THE BOREDOM. Because it’s baseball.
If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, ask your parents about the fifth inning of that marathon double-header two years ago. Just after the twelfth pitching change of that inning, I’m pretty sure someone saw your mom sneak a yawn. Or ten. (The ugly truth is that you could probably get both of them to confess to having yawned at almost every game you’ve ever played.)
THE BOREDOM happens to players too. In other sports such as football or basketball, a coach can correct wandering attention or fading enthusiasm by blowing a whistle. Not bringing the right intensity to a drill in practice? Here’s fifteen sprints to get your heart jacked up and your mind and body shocked into readiness. Adrenaline can be the perfect quick-fix.
But baseball is, well, different. More focus than ferocity, more recognition than rampage, and more purposeful execution than raw energy, baseball calls for a special demeanor.
So a baseball player’s tools for battling THE BOREDOM need to be a bit different. But make no mistake, you absolutely must battle THE BOREDOM if you’re to come close to reaching your potential as a player.
My great love was playing infield. I would have happily traded a grand slam, or ten, for the opportunity to make a diving stop on a ground ball up the middle. Even better if while still horizontal, I could have fed the shortstop, then rolled over and watched the ump pump his first as the 4-6-3 double-play ended with the crack of the first baseman’s glove. My pitcher would have smiled in gratitude as he shuffled off the field with renewed confidence. For the rest of the game, and the ride home, I’d have infield dirt smeared across the front of my uniform as a badge of honor. I had played. I had played the right way.
My freshman year at Vanderbilt I was the backup second baseman and didn’t play much. After the season, my coach told me to return to Barrington and over the summer work on “picking it up with the glove” (old-school way of saying “get better”). Make progress and I could return in the fall and vie for the starting job at second base as a sophomore, he promised. His extra-long eye contact seemed to certify his trustworthiness.
Day one of fall practice and that same coach greeted me by pointing to the outfielders on the far side of the field. “You’re one of them now, Flubacker.” He turned back to the dugout as if he hadn’t just sentenced my inner infielder to death (or proved that coaches can be annoyingly fickle). I was pretty crushed.
But I couldn’t anticipate THE BOREDOM that was just around the corner.
Most practices we’d hit on the field, and since I was now a left fielder on a squad filled with right-handed sticks intent on driving the ball to opposite field (sound familiar, freshmen?), I wouldn’t get many balls hit my way. Maybe ten or fifteen over the course of an hour. And since our assistant coaches were often preoccupied hitting grounders to infielders, I was left to rot what felt like miles from the action. Over the years, I’d heard coaches talk about practicing breaks on fly balls, but when the ball is hit to another part of the outfield, that practice feels basically irrelevant. I thought those coaches were advising nonsense just so they couldn’t be blamed when I claimed to have nothing to do.
THE BOREDOM was relentless.
Until I created a game to keep myself mentally engaged during batting practice. (My favorite games are the ones that require almost no physical effort because I can do those when I’m tired or unable to get into the flow physically. And if I’m working when I’m less active, I’m probably gaining ground on my competition, which means I’m more likely to play and play well come game time.)
As we already discussed, most balls weren’t hit to me, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t learn something from those balls. I’d watch a batted ball travel ten or fifteen feet and then turn my eyes to the spot on the field where I thought the ball would land. A few seconds later the ball would usually land somewhere else, and I’d have to figure out why. Thinking through my error required me to consider the critical variables involved, such as the trajectory, exit speed, and spin of the batted ball. Even the environment, such as wind and rain, could dramatically affect the behavior of the ball. I’d predict, observe, and analyze. Then repeat. All fall and spring for years.
There’s certainly a lot to think through, but initially not thinking through any of it explained why I was so often wrong in predicting where the ball would land. With practice I got better, and figuring out which variables I habitually overlooked, which I gave too much significance to, and how they all interrelated to tell the story of a ball’s flight became second nature, like reading the movement of a pitcher’s fastball in the on-deck circle and taking that information into account when in the batter’s box. This mental practice wasn’t wasted even though the batting practice balls weren’t in my neighborhood. By understanding how batted balls behaved and turning this understanding into instinct, I knew how to assess and get after those balls that were in fact hit to me. I even became a better hitter because I came to see how certain swing types lead to certain outcomes and could adjust my swing to create outcomes I desired.
The most important thing isn’t this drill specifically, though it’ll make you much better as an outfielder and a sharper critical thinker on the field. (I eventually correctly predicted thirty-two balls in a row!) The most important thing is that you need to get to work on battling THE BOREDOM, and you can’t count on anyone else to help you. Use your creativity and passion to put your downtime to better use, because your opponent probably isn’t. And if you can beat him when you’re not moving, you may just beat him when you are.