Wie sagt man ‘Raccoon Summer’ auf Deutsch? PART II
As the summer continued, we found our groove and I repeatedly found my zone on the mound. Since my elbow injury in 2015, I have rarely felt comfortable on a pitching mound. That changed this summer. In contrast, I felt very out of place in day to day life here in Germany (despite a welcoming community). It’s guaranteed to happen when you go to a foreign land where you don’t know the language, meet tons of new people, and have to learn all about a new place. The pitching mound and throwing a baseball were the one constants I could take comfort in. I felt comfortable on the baseball field in general, but on the mound was where it really had a deep significance. Particularly because of how uncomfortable I’ve felt on the mound in my career, how far I’ve come with my pitching, and how it becomes a meditation for me.
I remember my very first outing for the Raccoons vividly. How could I not? It was our first regular season game and we started off a little shaky in front of our home crowd. Players were noticeably nervous. Despite a handful of horrendous errors in the first couple of innings, we managed to climb out to a sizeable lead after four innings. Then, all heaven broke loose. Our 16 to 6 lead quickly evaporated. Our starter gave up a few runs, then our first reliever failed to record an out, our 2nd reliever failed to record an out as well, and I got called on unexpectedly to put out the raging blaze. There was some confusion about warm-up pitches. I asked my coach if I could take as many as I wanted and he said ‘Yes’, but clearly he misunderstood the question. After five pretty light tosses to the catcher to warm my arm up, the umpire tells me ‘Three more!’. My mind starts racing. This is not the way my season was supposed to begin for the Raccoons. Come into a game on the mound from the outfield, bases loaded, one out, score 16 to 15, and now I’ve completely wasted my warmup pitches? I tentatively ramped up the intensity of my final three warm-up throws. Here goes nothing.
I walk the first batter to let in a run. The ball feels slimy in my hand. I try to focus in on my breath, yet my tumultuous emotions from being suddenly shoved onto the pitching mound are getting the best of me. Score is tied, 16 to 16 now. Chaos still reigns. In situations like that, thoughts flood your mind, you become out of tune with your body, everything locks up, tightens, and performance drastically suffers. Even with my mindfulness superpower, the situation was proving to be too big for me, too great of a challenge. I throw two balls to start the next batter off, getting down 2-0. Yet, it’s the moments with your back up against the wall where you truly see what you’re made of. Competitors fight. I was going to grit it out no matter what happened. I strike that batter and that next one out to end the inning. Mischief managed.
Between innings, I went through parts of my actual warm-up routine to calm myself down and get myself ready to pitch the next inning like my regular self. Some deep breathing, calisthenics, arm care exercises, and some throwing drills. My body and mind settled down. I went out and absolutely shoved for the next two innings. Six up, six down, five strikeouts. With the other team’s momentum brutally stopped, our bats woke up to finish the job. We score 10 runs over the final two frames to win 26-16 in a mercy rule after seven innings. I felt like a hero. Not because of the results. Because I was on the brink of disaster when I walked the first batter and got down 2-0 to the 2nd, the baseball gods had thrown me off the face of a cliff. I could have plummeted to my demise, but instead, I rose back up. I overcame. I conquered. I regathered myself to get out of a jam and then kept improving over the rest of the game. The positive feelings were immense after that game.
I was only allowed to pitch three innings per game because of league rules for foreign players. This ended up being a good thing for the sake of our other pitchers and for the dignity of the other teams. I was unstoppable on the mound. I kept up with my throwing drills from the baseball ranch and added in some medicine ball work in an effort to increase my pitching velocity. Though the results were not immediate, a liberating experience happened on August 23rd. I was at the Witten baseball club’s field (a super nice one by the way, especially for Germany!) getting a workout in before coaching the club’s softball team like I did pretty much every Wednesday this summer. I did my medicine ball throws and was going through some throwing drills when I member of the club brought out a tripod radar gun they had. It was a righteously pleasant surprise to have this radar gun appear out of nowhere. The member of the club told me it had been used for traffic and now they use it occasionally for baseball. I was overwhelmingly skeptical of it. I changed the setting from kilometers per hour to good ole’ MPH and got ready to give it a skeptical go off the mound.
I placed the gun on its tripod directly behind the screen I was throwing into, about 10 meters away from the pitching mound. I started with my weighted balls, throwing a 7, 5, and 3.5 oz ball to see what kind of readings came up. The numbers were very reasonable, showing that I could throw the 3.5 faster than 5, and 5 faster than 7. Since the numbers seemed reasonable, I decided to scrap the rest of my throwing drills and ramp up to get a max effort reading. I threw a couple pitches at game intensity, hard, but in control. 83, 84. My eyes widened. This is what I was throwing before I hurt my elbow back in 2015! I crank it up a notch. 86. Adrenaline started to flow. A couple more 86s. Then, boom, 87. This matched the fastest I have ever pitched a baseball on a mound. I knew I had more in me. A few more 87s. I was beginning to tire and reached down deep into myself. 88. I yelled up to the heavens in exuberance. Loving how it feels when I break the chains. I threw a few more 87s and then called it a day. I set a new personal best and that is what life is all about.
In September 2014 I threw a single pitch at 87mph. I only did that one time. Almost three years later I finally returned to that level and even went beyond it. I can’t fully describe what going through that journey feels like (rehabbing, descent, and exaltation). It has been a rite of passage. A hero’s journey. It gives me 100% certainty that I will pitch 90 mph like I set out to do all along. Though velocity was the original pitching goal I set back in the Chamber of Greatness, throughout my season with the Raccoons I focused more on improving my pitching command. While blowing fastballs by hitters is certainly a boost to one’s ego, I was concerned about my strike %, preventing free passes, and hitting spots. After walking 50 batters in 42 innings in Melbourne, I only walked 6 batters in 17 2/3 innings here in Ennepetal! That was my biggest accomplishment of the summer, especially because of the sporadic schedule of my outings, often going multiple weeks between appearances on the mound. I understand that 17 2/3 innings is a small sample size and the quality of hitters here was not very high, however, I still achieved a hugely significant victory. I kept setting higher personal standards and kept on reaching them. I made significant strides in my development as a real pitcher, an artist on the mound, changing eye levels, working both sides of the plate, keeping hitters guessing, uncomfortable, becoming a skillful warrior on the bump. My final season statistics at the bottom speak for itself.
The whole season was a crescendo. I kept pitching better and better. We played better and better. Each game was more fun than the last. In our final four games, we outscored our opponents a whopping 78 to 3. As with all teams, it’s fascinating to witness the development of chemistry and general vibe over the course of a season. Ours was remarkable. The differences in overall feelings of confidence and looseness were visible. I can only hope that the club plays with the same confidence and swagger next summer. I know I will be enthusiastically rooting for them, immer dankbar für meinen Sommer als Raccoon.
Pitching Game Log:
I started our final game on the mound and it proceeded as planned. We put up some runs and I held our opponent scoreless over the first two innings. I wasn’t pitching up to my potential and our team wasn’t playing up to ours either. I wasn’t in a flow state. Our defense made a couple errors behind me and I was making mistakes with my pitches. I gave up a hit, walked a batter, and ended both innings by stranding a runner in scoring position, which gave the other team some hope. Then, in the third, I made an adjustment. I made a slight change with the timing of my pitching motion and my pitches started barraging the strike zone like heat-seeking missiles. I struck out the first two batters of the inning in dominating fashion, giving me seven strikeouts in my first eight outs. My teammates started yelling “Übermensch!“ from the bench. I had entered the flow state. I spotted two strikes to the final batter, missed another by a couple inches, and then prepared to unleash a devastating curveball as our catcher put down the 2. I would strike out the side, recording eight strikeouts in three innings, and end my Raccoon season like a superhero. Adrenaline courses through my veins and I get too hyped for the pitch, out of the flow state where intensity is gently directly towards the Process with full engagement. I momentarily begin to focus on the result. The punch out. I start my motion and it is rushed. Too much-unguided energy. I release the ball too soon, it’s awkward, and I feel a sudden twinge in my left elbow…