The Royals said all the right things a year ago.
By PETE GRATHOFF
The Kansas City Star
At spring training, the team acknowledged that its defense had been awful the season before, and manager Trey Hillman and players promised that 2010 would be better.
Then came opening day.
In the first inning, the Tigers had two on with two outs when Carlos Guillen hit a pop-up that climbed high into the spring sky. All of the Royals’ infielders drifted toward the center of the diamond, but no one got into position to actually, you know, catch the ball.
At the last moment, third baseman Willie Bloomquist dived, but the ball caromed off his glove as he fell on the pitcher’s mound, allowing a run to score.
Royals fans everywhere shook their heads.
By season’s end, the Royals were last in the American League in fielding percentage and finished last in the AL Central standings. Again.
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Of course, one dropped pop-up does not a season spoil. The bullpen imploded in that loss to the Tigers, and relief woes plagued the team all year.
These are the things that happen to teams that struggle to shake off their losing ways.
Ah, but it is curable, as the psychologist says in the movie, “The Natural.”
It is possible to be successful without letting the mental stigma of past failures get in the way.
Real-life sports psychologist Chris Carr says players can’t let the memory of, say, a dropped ball on opening day linger.
“That’s an example of how social psychology theory fits into sports,” said Carr, who is with St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis. “In that moment, it was an error on the infield. You will watch that happen throughout the major-league season, it will get on ESPN highlights, it will happen more than once. But in that moment, because it happened in that game to that team, the attribution is, ‘Here we go again.’
“If the players buy into that, if the staff buys into that, there’s a risk of it repeating itself. It’s different than a ballplayer’s ability to let go and manage it.”
Mistakes happen. The Phillies’ Roy Halladay allowed 24 home runs last season, while the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols struck out 76 times a year ago.
Successful players, Carr said, have the ability to put one bad game, pitch, at-bat or fielding play behind them.
“Resilient people really utilize mental training as part of their preparation,” Carr said, “part of how they deal with a setback.”
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There have been plenty of setbacks through the years.
The Royals have one winning season since 1994, have lost 100 games four times since the turn of the century, and have 10 seasons of 90 losses or more in the last 14 years. They’ve become the butt of jokes on “The Simpsons” and “30 Rock.”
Today, fans are pinning their hopes on a new crop of players who make up the best minor-league system in the game, according to Baseball America.
But the fear is that the losing culture may infect those stars in waiting.
“The risk would be if a player worries too much or carries too much pressure based on the past performance of the organization,” said Carr, whose title is sport and performance psychologist and coordinator. “The risk you have is a player who puts on a uniform that says they’ve not been very good, so the expectation is not high, or the player who puts the uniform on and says, ‘I have to turn this thing around myself,’ which can then create additional distractions. That’s the challenge of sports at any level.”
Carr believes it will be important for manager Ned Yost and his staff to keep those potential stars focused on what they do well and not on what the Royals have done lately.
If that happens, maybe fans will see more seasons like 2003, when the Royals inexplicably made a run for the AL Central title.
Carr was the team psychologist for the Royals that year as part of his six-year tenure with the club. That season, the Royals won 11 of their first 12 games as part of a 16-3 start to the season.
While Carr doesn’t take any credit for that success (“I didn’t do anything different,” he said), he believes there are lessons to be learned from a team that wins.
“When an athlete is having success, it creates an opportunity for them to gain confidence and positive thoughts,” Carr said. “But I encourage them to focus on the ‘process’ variables (such as how they threw their change-up, or what they did to get comfortable at the plate) rather than the ‘outcome’ variables (wins or losses).
“If an athlete has success and creates their own process of evaluation of the ‘controllables,’ they can more likely repeat what they are doing (process-wise) … and hopefully that leads to further success.”
And maybe then, there won’t be any more dropped pop-ups on opening day.