Reggie Smith, once and outstanding batting coach for the Dodgers, used to tell his students that the toughest field they had to contend with "was the six-inch field between their ears." I was his way of pointing out that with the overwhelming amount of talent in major league baseball, to be successful you had to conquer yourself.
That came to mind again after speaking to the young and talented James McDonald a day or so before his last appearance with the Dodgers, the one that resulted in a ticket to the back side of Camelback Ranch and assured him of starting the 2009 season in the minor leagues.
During our conversation, we asked him what he was most concerned about and what he was working on this spring.
He quickly replied, "command."
We replied that it was the curse of youth. He agreed and he gave us a weak smile.
Juts twenty-four hours later he had surrendered not only a 4-3 Dodgers lead at Peoria, but six runs that gave the Padres a 9-4 decision. After the game he sat for a long time with his head in his hands.
Almost every young player that comes into the Major Leagues, no matter how successful they had been in high school, college or the minor leagues, has a little seed of doubt in the back of his mind that could grow to a "I don't really belong here" tree if it is left untended.
McDonald's problem is certainly not unique.
The baseball guide is stuffed with players who clawed their way up the ladder until they finally made The Show, only to encounter a level of competition they had never imagined. Each player on the 40-man roster was the best that scouting, money and coaching could provide. And that is a daunting thing for a young man to meet face to face.
Leo Durocher, Dodgers manager from 1939 to 1948, let the player decide his own fate. When a young player was brought up, he would thrust them into the fire immediately and let nature take it's course.
In 1943, with the war raging around the world and baseball talent scarce as sugar or gasoline, Branch Rickey promoted 18-year-old Rex Barney and 21-year-old Hal Gregg at mid-season. Durocher met them coming out of the clubhouse for the first time and said, "You must be Barney and Gregg. You start the doubleheader today."
Leo figured that if they were good enough to be there, they were good enough to use -- right now. It was the era that fathers would take their sons out into the lake and throw them in to teach them how to swim.
Gregg was out of baseball by age 30. Barney, although he threw a no-hitter in 1948 against the Giants and Joe DiMaggio, after facing him in the 1949 World Series, said he was faster than Bob Feller, was finished by age 25.
Barney injured his leg near the end of the 1948 season and when he showed up at spring training in 1949, he was unable to throw strikes. He blamed the injury for putting him off his game but many felt it was a mental thing, the tiny field that Smith was talking about. He was treated by a number of pitching coaches who felt they could cure his mechanics, but in truth, it was probably something more than that, just as Smith said.
Don Newcombe, who recorded 17-8, 19-11 and 20-9 records his first three seasons with Brooklyn, was tagged -- as were many athletes -- for army service and missed two years.
When he returned he crafted 20-5 and 27-7 seasons but was battered each fall in the World Series by the talented New York Yankees. He received a firestorm of criticism, wailing he "could not win the big one" but no one considered had he not won a number of "big ones" during the season, the team wouldn't have been in the "Woild Serios" as Brooklyn fans used to call it.
He was the workhorse of the Brooklyn pitching staff, pitched often on short rest and instrumental in the National League pennant of 1949, 1955 and 1956, that little bit of doubt, and a resulting dependance on alcohol, signaled the end of his career. He overcame the dependency and is now a valued and trusted member of the Dodgers front office.
Some athletes never have any doubts about their being able to pitch or hit at the highest level. Many take the attitude of Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, when it was pointed out that he was not keeping the trademark up when he batted. "I come up to the plate to hit, not to read," he is credited with saying.
Baseball aficionados can point out any number of other players who seemingly were poised for greatness but never could get a firm first step up on the ladder.
McDonald is a remarkably talented young man. He obviously needs a little more time to refine his delivery, making it possible to repeat it over and over again correctly, and gain enough confidence in his ability.
The Dodgers trust that will happen and have made it easier for him to accomplish that goal without the pressure of feeling that one false move would undo him. He could be back by midseason, if he has learned to handle that six-inch field and an opportunity presents itself.