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Archive for March 1st, 2011

“Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical,” Yogi Berra once observed. Although that confusing statement usually draws a chuckle when repeated, those who play the game understand exactly what it means. More than any other major team sport, baseball is a game played as much with the mind as the muscle. Not only do the many split second decisions require intense mental preparation, but the psychological toll of the long season, with all of its failure, must be maddening. After all, the very best baseball players fail more often than not, and what’s worse, their shortcomings are spotlighted by the individual nature of the game.

Harvey Dorfman spent almost 30 years trying to unlock the mental side of baseball.

If any sport benefits from the use of psychology, it’s baseball. And, if Yogi Berra wasn’t the game’s first psychologist, that distinction certainly belongs to Harvey Dorfman, who passed away on Monday at the age of 75.

In 1984, Dorfman became the first full-time counselor employed by a major league baseball team when the Oakland Athletics hired him to “coach” young players identified as having trouble focusing. At the time of his hiring, Dorfman actually sounded a lot like Yogi. “Ask any coach and he says 80 percent of the game is mental…but yet they have never had anyone working full-time on that part of the game,” he reasoned. Based on that sound logic, a new component of player development was born.

Dorfman, who studied psychology in college but had previously been employed as a baseball columnist and school teacher in Vermont, first started working with the Athletics’ minor league teams, including the Albany-Colonie affiliate, which won 25 of the first 40 games played during his consultation and coasted to the Eastern League regular season title. By the next spring training, Dorfman was working with the big club, a relationship he maintained over the next 10 years.

After his tenure in Oakland, Dorfman continued a long and successful career in baseball, including three years on staff with the Marlins. One product of his time in Florida was Al Leiter, who completely turned around his career upon joining the Marlins in 1996. Yankees’ fans watching on YES should be very familiar with this case study. One of the most repeated phrases uttered by Leiter when serving as an analyst is the need for a pitcher “to visualize and execute a pitch”. That’s Harvey Dorfman.

He told me to stop making excuses for bad outings. Nobody cares. Just get out there and get it done. He’s one of the main reasons why I was able to pitch for another 12 years after I got hurt.” – Al Leiter, speaking about Harvey Dorfman, Newsday, April 9, 2010

In order to crack into the big leagues, Dorfman needed a benefactor with roots in the game. Considering the macho culture of major league baseball, the stigma of “counseling” was a significant obstacle to overcome. All it took, however, was for someone to make the connection between counseling and improved performance. That man turned out to be career minor leaguer and former Expos manager Karl Kuehl. (more…)

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