June 14, 2012
Matt Cain and Nerves
There was a brief period in my life when I was afraid to drive. I had had a near accident on I-5 when I, inexplicably, could not find the brake pedal and had to veer off the freeway at full speed. After that, I drove in dread of missing the pedal again. I tried to visualize myself braking, but even in the visions the nervous part of my brain took over and my visualized foot would just flail dumbly and unsuccessfully. This is what we call choking. A bit of nerves made me unable to perform a basic function. The level of stress it took to cause me to choke was: the threat of having to slow down a car. It did not take a lot of stress to cause me to choke.
We take it for granted that baseball players won’t choke, except in the extremely rare cases when they do. We are aware of those cases, and those cases make sports a little bit unpredictable and exciting, but mostly we take it for granted that they won’t choke. We take it so for granted that we have repurposed the word to describe merely failing in a big situation, which has nothing to do with choking. In a competition between two athletes, after all, one must fail. There’s nothing psychological about it. If you say Alex Rodriguez chokes in big situations, you mean he pops out. You don’t mean he forgets how to swing and holds the bat upside down.
In that moment, he a) had totally forgotten where his shortstop was playing, or would ever be playing, b) made an attempt that, if successful, would have likely been counterproductive and c) vastly, vastly misjudged the distance between himself and the baseball. He was nervous!
Cain threw his perfect game because he had excellent command of his pitches, and even in the ninth inning he was able to hit his spots perfectly. Except for those instances when he held onto the ball way too long and missed his target by about three feet. There were actually quite a few of them in the last three innings: