McAlpine: The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH.
A few years ago, USA Today assigned its sports staff to determine the ten hardest things to do in sports. Among the feats making the list were downhill ski racing, competing in the Tour de France, running a marathon, and landing a quad in figure skating. Number one on the list, though, was this: hitting a baseball thrown at ninety-plus miles per hour. As a Pennsylvania man argued, "When the goal is to hit a round object, with a round bat, traveling on two planes, to an unknown location, at an unknown velocity, any contact seems amazing. Where else is a 35% success rate considered great?" no Hardest Things To Do in Sports: Part I," USA Today, February 18, 2003, 1C). If these words seem familiar, it's because Ted Williams, the last major-leaguer to bat over .400, often made the same point.
Part of what makes hitting a baseball so difficult is that, unlike other sports, the defense initiates play--nothing happens until the pitcher throws the ball. Consequently, the offense, the lone batter at the plate, must wait. As he or she awaits the pitch, the mind goes to work, swirling with thoughts. Thinking can be fatal to the batter's mission, as Rod Dedeaux, the highly successful coach at the University of Southern California, well knew. As Dedeaux often advised his players, "Don't think, Tiger. You'll hurt the team."
Shawn Green's The Way of Baseball is primarily about the mental challenges he faced during his fourteen seasons in the major leagues. Green also offers insights into his years in baseball--coaching that confused rather than helped early in his career; a fascinating section on how major-league pitchers tip their pitches; his close friendship with teammate (in Toronto and New York) Carlos Delgado; and the complexities of moving among the mid- and large-market teams he played for: the Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, and New York Mets. But the essence of the book is how he learned to move beyond his thoughts into "the zone" so coveted by athletes. Just how well Green learned how to control his thoughts became evident on May 23, 2002, in a game the Los Angeles Dodgers played against the Milwaukee Brewers when he went six-for-six, with a single, a double, and four home runs, adding up to a major-league record of nineteen total bases. Green didn't stop there. Over the space of three games, he went ti for 13, with 7 home runs and 14 RBIs. During the course of his career, he hit 328 home runs, 1,071 RBIs, and had a .282 batting average. Along the way he was a two-time All-Star, a Gold Glove Award winner (1999), and a Silver Slugger Award winner (1999).
Green grew up a non-observant Jew in Orange County, California. While a student at Tustin High School, he read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book sparked his interest in Eastern philosophies as a way toward enlightened living--an interest that coincided with his baseball career early in the 1997 season in Toronto. Out of sync with hitting coach Willie Upshaw and manager Cito Gaston, Green was riding the pine. Young and admittedly impetuous, he was relegated to using the batting cage only with Upshaw's permission. So Green retreated to a small, netted batting tee area, where he took out his frustrations with repeated swings. Somewhere in the course of thousands of swings, he encountered a meditative state and began to hone his natural motion. The following season (1998), he hit 35 home runs, stole 35 bases, and rang up 100 RBIs.
Green, who was headed to Stanford University on a baseball scholarship before signing with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1991, is an articulate writer. He found a good fit in his coauthor, Gordon McAlpine, his neighbor and the critically well-regarded author of the novels Joy in Mudville and The Persistence of Memory. So it is unsurprising that you won't find the usual yuk-yuk locker-room anecdotes here. What you do find is some elegant writing. Reflecting upon his record-setting week in May 2002, Green writes, "As the pitcher released the ball there was no me, no him, no bat, and no ball. All nouns were gone, leaving only one verb: to hit" (133). And this: "My stride had landed in that ephemeral moment I thought of as 'the last bit of early' (125). Green's book is likely to be instructive for serious-minded young players intent upon honing their hitting talent and seeking a balanced life within the game. It is also likely to appeal to baseball historians interested in a ballplayer who is as mindful about how he conducts his personal and professional life after baseball as he was about the craft of hitting.
Through his meditative approach to the game, Green was putting up good numbers. As the 2008 season approached, his home run total was just behind that of the great Jewish slugger Hank Greenberg. But by this time Green was married with two young daughters, the eldest of whom would soon start kindergarten. Green knew he wanted to be home as his children grew up. At age 34, he retired to manage his charitable and business interests and spend time with his wife and daughters in Orange County. The years after a ballplayer's career ends are often fraught with difficulty as players struggle to reenter ordinary life. Green tells no such tale. What he learned at the batting tee he applied to his personal life. "[T]he act of hitting, like life," he writes, "is always a work in progress" (133).