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April 30, 2018


Michael Nye

Yips photo

When it began, he was deep in the hole, backhanding a two-hopper toward left field, and he rushed the throw, scooping it up, a cloud of dirt trailing off his glove like a cape as he raised his left hand up with the ball deep in his mitt, and the release and throw felt fine as he ripped the ball across the diamond. He thought he had the runner, a fleet-footed righty, those extra two steps out of the batter’s box making this a gettable out. But the throw, which he would replay in his mind endlessly from this moment on, soared, rising like a plane taking off from the tarmac, rising almost six feet above the first baseman’s head and smacking softly against the tarp rolled up against the concrete wall cordoning off the fans from the field.

It was a tough play, and he knew it, and tried to forget it. In fact, he didn’t make a throwing error against for eleven days, when an easier grounder up the middle brought him toward second base. He gloved the ball, his feet already set perfect for the sidearm sling to first base. He gripped the ball with his right hand, brought it back to his glove, pumped, pumped again (why am I doing this?) and then threw the ball, watching with horror as his throw was almost ten feet up the line, his first baseman stepping off the bag and shooting his meaty arm out in a futile attempt to catch the throw.

Shake it off. Happens. Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel made errors. Everyone does. Don’t think about it.

But he couldn’t not think about it. It wasn’t the quick ones, the bang-bang double plays, the pivot and toss done with the muscle memory of a lifetime playing the game and his childhood in New Mexico where he truly could play the game eleven months out of the year, the bounce of his feet and the snap of the throw perfect almost a decade ago. It was the easy ones, the bouncers hit right at him. He tried everything. He tried slow: watch the ball come to him, butt down and knees bent, right hand above the glove and palm perpendicular to the dirt to trap the ball, a deep inhalation as he stepped and pointed his left foot directly at first base. He tried fast: scoop, transfer, throw. And he tried all the full spectrum in-between, however one might define slow-medium or medium-fast. None of it worked.

After a painful week—five errors, the dreaded word whispered in a scream across the locker room (“yips”)—he was benched. Mental rest, his manager said, spitting the peanut shells onto the dugout floor, where he preferred to hold his daily meetings with the press. He’ll be back out there in a day or two. Which he was; he promptly made three more throwing errors. It was September. The season was almost over. He’d spend the winter training back in New Mexico and return to the team for spring training in February and everything would be just fine.

The first indication this would, in fact, not be the case, was almost a week later, after a badly needed trip with his girlfriend to St. Croix, where the only movement of his throwing arm was signaling for another beer. He opened his suitcase on his bed. Across the room was his laundry hamper. From the left side of his suitcase, he removed one balled up and wrinkled shirt, and with an underhand toss, flipped it toward the hamper. It was short. The balled clothing bounced off the front of the hamper and hit the floor. He laughed, grabbed a pair of shorts, and threw it toward the hamper.

Twelve items of his clothing later, his shirts and socks and shorts spread out in front of and around his hamper like dead flies, his hands tremoring in disbelief, he slid down the opposite wall, staring at his clothes and the empty hamper, shell shocked.

Soon, he couldn’t toss anything. He couldn’t throw his trash into the dumpster. He couldn’t put his groceries in paper bags. Tossed newspapers missed the coffee table and plummeted to the floor. He stared at his right hand as if it could perform a great magic trick. Horseshoes, washers, cornhole, his favorite bar games at the local bar, Club Fiesta, a dive bar hangout that his high school teammate Shep owned, a relaxing spot where he was treated like a local, became a place that caused anxiety, his breaths icy, stabbing at his lungs. He couldn’t toss anything into a garbage can, no matter how close he stood; he had to walk directly to the trash, stand over it, and with two hands, like making an offering to angry god, open and spread his palms to drop the refuse into the black maw of the can.

The next season, he was moved to second base. This seemed logically: more time to gather, shorter throw. In fact, this made it worse: he feebly asked his manager if he could play third instead, more reaction and less thought, as if the entire lineup could be rearranged because of his difficulties, and this was answered with slit eyes and a spit of chewed peanut shells. He lasted two weeks at second base, during which he had six throwing errors, including his worst moment, when a runner at second bolted for third on a grounder hit directly to him at second base, and his furious throw to third base sailed seven rows into the stands.

He was benched, and then his team, a National League team, traded him for pennies on the dollar to an American League team when their 40-year-old DH started the season 2 for 33 with 17 strikeouts. He considered not even bringing his glove. He brought it, and it sat in the back of his open locker, literally collecting a sheen of dust. He could always hit. But then again, once, he could always field.

It became folklore. It became a baseball story. It became a national story. It became a thing he laughed off because he could hit and he didn’t mind being a DH, he claimed, anything to help the team. Do my best. Team first. Etc. He never spoke, and his teammates never asked, about the fear, the absolute terror he felt even taking fielding practice, which he did, making easy throws from short, second, and third before games, the throws crisp and precise, and never, not once, did his manager ever ask him if he again wanted to play the field. They all had seen the way he carried his trash to the giant garbage can in their locker room and empty his hands like a prayer offering into a volcano to appease an angry god and they knew, they knew, his mind wasn’t right. Yips.

He played three more seasons until his contract ran out. He made enough to pay a delivery service to do his laundry. He hit enough to have a big league job. He turned his lack of contract offers from American League clubs not for what it was—a fear of fear, a fear of the fear that can infest a clubhouse like a virus, even if his team had gone to the playoffs two of the last three years—but for what it became: retirement. He bought a car dealership. He bought a restaurant. He bought government bonds. An easy life was ahead of him. He knew it.


Years later, standing on the back patio on the edge of the sand pit, Shep laughing about something he never heard, a crowd of middle-aged people clutching light beers and slushy alcoholic drinks, he stood with a washer in his hand, a washer he had no intention of throwing, testing its weight in his palm, and he could see, with untrammeled vision, something he had never seen before; a memory of that first throwing error that started all of this, that errant throw that lead him, like destiny, to this very moment, where he could now see, far behind the first basemen, rows up into the stands under the sun of a warm Atlanta night, the face of a single fan, a boy of perhaps twelve, his face just beginning to morph into the adult he would one day become, his expression curiously engaged and aware and his eyes wide as if—he flipped the washer between his fingers, good God, how clear this face was—he knew before the ball was released that he was about to see something in the moment that no one, no one, ever knew they were witnessing and, for him, it was this: the beginning of the end, the first step off the cliff, that brief moment of a body hovering in space as if it could consider a path of flight, a hovering in time and space before it begins its inevitable descent, its inevitable fall.


image: Aaron Burch