The Sasser Syndrome

by Jeff Shames

"Jeez, Sasser, can't you throw the ball back to the damn pitcher? That's the easiest part of your ______ job."

I am at Shea Stadium watching a Mets game. A fellow fan, well oiled by beer and other substances, is berating Mets catcher Mackey Sasser. In recent years Sasser has had difficulty throwing the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. The fan is correct: For a major league catcher, returning the ball to the pitcher should be routine.

As a man who stutters, however, I know how challenging a seemingly routine task can be.

The fan's remark reminds me of an incident nearly 20 years ago, in junior high school. One day, after I had had difficulty speaking in class, a classmate derided me, "Can't you even talk?"

Can't you even throw the ball? Can't you even talk? We live in a society where it is assumed all problems, physical to financial, can be corrected through sheer willpower if one has sufficient motivation. The problem is that you can try too hard.

The root of Sasser's problem and mine is that we think too much about performing an ordinary chore. Mackey must know as he holds the ball after a pitch that all eyes are on him. Returning the ball should be an immediately performable task. When he can't, he becomes more self-conscious, which in turn makes it even more difficult. The game cannot go on until the pitcher gets the ball back. The other players in the field are less alert if the game is delayed. Baserunners can advance.

Similarly, I stutter when I think too much about the act of speaking. My vocal cords and neck muscles tense up, and it becomes difficult to breathe. I want so much to get the words out, but the harder I try the more difficult it becomes.

Most ordinary speaking situations make me nervous, from the flutter I feel when answering the telephone, purchasing train tickets or ordering food in a restaurant to the terror that erupted within me while waiting to recite in school.

I began stuttering at the age of 7; I don't know why. I have tried a variety of therapies, all of which have helped some in the short term, none of which has given me a permanent solution. There is no physiological reason for it, as far as I know. Most stutterers have coping mechanisms, which may help at one time but later tend only to exacerbate the issue. In my case, I close my eyes, swallow before speaking, or repeat the previous word once or twice before trying again.

And "all Mackey Sasser has to do" is not think about throwing since at other times he is able to throw a baseball on the field easily and well.

Sasser "copes" by taking a few steps toward the pitcher's mound or pumping the ball a few times before throwing. But this has only made the problem worse, since it hinders the pitcher's concentration, or may allow baserunners an advantage.

Sasser has been ridiculed not only by fans, but also by his own teammates and even some umpires. At times when I have stuttered, sales clerks smirked, or people told me to "hurry up" or demanded, "Did you forget what you were going to say?"

Though I stutter sometimes, I carry on with my life. I try to let it affect me as little as possible. I want people to be patient; I will get the words out eventually. Patience, though, is not always exercised in a fast-paced society that tends to reward glibness before substance.

In all other respects Mackey Sasser is a decent catcher. He is a very good hitter, and has been used at first base and in the outfield. As spring training progresses, he's been told these are the roles he'll fill this year since the Mets now have rookie catcher Todd Hundley.

All of us have difficulties in daily life. Sasser's and mine are just a little more obvious. We do what we can, even if it's not as quickly as come would like.

The above appeared in New York Newsday, Monday, March 9, 1992 and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

added April 19, 1998