“Happiness is good health and a bad memory”- Ingrid Bergman
I mean, is there a better quote to apply directly to baseball? In a sport in which no position player gets on base in at least half of his plate appearances, maintaining a strong mental state of mind can be immensely challenging. Of course, it’s much easier to stay positive when you’re experiencing a great run of success, yet being a professional baseball player requires much more mental fortitude.
Generally, the top amateur prospects are able to enjoy dominant performance compared to their peers, with the adversity presented by failure not presented yet. Sometimes, it isn’t until the upper-level of the minors or even the majors before a player is truly challenged, and when that comes, it can cause a seismic shift in the brain. When Yogi Berra said that baseball was “90 percent mental”, he had a point!
After all, making the major leagues requires an exceptional amount of athletic ability. Thus, an often underappreciated separator, which is significantly challenging to quantify, is the non-physical characteristics a player possesses. This passage by Billy Beane in Moneyball perfectly depicts this:
Oblivious is often looked at as a negative trait, but it’s practically necessary when it comes to dealing with failure. It’s difficult to just accept the past as the past, but the game moves quickly for a player to be wrapped in their own thoughts. Interestingly, this is a benefit of the pitch clock that isn’t thought about; you’d expect performance to improve when one is acting intuitively rather than having to think it through.
So, where am I going with this? There wasn’t a better way to spend a Friday night than taking in a Cardinals-Mariners game, particularly thanks to the tremendous broadcasting duo of Aaron Goldsmith and Angie Mentink. Mentink, who certainly deserves to be features in more broadcasts moving forward, provided a story about Paul Goldschmidt that I was delighted to hear:
“Your eyes are more effective if you’re happy” is a statement that requires instant contemplation, but would anyone like to refute that? While nearly impossible to test objectively, it would appear much easier to go about everyday life tasks (job, school, errands) when you go into them with a positive frame of mind; if you get into an argument with a good friend, succeeding on your chemistry exam may be the furthest thought from your mind. Now, imagine playing 162 games a season, and having to deal with consistent failure with so much at stake – baseball may be entertainment for the average consumer, but it’s also a player’s source of income. Compound that constantly traveling, being on the national spotlight, and attempting trying to execute their childhood dreams, and staying relaxed isn’t going to be natural.
What better way to do that than distracting yourself with laughter and joy? Would you rather prepare for a game catastrophizing about a potential hat trick, or thinking about the meeting on the mound in Bull Durham? Do candlesticks actually make a good wedding gift, and where are they going to find a live rooster for Jose’s glove? Suddenly, the mind has less room for negative imagery, allowing for enhanced focus on the task at hand.
Now, I by no means am trying to pass as a qualified therapist. What I would implore you, the reader, however, is to allow this story to serve as a change in perspective when viewing professional baseball players. When a fan affiliates themselves with a team, it’s natural to see a player for the production they provide. Nevertheless, they’re ultimately human beings that go through their own struggles in life, and it’s important to not lose sight of that. Instead of booing a pitcher who allows seven runs in four innings, consider that he could be dealing with a family problem impacting his frame of mind. Does that player need more negative reinforcements? After all, the rise of his ERA directly affects him, and if he’s on the roster bubble, could have a notable consequence for his future. Would you enjoy being booed by your boss after a tough day at work?
Remember, Goldschmidt didn’t follow the “standard” superstar trajectory. He slugged just .388 in a limited role during his freshman year at Texas State, and even after performing at a high level after that, wasn’t drafted until the 8th round in the 2009 MLB Draft. Then, there’s shortstop Drew Maggi, who, somehow, was able to persevere through the hardships of the minors since 2010. Now, at age 33, his dreams were actualized:
Meanwhile, a change of perspective could be had outside of the majors too. Perhaps external pressure isn’t what a ten-year-old little-league player needs, and maybe pressing ourselves to the fullest isn’t going to automatically lead to our dream job. As a society we tend to directly correlate volume of preparation with success, but what if the ultimate preparation is to simply find a way to find joy?
For Goldschmidt to make an emphasis to do this demonstrates a tremendous understanding of himself, in addition to the mind-body connection that brings together mental health and physical performance. Bumps in the road are going to happen along the way, but stressing about them isn’t going to magically prevent them from happening. Rather, replacing the negative energy with laughter would seem to have a better chance of making an impact, even if it flipping that switch isn’t simple.
While Goldschmidt seeks sources of joy, he leaves the baseball community with plenty of them on its own. Need a boost to your day? Perhaps these can do the trick!
Once again, it’s remarkable how baseball can be a perfect representation of all aspects of life. They say hindsight is 20/20, but what about happiness? When a player is fresh off winning the NL MVP, I’d say their eyesight is working pretty well.