WHEN I MADE THOSE FOUR ERRORS in a game against the Baltimore Orioles (playing third base for the Mariners in a game on May 6, 1990), I was at a critical point in my career, and as I said, it shook me. After years of kicking around the minors, and yo-yoing up and down between Triple-A and the majors, I finally had a chance to stick with the Mariners for good that year. Jim Presley had been traded, Darnell Coles had been moved to the outfield early in the season. The third base job was mine. This is what I had been striving for and yearning for, all these years. So not only was a game like that embarrassing, but I feared that it might cause the Mariners to give up on me once and for all.
They didn’t, of course. Instead, it turned out to be a critical turning point in which I learned how vital the mind is to success in baseball. And beyond that, it was when I learned how to harness the power of the mind and put it to work for you in a positive way, rather than letting negativity and doubt fester and bring you down.
Because that’s exactly what I was doing. I had always been a guy who wanted the ball hit to him, because I knew I was going to make the play. I had that kind of confidence. But after that game, that feeling totally flipped. The errors played with my mind. I realized that I began to see myself making an error before the ball was hit to me. That would be the first thought that came into my head. You can’t play baseball that way — it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I learned through time and study that the mind does that to protect us. But for performance, it’s not good.
That’s when I realized I had the same tendency on offense. If I had a bad stretch of games, now I would see myself making outs. If I struck out two times in a game, before I got to the plate the next time, I would see myself striking out again. That’s the first thing that came to my mind. No doubt it was holding back my career, especially with the pressure I was feeling to play well so I could finally hold on to the third-base job.
I said to myself, I can’t play the game like this. I will have zero success if I keep doing this. I went to a bookstore — I can’t remember whether it was in Seattle or on the road — and found the self-help section. I picked up a small book, really more like a pamphlet, that dealt with the mind. I can’t even remember the name of the book, or the author. I carried it with me for a while, but it disappeared in one of our family’s moves. Yet this little book had a profound effect on my career. It changed the way I approached baseball, changed my preparation, and ultimately, changed my results. I learned how to erase the negative image with a positive one.
The book taught me how the subconscious and conscious mind worked. When I had a negative event — whether I struck out three times or I made an error or we lost a game — I learned that this failure would have a negative effect on my confidence. Of course, I knew that intuitively, but this book helped me make sense of it. I learned that the next time I went to the plate, or took the field, my subconscious mind would bring that event back to the surface, and I would feel very low confidence in myself. I learned there were exercises I could do, such as repeating the opposite result over and over and over again, that would start changing that negative image in my mind. For example, if I struck out, before I went home I would visualize myself hitting the ball in the gap. Or I would say in my head, over and over, “I hit the ball really well.”
All these exercises helped, little by little, to bring my confidence back. I would repeat these mantras on my way home, before I went to bed, and when I got up in the morning. In my mind, I would see myself getting hits. I took that book on road trips with me, studied it on the airplane or in the hotel room, until I had it down. When you learn how to do these exercises, you can master it. It helped me immensely on days I struggled. It helped get me out of slumps sooner. It helped me handle the stress and pressure of big moments in ball games.
Very quickly, it became a part of my routine. Throughout my career, I worked on my mind just as much as I worked on my hitting. When I changed my thought to something positive, I would feel a positive energy. If I woke up tired, I’d have to say, “I feel good, I feel good.” And the energy would come, and I’d feel better. You might call it tricking my mind, but it worked for me. I got interested in reading and searching for more. When I’d find pieces I thought were helpful, I’d store it away. Eventually, I didn’t need the pamphlet anymore. But I kept studying the subject, kept searching for any books I could get my hands on that dealt with mental preparation.
In the minor leagues, we were given a book about mental training, and it had some good information, too. I had a lot of talks with Gary Mack, the Mariners’ sports psychology consultant, who had written a book on the topic called Mind Gym. Sadly, Gary died in 2002. When the internet came around, I would search topics I felt would help me, like goal-setting, visualization, affirmation, controlling my self-talk, resiliency, awareness. I’d pore over the articles I found. In fact, I still do.
Once you learn the basics, it’s practice, practice, practice. Eventually, I focused on affirmations, visualization, and self-talk — the inner voice. They worked for me. When I first came to the big leagues, I knew I had the skill to succeed. But I didn’t feel I was performing to my capabilities, and it was very frustrating. I’d know the pitcher was going to throw the fastball, and he’d throw the fastball, and I’d take it. I wouldn’t swing, even though I knew I should have ripped that pitch. I knew I was a good fielder, and I’d make an error. I wasn’t as confident as I had been in the past. That’s why I sought help.
I saw and felt improvement right away, within days. But I would still catch myself occasionally with a negative idea in my mind. It took me a little time to stop that. Seeing the clear picture of what I wanted, that took me a little time. Feeling the right emotion of confidence took me a little time and a lot of practice. Believing that this really helped me, also took me a little time. But when I started seeing consistent results, I hung onto it and kept practicing that technique over and over. I became convinced I was on the right track.
Eventually, I noticed that when I failed, I didn’t feel the same frustration and doubt as when I struggled during that earlier period. It was a different feeling. I felt confident I was going to get out of it. That in itself gave me confidence. Even if I struggled, I said, “I’m going to get out of it. I know how to come out of it.” It’s amazing how powerful the mind is. I’ve always believed if players practiced this kind of mental training, it would be extremely beneficial. I’ve seen some quotes about it from Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two of the best basketball players in history. Kobe is mostly in tune with mindfulness, which is a way of focusing on how to use your senses to stay in the present. So there are some players, great players, who are aware of the importance. But there are still so many players who are not maximizing their mental potential.
One part of my game that I really took pride in was my batting eye — even though, as I discussed, I had to work so hard to control the eye condition I had, strabismus. The success I had in that regard, the .418 career on-base percentage — I credit my mind for that, too, in a way, because I became conditioned to study to overcome my deficiencies. I obsessed on learning how a guy pitches, his tendencies, and how his catcher calls the game. I had to do that.
If I didn’t visualize a fastball in my mind first, I didn’t know the velocity, I didn’t know the movement. I struggled with it. But if I see the fastball first in my mind before I’m going to swing, I have a better chance to connect. The same way, if I see in my mind the breaking ball—the shape, the velocity—I have a better chance to hit it. It was almost like I saw the pitch before it was thrown. I believe my mind helped me see better. Before, when I didn’t know what was coming, and it was a breaking ball, I would lose sight of it. I knew, “Okay, that’s my condition.” But because my mind wasn’t connected, it wasn’t helping me see it.
Thinking back, I realize now that I actually started using visualization when I was 10 or 11 back in Puerto Rico. I would go in the backyard after watching Roberto Clemente play in the World Series in 1971. I would get a broomstick and just hit rocks. I was playing out in my mind that I was in a stadium full of people, and I was coming up in a big situation, and I would get the winning hit — a double or home run.
All this visualization I was doing for years as a kid, it did a few things for me. One, it developed my hand-eye coordination, so when I started playing Little League, I already had that ability. It made it easier for me to adapt to the game very quickly.
But the other thing it did, it developed in my mind that I saw myself doing well. When I was hitting rocks, I was always triumphing. Unconsciously, it built my confidence. I was seeing myself as one day being a major-league ballplayer and having success. To me, it was very amazing that many years later I was able to play in the big leagues and do well. Not only that, but out of Puerto Rico, only two players have won batting titles. Roberto Clemente won four, and I won two. After I retired, they gave me the Roberto Clemente Award, one of the greatest honors of my life.
In our sport, we fail so often, it’s very easy to get negative. I had this constant battle with myself to change any negative thought and turn it into positive. And if I hit a bloop single, a ball I mis-hit that somehow dropped in safely, or a well-placed dribbler that accidentally became an infield hit? That was positive, too. Very positive. Those are savers. When you don’t feel the swing is that great, bloop singles are great. It gets you back on track.
I grew to feel very comfortable in pressure situations. Again, the tendency of the mind is to flash on what could go wrong. What I used to do was simply focus on what I wanted to do in that situation. That is something really hard to master. The mind has a tendency to go back and forth. For example, if there’s man on third base and it’s a big run, it’s very easy for me to say, “I don’t want to hit a ground ball to third base.” If I do that, I’m concentrating on the negative. And more often than not, that’s what I’m going to do — hit a grounder to third, and the run doesn’t score. If I eliminate those thoughts, and concentrate only on, “I’m going to hit this ball up the middle,” and focus on that, I have a higher percentage chance of achieving that goal.
The key in that situation is to not focus on what you don’t want to do, but on what you want to do. The more you master that, the more consistent you’re going to be.
For me, all my mental preparation came together in the biggest at-bat of my career, at the most pressure-packed moment I would ever face, in Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees in 1995.
To recap, we were down 5–4 in the 11th inning, with runners on first and third, and Jack McDowell on the mound for the Yankees. If we lost, our magical season would be over. In my previous at-bat in the ninth inning, I struck out on a split-fingered fastball against McDowell when a hit could have won the game. I came to the dugout, and obviously I was very disappointed about it. Norm Charlton, our relief pitcher, told me not to worry, I was going to be up again in a big situation. I was preparing myself for that moment. As a DH, I had plenty of time to do that, because I don’t go out on the field to play defense. I went through a series of visualization exercises mentally, and I stayed very positive.
One thing I knew, McDowell was going to try to get me out with the split-fingered pitch again. He had struck me out with that. He wasn’t throwing hard, like he used to in his prime. His fastball wasn’t that fast anymore. The split was his out pitch. When I came up in the 11th, the crowd at the Kingdome was going crazy. It was bedlam, but I felt calm. I took a fastball for a strike, but I didn’t care. I knew I was going to get split, split, split. I knew it with all my heart. That’s what those mental exercises did — took out the doubt. Once I saw the fastball on the first pitch, I knew he was going to throw the split. It gave me that confidence.
That was my mental process. I did the visualization, and I saw myself hitting the ball hard. I envisioned the shape and texture of his split-fingered pitch. What I actually wanted to think in that moment was hitting the ball solid. It wasn’t “hit the ball hard.” That’s different. When you say, “hit the ball hard,” you swing harder. You overswing. But when you say, “hit the ball solid,” you actually quiet everything down so you can make solid contact. That’s what I was trying to keep in my mind: just hit the ball solid somewhere. I was able to not overswing. I tried to make it simple.
And, of course, I got the split, just as I knew I would, and I hit a double into the left-field corner that scored both runs. We won the game and won the series. It’s the at-bat that defined my career, but in a weird way, I felt like I had already experienced it. Because in my mind, I had.
I believe my mental preparation, dating back to that little pamphlet I picked up at the bookstore, dating back even farther to hitting rocks in the backyard when I was 10 or 11 and pretending I was Roberto Clemente in the World Series, had led me directly to that moment. It’s a very powerful feeling to be clearheaded and positive in the tensest situations. As an athlete, we practice mechanics, we practice training our bodies, all these things that require a lot of discipline. But the mental side is hugely important, too. There are tools and exercises we can use to train the mind, and they all came together for me in the 11th inning that day.
I honestly believe that the epiphany I had, that I needed to train my mind, was a major part of my success. Because the game is confidence. We as players have the talent. That’s why we made it to the big leagues. But how we use those skills, it’s all in the head. When you have the image in your mind that you see yourself succeeding, the game becomes easy, like you’re a kid playing in the backyard. When you see yourself not performing and making mistakes and striking out, it becomes the toughest game in the world to play.
It’s how you switch from those negative images to the positive ones that makes all the difference in the world. That takes work and practice. But it’s what makes great players great.