This is the second in a series summarizing the presentations from the Martin Luther King, Jr. SABR gathering. The next column will feature Red Sox left-handed pitching prospect Craig Breslow.
“When you throw 85 you can’t arm pump someone.”
Journeyman Bob Tewksbury, born in Concord, New Hampshire and a member of six teams in his career, took a path back to his home region through the discipline of sports psychology.
He began his presentation by noting the victory of Patriots over the San Diego Chargers. “The Patriots,” he emphasized, “expected to win. The Chargers hoped to win.”
Similar to how the “less talented” Patriots toppled the Chargers, Tewksbury defied the odds to make the majors. Not blessed with the physical gifts of a Nolan Ryan, the New Englander exploited an often untapped advantage over his peers: the power of visualization.
In 1981, those halcyon days before over-reliance on radar gun results, a 20-year old right-handed pitcher who couldn’t break 90 could be scouted and drafted. The 19th rounder lingered in the minor leagues for five years.
Progress for him was gradual. He ascended the ladder from Oneonta to Columbus in a manner much like his pitching: not with blazing speed but rather with a workman’s consistency.
Tewksbury combated the frustration of lingering in the lower levels by applying lessons learned from books we now call “self-help.” Coincidentally, he met one of the greatest gurus of this genre while selling shoes.
Since Tewksbury wasn’t a bonus baby, that half-decade found him holding down part-time jobs in the off-season, including working in a shoe shop. Who should walk in one day but Og Mandino. At the time Tewksbury was reading The Power of Positive Thinking and mentioned it to Mandino, who happened to be friends with the author, Norman Vincent Peale.
It was Peale’s method of visualization that guided Tewksbury when he was on the cusp of making the big leagues. In the spring of 86, the 25-year old drove his brown, two-tone 78 Mercury Zephyr to the Yankees Spring Training camp. His girlfriend (now wife) had made a mix tape of music for him that became the soundtrack of his success.
The goal he visualized was Lou Piniella calling him into the manager’s office and telling him that he made the Yankees. He pictured this with his Walkman on, soundtrack pouring into his head while he practiced pitching everywhere at anytime. So motivated by this goal he found himself throwing while walking the beach, jogging, or even in a deserted parking lot against a building wall in the dark of night.
When he got the summons from Sweet Lou, it was more déjà vu than a scene of astonishment. It was the culmination of his years of perseverance where he expected to be in the majors, not merely hoped.
These days, Tewksbury brings his own major league experience, which he calls is Ph.D. in baseball, along with his Master’s degree in Sports Psychology to impart Red Sox farm players with the cognitive tools to overcome the hardships of life in the minors.
As it has been noted ad infinitum, so much failure is built into baseball even when you are successful. Combine that with the hitters’ daily drudgery or pitchers’ long periods to dwell on mistakes, sprinkle in the stereotype of men seeking help for problems being perceived as weak, and you will have the perfect recipe for crippling self-doubt.
The Red Sox are one of the few organizations with full-time sports psychology professionals serving all levels of talent. As there were waves of fads to enhance performance -- the strength movement of the 80s, the nutrition (and other more nefarious compounds) fad of the 90s -- the Aughts may be a decade of further harnessing the mental aspect of sports.