I watched with interest as Pete Alonso crushed the competition in the 2021 All-Star Game Home Run Derby earlier this month in Denver, Colorado. As a Met fan, I loved it of course, but it had me thinking about seemingly unrelated things: a book I read as an undergraduate and the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of Alonso, realizing that I was witnessing a confident athlete, trusting himself completely, and fully in his “zone.” As a performer, I have experienced that feeling too. But I’ve also know the paralyzing feeling of “stage fright.” I’m guessing Pete has too.
Many of my colleagues are prescribed beta-blockers for controlling the physical manifestations of “nerves” for high profile performances and auditions. I have never taken medication, but I have been given advice for combatting this performance impediment from teachers. I have also developed my own techniques to keep the “negative” effects of adrenaline to a minimum.
A book that was widely read by music performance students of my generation was The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, first published in 1974. Author Barry Green later came out with a “version” for musicians: The Inner Game of Music was released in 1986 while I was in graduate school. But music students in the early 1980s had little difficulty reading The Inner Game of Tennis and “translating” the advice within to instrumental performance applications all on our own.
The basic premise of the book is that if one trains over and over to the point where he or she can consistently perform a particular physical feat, one should then trust the body to do what it is well-trained to do and not let self-critical thoughts subvert the performance. Scientists know that the left hemisphere of the brain controls analytical, critical thinking. Gallwey’s book suggests that, allowed to take over the mental part of the game, these left-brain “corrections” can sabotage one’s performance. This can manifest itself by shallow breathing, a racing heart beat, muscle tension, lack of confidence, increased perspiration, sweaty palms, or just plan underperforming.
Examples of negative left-brain messages might be:
- “Don’t forget to exaggerate the follow-through on your backhand!”
- “Don’t rush that upcoming passage with all of those sixteenth notes!”
- ”Don’t rush your serve!”
- ”I’m worried I’m going to run out of breath before I get to the end of this passage!”
- ”My opponent has won so many more big matches than me. How can I possibly beat her?”
- ”My accompanist said that so-and-so is in the audience tonight.”
The book goes on to suggest ways of silencing, or at least turning down the volume of those negative voices. This is the crux of the ”inner game.”
Described in this book and other places is the feeling of “zen” when a performer or athlete is in “the zone”: when he or she is hyper-focused to such an extent that he or she experiences “flow.” When in this state, one is oblivious to external factors: crowd noise, coughing in the audience, one’s own perspiration, even one’s own physical discomfort or pain. He or she has successfully “turned off”—or kept in check—the analytical left-brain’s advice/doubts/caution that can work to hinder his or her performance.
What I observed in Pete Alonso’s Home Run Derby spectacle was someone in complete “flow,” confident in his physical abilities and seemingly oblivious to any negative thoughts or any other distractions that might make him “press” or otherwise get in the way of the batting skills that he has worked on and at which he has excelled for many years.
He put complete trust in those skills to serve him as they always have. And they did.
I was amused, as were many others, to see Pete keeping himself loose by unapologetically nodding in time–like a bobble-head–to the sounds of the playlist he had curated for his Derby at-bats, even dancing at times. Perhaps his physical movements served to perpetuate the “groove” he was obviously in and continuing to win at his “inner game” as well. Or perhaps, I thought as I watched him, Pete Alonso was channeling the great Satchel Paige.
Last month I had an inspiring road trip with my husband to various places in the Midwest. Visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum had been on my Bucket List for some time, so while we were in Kansas City, we made the pilgrimage there. I would have loved to have spent far longer there, but the size and spacing of the crowds inside the museum–during this period of encouraged social distancing–made me slightly nervous, preventing me from dwelling longer in front of the outstanding displays.
The great pitcher Satchel Paige was certainly well represented in the museum. It was fascinating seeing so many photos of him and the timeline of his career. He was still playing Major League Baseball when he was fifty-nine years old! Thanks to my helpful husband, during the course of our visit, I also learned what “barnstorming” was.
Barnstorming tours provided the perfect stage for Satchel’s showmanship. His gravity-defying windup was eye-catching for sure, but the entertainment didn’t stop there. He often took an exaggerated leisurely stroll to the mound, clowned around, and engaged in trash talk. And Satchel had the “stuff” to back up his swagger.
On the barnstorming tours, one of Satchel’s favorite tricks when he was on the mound was to bring in the outfielders and have the infielders behind him take a seat while he proceeded to strike out the side!
There was a single specific stunt that Satchel was apparently particularly proud of:
According to Paige, an even more famous stunt came during a Negro League World Series game in 1942, when he intentionally walked two batters so that he could face power hitter Josh Gibson with the bases loaded. After taunting Gibson and warning him about where he intended to place each throw, Paige struck him out in three pitches.“10 Things You May Not Know About Satchel Paige” by Evan Andrews
This guy would have made the most egregious bat-flipper, swag-chain-wearing, homer-horse-riding ballplayer look like a rank amateur.
I could easily see a bit of Satchel Paige’s theatrical, fun-loving, overly confident barnstorming days in Pete Alonso’s Derby “styling.”
You could also say that Alonso was channeling Satchel in the personalization of his weaponry. He commissioned artist Gregory Siff to create bats for him just for the occasion, each one differing slightly from the other. In interviews and during the broadcast of the Derby, Alonso detailed each bat’s unique story and features.
Like Pete, Satchel’s larger-than-life persona extended to his “tools.”
According to Andrews,
Paige typically relied on his scorching fastball to strike out batters, but he gave the pitch a litany of different names including ‘Bat Dodger,’ ‘Thoughtful Stuff’ and ‘Long Tom.’ He was particularly found [sic] of hurling the ‘Bee-Ball’—a pitch with so much zip that it supposedly buzzed like a bee as it sailed into the catcher’s mitt. As the years passed and his power faded, he fell back on an arsenal of trick pitches such as the ‘Midnight Creeper,’ the ‘Wobbly Ball’ and the ‘Whipsy-Dipsy-Do.’ One of his favorites was the ‘Hesitation Pitch,’ which saw him pause mid-delivery to fool batters into swinging early. The throw usually worked like a charm, but Major League managers complained about it so much that it was eventually made illegal.
Perhaps you’ve read somewhere Paige’s advice for “staying young?” It has been reprinted elsewhere, but it is famously etched into his headstone. So while we were in town, we went to Forest Hills Memorial Park Cemetery to find Satchel’s final resting place.
Having recently seen Satchel’s tips, when I saw Pete Alonso’s dance moves—presumably to keep himself loose during the Derby—I instantly thought of Satchel’s third piece of wisdom.
Alonso may have referred to his own moves differently, but couldn’t one argue that Pete was “jangling around gently” as he moved? And is it a stretch to say that by doing so he was keeping his “juices flowing?”
Were Satchel’s “juices” a euphemism for blood—meaning to keep one’s circulation flowing?
Perhaps when Satchel got on base and took a lead off the bag, he “jangled gently” in order to avoid being flat-footed. Jangling could have kept him light on his feet, enabling him to spring, cat-like, back to the base in order to avoid getting tagged out or allowing him to get a good jump when attempting to steal a base. In that case, I saw plenty of jangling from former Met José Reyes.
But just maybe Paige “jangled gently” to avoid jangled nerves.
Maybe keeping his “juices flowing” was a description of Satchel’s strategy for playing his “inner game,” listening to his own inner rhythms, keeping his athletic juices AND positive thoughts “flowing.”