they are increasingly seen as akin to a pitching or a hitting coach.
Chad Bohling, that first sports psychologist hired by the Yankees, who is now the team’s director of mental conditioning, said Ravizza was skilled at taking generic concepts in psychology and applying them to high-level athletes in a manner in which they could understand.
And yet George Horton, the coach at Cal State Fullerton in 2004, who is now at the University of Oregon, said the value in Ravizza’s lessons was that they could be applied broadly.
“The same tools he was teaching my players to handle the stresses of baseball could be used in a job interview, exams or if you had a bad day or a bad week,” Horton said. “Nine out of 10 things might be terrible in your life or your game, but he would get you to identify the one thing you are doing well and always had a way of making you feel there was something you could go to. He wouldn’t allow you to wallow in your pity.”
Baseball is rooted in failure. The best hitters are out two-thirds of the time. So hanging on to hope is vital, even for elite athletes…
“Honestly, to me, it’s everything,” Duffy said of the mental game. “I didn’t start having success professionally until I got into the mental game. You’ve got to understand how to handle failure. You really have to trust your work and have a good mental state to not run to the video room after an 0-for-4 with two lineouts.”
He continued: “A lot of slumps start with some bad luck and a run to the video room for the last 10 at-bats. The next thing you know you feel like a Little Leaguer in the box and you don’t know why. It’s amazing where your brain goes when you start doubting yourself.”
When the Cubs won the World Series two years ago, one of Ravizza’s proudest moments was the pep talk Jason Heyward gave to his teammates while they were waiting out a rain delay in the ninth inning of Game 7.
The gist: Forget about anything bad that had happened that night — like blowing a late lead — and play like the team that had the best record in baseball…
“How long the season is, yet how individual it is and how each game means something,” said Adam Warren, a Yankees reliever who spent the first half of that season with the Cubs. “For an athlete, it’s easy to say ‘forget about that’ or ‘focus on the next pitch’ or ‘one game at a time.’ But if you have something visually that you can see that symbolizes that and resonates, it’s going to stay with you as opposed to something you hear and then forget about two minutes later.”
This is why Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has an inscription in Japanese on the inside of his glove reminding him to pitch like a warrior. Or why Luis Severino wrote “paciencia” — patience in Spanish — on the bill of his cap last season to remind him to slow down.
Neither pitcher had worked with Ravizza, but the broader message in their reminders — be in the moment — is a tenet of his teaching. When Suzuki stands in the batter’s box, readying himself for each pitch, he has a routine that he traces back to college: He fixes his gaze on the trademark of his bat and takes two deep breaths…
“You can always hear him in the back of your mind,” Suzuki said. “Flush it. Let it go.”