Handling the 'pressure' of the ninth inning
Editor's Note: This is the first piece from Oakland A's rookie Huston Street, who will be writing a regular diary for ESPN.com throughout the 2005 season. The former University of Texas standout, 21, was recently named the A's closer and was the first player from the 2004 draft to play in the major leagues.
Every kid who has dreamed of being a baseball player has stood in his front yard with a bat and said to himself, "Bottom of the ninth, Game 7 of the World Series, the bases are loaded," and then envisioned hitting a home run to win the game. My job is to shatter that dream.
There is nothing like the electricity of the ninth inning in a one-run game. The emotion and elevated heartbeats of all those present turn just another inning into a "pressure" situation. These are the reasons that closers in the major leagues garner so much attention: From John Rocker sprinting to the mound, to Trevor Hoffman walking to the mound as AC/DC's "Hells Bells" ignites 35,000 fans, to the sight of Mariano Rivera entering and knowing the game is over. Any time there is a "pressure" situation, it's going to pique the interest of the onlookers. Closers get paid for that situation. From my personal experience, however, not a single one thinks about it that way.
As many games as I closed in college and as many big situations as I had experienced, the first time I stepped on the mound as a big leaguer my heart was racing, and I was back at square one.
I'm not saying that closers are impervious to such feelings of excitement. I believe those who are best at their job have learned to control these feelings for a reason. As humans, we are designed to react certain ways for our benefit. When we touch a hot plate, reflexes save us from a serious burn. When we are threatened, our heart rate picks up and adrenaline increases, energizing the body in order to function at a higher level, not to hinder performance. Our brain makes the decision whether to interpret these feelings as nervousness, or to recognize their benefit and harness the energy.
Still, it's a learning process. With each situation, you gain experience, knowledge and finally, a belief in yourself. As many games as I closed in college and as many big situations as I had experienced, the first time I stepped on the mound as a big leaguer my heart was racing, and I was back at square one. One remedy I put a lot of stock in, and have noticed that a great number of other athletes do as well, is to simply take a big, deep breath. It's just about slowing everything down, and slowing yourself down.
This was absolutely necessary during my first two months in the big leagues. Please remember, I am still a fan at heart. Stepping on the mound to see the likes of Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, or Vladimir Guerrero, I'll admit, is an awkward feeling at first.
Last year at this time, I would have loved just to have their autograph. Now I'm supposed to get them out. I refer back to the mind games. I had a choice of what to focus on. One could have been this huge, intimidating man, who I have seen hit balls 500 feet on SportsCenter with regularity. Focusing on that isn't the best option. I simplified it for myself. I told myself that the plate won't move. The mound is going to feel the same. The strike zone, with slight variations, is going to be right where it has always been. So what am I going to throw, where am I going to throw it and why? Lucky for me too, I have Jason Kendall calling my pitches, which simplifies it even more.
With zero career saves, I would humbly like to define a big-league closer. He has unwavering confidence in himself. His memory is limited to the present, and his focus has a similar aim. When everyone else is thinking about the possible outcomes, he's focused on the mitt. Both success and failure motivate. Ultimately, a closer is a symbol of trust.
Huston Street is a relief pitcher for the Oakland Athletics. He is playing in his first season in the major leagues.
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