Baseball players, despite their usual bravado, their inflated egos, their sometimes seeming lack of self-awareness, are far more fragile than anyone imagines. Their ability to succeed depends on their ability to believe they are better than everyone else. Even the middling reliever needs to believe that in some way, on the particular day that he pitches, he is as good as Mariano Rivera.
It isn't true, of course. Most relievers won't ever be as good as Rivera no matter how much they make themselves believe it is so. But that's mostly beside the point. They need to think that way.
"So many athletes I deal with, very few are your traditional leaders, tough guys who are able to cope with adversity," said sports psychologist Dr. Dana Sinclair, who works with several major league teams. "Those types of people are hard to find. Those types are hard to find in real life. People are more on the passive side. They're not the tough people we think they are just because they are athletes."
If a pitcher goes to the mound and doesn't believe that he can best the batter in the box who is paid millions of dollars to hit against him, he won't have much of a chance to get that batter out. It's all part of a larger mind game, an act. An at-bat is simply theater where the two protagonists, the man on the mound and the batter in the box, are role playing.
When that belief of invincibility disappears, a baseball player's world usually crumbles.
For the past two seasons, 29-year-old Cleveland Indians starter Ubaldo Jimenez, a former Cy Young candidate, previously one of the most highly regarded young right-handed pitchers in the game, had forgotten how to pitch. It's not as if he didn't know what particular pitch to throw in a certain situation -- he actually had forgotten how to throw. From 2011-12, Jimenez put up a lowly 5.03 ERA and won only 9 games, after having finished 3rd in the NL Cy Young voting in 2010 with the Colorado Rockies.
"It was like I had the ball in my hand but I didn't know what to do with it," Jimenez said. "It was like I had never put a ball in my hand."
Jimenez's problem wasn't so drastic that he threw pitches to the backstop. But he couldn't remember how to throw strikes. Each pitch felt foreign. His problem had grown so severe that he didn't enjoy going on the mound. Pitching became a chore. Each time he stepped on the field he thought about his mechanics, he thought about whether he could throw strikes, he thought about what everyone at home would be thinking if he failed.
His world had fallen apart. His inability to throw the ball created an identity crisis. If he couldn't do the things that he had always done, then who exactly was he?
Jimenez would spend hours watching video of his most successful years and comparing it to video of how he currently pitched. The differences were striking. Who was this guy? The new Ubaldo stopped using his left shoulder to balance himself, which in turn sapped him of all the torque that he used to create to throw the ball at high speeds. The new Ubaldo could hardly muster a ball over 90 mph. His delivery had become slow, deliberate and calculated. It was if he had been trying to deconstruct every movement.
Most disheartening for him was how easily his life had become unraveled. In the spring of 2011, as a member of the Rockies, Jimenez developed an infection on the thumb of his throwing hand. Jimenez grips a ball differently than most everyone. Regardless of what pitch he throws, Jimenez will always put his thumb on the ball's seam to help guide the ball. At times this creates a blister. Sometimes that blister pops. In 2011, the blister became infected.
Jimenez began compensating for his blister by unknowingly changing his mechanics. And that's all it took. His pitches lost speed. He could no longer control the strike zone. Batters feasted. A high-profile trade to the Indians midseason in 2011 only added more pressure.
Jimenez's career was in a tailspin, and it had all been because of a blister. Two of the most prized seasons in the prime years of his career lost because of a tiny injury. It was maddening, really.
When Jimenez was a young pitcher, he remembered how Dominican veterans would advise him not to shake people's hand with his throwing hand in case someone squeezed too tightly and caused an injury. Jimenez thought then that it was silly advice. He doesn't think it's so silly anymore. Even a little injury could have profound consequences.
This offseason, Jimenez was determined to return to form. He had gotten a call during the winter from Moises Alou about being part of the Dominican Republic's World Baseball Classic rotation, but he declined the invitation. He wanted to focus on fixing his mechanics.
"If I was feeling 100 percent, mentally and physically, you know that I would be there for my country," Jimenez told Alou. "But really there's no point for me to be there. I don't want to embarrass myself trying to find myself in the middle of this tournament instead of being at spring training. It's better to give someone else a chance."
It was a painful decision. Jimenez had been part of the failed 2009 Dominican team, which lost twice to the Netherlands and didn't even make it past the first round. This was a chance at redemption. But Jimenez had no faith he could actually perform well. For as much as he had worked in the offseason, Jimenez had no idea whether all that effort would translate into positive results. And he knew working in Arizona backfields would be less pressured than pitching in an international tournament.
The last few days before leaving the Dominican were nerve-wracking. What if he never figured it out again? Jimenez arrived at Indians spring training pondering a rather existential dilemma: Can I ever be myself again?
* * *
Jimenez never wanted to become a pitcher. He hated pitching. As a boy growing up in Nagua, Dominican Republic, Jimenez played the outfield, and his most cherished moments on the ball field were when he stepped into the batter's box. He was determined to be a slugger. Jimenez wanted to be Manny Ramirez or Sammy Sosa.
The problem was, he wasn't very good at being a position player. He couldn't run. He couldn't hit. He couldn't field. He was tall and lanky and ran the bases awkwardly. His movements lacked fluidity.
But he could throw. If a ball was hit to him, runners rarely tested his arm.
Coaches would order Jimenez to take the mound. At times he refused.
"If you don't pitch, you won't play," his coach would tell him.
"Fine, I'll go home," the young Jimenez responded.
He'd pout all the way home. Of course he'd return soon after. He couldn't stay away too long from the game he loved.
When Jimenez was 15 years old, he grudgingly realized that he might not have much of a choice but to pitch if he wanted to pursue a career in baseball.
"You want to get to the big leagues?" his youth coach Alexis Ramirez asked. "Do you want to sign? Let's make you a pitcher. Because you don't hit well. You don't run well either. But you have a great arm. That's the best and quickest way for you to get there."
Jimenez was upset to hear such a frank evaluation of his skills, but the coach was right. There was no longer a point in wasting time playing the outfield.
At that time, Jimenez had no idea how to pitch. When he took the mound, his coach simply told him to lift his leg and throw. That was all the instruction he needed. Jimenez threw to home plate like he had thrown from the outfield to the infield. There was nothing to think about. Just pick the ball up and throw. Very simple.
When Jimenez was a boy, his father had taught him to throw a curve ball, so that was part of his arsenal too.
"When I started to pitch seriously, that curve turned out to be really good," Jimenez said. "I couldn't even believe it myself. The hitters would bail out of the box because they thought I was going to hit them. But it would go right in the strike zone."
Those were the crude beginnings of Jimenez's mechanics. That was the beginning of him developing a pitching identity.
At age 17, Jimenez signed with the Rockies. Jimenez's style was still good enough to dominate at Colorado's academy in the Dominican, but when he traveled to play in the United States in 2002, he realized that throwing hard and having a curve ball was not going to be enough. He had to refine his delivery and add another pitch.
Jimenez's biggest problem at that age was that he rushed through his mechanics.
"I wanted to imitate Pedro Martinez in the way his delivery moves quickly," Jimenez said. "I'd try to tangle my body just like him. I mean all the young Dominican kids during that time wanted to copy Pedro. When I was at that age, it was difficult for me to copy his delivery. Pedro was a veteran and he knew how to manage his mechanics. But in trying to imitate Pedro you'd do so many wrong things. My arm would stay back, my release point would make the ball rise."
When he reached Class A Ashville in 2003, the team's pitching coach made a wager with Jimenez. The coach bet Jimenez that if he slowed his delivery, he would throw just as hard as when he rushed his mechanics. Jimenez was skeptical. He thought moving fast was the only way to throw fast. But he agreed to try. Sure enough, the coach was right. It took a few years to master, but Jimenez learned to slow down. And when he did, the results were fantastic.
In 2010, Jimenez became one of the best pitchers in the National League, posting a 2.88 ERA while pitching half of his games at Coors Field. Most importantly, when he took the mound, he never thought about his delivery. He never thought about mechanics. He threw the ball without fear.
"From the first game of the season to the last, I was ready to go," Jimenez said of that 2010 season. "I didn't think about anything. I only saw the hitters and I knew I was going to get them out."
He hasn't felt that way since.
* * *
The Dominican Republic is a country rabid about baseball. At most every corner shop you'll find a group of men sitting and debating the game. At night, when games are shown on television, and the men huddle around a tiny set at the shop, these debates are often fueled by beer.
When Jimenez was home during the offseason and needed to pick something up at the local store, he'd often be confronted by these drunken men, who had ideas about what he needed to do to be successful again.
"They think they're like scouts," Jimenez said.
Jimenez found no shortage of people willing to give advice. Even when he only wanted to escape his problems, Jimenez was confronted by suggestions.
"People always think they know more than you," Jimenez said. "Sometimes you wish you could stop being polite and tell people, 'I'm the one who is the professional pitcher.' But I'd just nod and say thank you. Friends, family all think they know more than you."
The situation had become so dire that sometimes Jimenez even considered taking the advice, regardless of from where it came. He was desperate.
Cleveland's hiring of Terry Francona as manager became a blessing. New pitching coach Mickey Callaway made a it a priority to fix Jimenez. Shortly after being hired, Francona and Callaway took a trip to the Dominican and met with Jimenez.
"It was just to get to know him in the offseason and to really establish a relationship and to get to know the person," Callaway said. "When I watch his film, he does a lot of great things. We're not trying to change him."
In his two years of struggles, Jimenez had tried every drill imaginable. He had watched hours and hours of video. He had used a towel in place of a ball to replicate his old delivery. He would do drills in front of a mirror.
"Everything you can think of, I've done it," Jimenez said.
But Callaway knew that Jimenez's problems were more mental than physical. He would have to reshape his pitcher's way of thinking. He had to make Jimenez believe that he was as good as he once was. He had to make sure that every time Jimenez stepped on the mound, he believed he was capable of getting the man out who stood in the batter's box.
Jimenez's aura of invincibility had been shattered. He needed to regain it.
The goal would be to make Jimenez stop thinking too much when he was on the mound. It sounded like a cliché, but it was true.
Callaway asked Jimenez to remember everything about that 2010 season: the meals he ate, the routines he had, the games when he dominated. Jimenez recalled that during that year he would throw two bullpen sessions in between starts. During the bullpen immediately following his start, Jimenez would throw for a long time. During the bullpen just prior to his start, Jimenez would only throw for a short time. It was a balance that kept his arm and his mechanics in good shape.
Jimenez has started throwing two bullpens again this spring.
Callaway also advised Jimenez to speed up his delivery. Quicker movements meant less time to think. Jimenez would end up trying to throw like his idol Pedro Martinez, after all.
During spring training Jimenez also found kinship with Scott Kazmir, the former prized Mets and Rays prospect who similarly had lost his way, and who had been trying to make the Indians as a minor league invitee to spring training after a being out of baseball. The two often talked about the difficulties of trying to cope with such a mental breakdown.
"You just have to find yourself again, find stuff that feels natural," said Kazmir, who was named Cleveland's fifth starter at the end of spring training. "Stuff you never thought about before. You didn't think about it. You were just doing it. It breaks you down when you're not able to do the stuff you've been doing your whole life."
Kazmir suggested that Jimenez find something about his delivery that felt comfortable and familiar. Jimenez wouldn't be able to fix everything all at once. It would happen in several steps, one after the other. The confidence would only return once Jimenez found a routine.
That's the funny thing about confidence. You can't fake it. You have to truly believe you can succeed.
Jimenez very badly wants to succeed. He just doesn't know quite yet whether he will. But he believes he's getting close.
"These last couple of years have been heartbreaking for me," Jimenez said. "A lot of disillusionment. They brought me to this team with the hope that I could help them reach the playoffs. In the past two years, I haven't shown them anything. God willing, this will be the year. The results are starting to be there. I can throw strikes. I'm attacking the zone. No matter what count, I have confidence that I can throw strikes."
Jimenez's moments on the mound are enjoyable again. He's happy to be playing baseball. But spring training was only the first step. Will Jimenez find comfort again when the season starts and the pressure mounts? When he steps on that mound for the first time on Wednesday, which Jimenez will he be?
* * *
Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's still looking for a Mexican restaurant in New York City that's as good as something from his hometowns of Tijuana/San Diego. He doesn't think he'll find one.