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The only thing baseball players have to fear is … no fear itself

07.16.13 at 5:49 pm ET
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Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling did not shy from the fact that he was consumed by nerves prior to starts. (AP)

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling did not shy from the fact that he was consumed by nerves prior to starts. (AP)

Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 – with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on twitter @gabekapler.

“Are you nervous?” I ask my son Chase on the way to his football game.

“Yes,” he replies, anticipating my response.

“Good,” I say with a smile, which he immediately returns. Chase has heard my take on nerves repeatedly.

The conversation is not nearly as predictable with a Major League Baseball player.  Often times that player will roll his eyes as if to suggest, “C’mon, man? Me, nervous?” The answer may be different but more times than not, the true feeling of the player is the same as Chase’s was that day in the car.

Judging by the relaxation in his body and his tension-free countenance, I’d think that Robbie Cano could fall asleep at any second at the plate. How could he experience nerves? Countless other examples exist of men who take the field looking like they fear nothing. Most of them are good actors.

I was nervous before every MLB at bat; every Little League at-bat, for that matter. That’s why it drove me nuts when players that I conversed with told me they were not. I asked everyone, every teammate because I wanted not to be alone.

Some of the biggest stars on the brightest stages confirmed what I knew to be true. Curt Schilling was my favorite.

“Kap,” he said, “I get hives before my starts. I can’t sleep the night before because I’m so nervous.”

Schill’s anxiety put me at peace. I was in good company.

Earlier this month, David Price returned from a long stint on the DL. He dominated the Houston Astros for seven innings and told reporters following the game, “That’s probably the best I’ve felt on a baseball field maybe in my entire life.”

But David said something else that I found far more intriguing. He mentioned that his legs “didn’t stop shaking until I got back to the dugout after that first inning.” Refreshing honesty indeed.

On his current rehab assignment, Alex Rodriguez owned his excitement to be back on a baseball field again. That said, the stage is different while he is in the minors. He’s searching for a different level of adrenaline.

“I wish I was a little more nervous,” Rodriguez said.

And what about David Ortiz’s most recent rehab assignment? By all accounts he looked awful. Onlookers who saw him swing at everything wondered if he was ready for Major League at-bats. Boom, he immediately began raking upon his return to Boston under the brightest of lights.

Because there is a negative connotation in baseball with experiencing nerves, because nerves are associated with fear, machismo comes out and men will often attempt to hide the fact that they are indeed wrestling with the phenomenon. The instances like the examples I cited are often under-publicized for this reason; guys don’t want anyone to think that they experience fear.

I never wanted my sons to feel embarrassed or ashamed of being nervous. Accordingly, I shared with them the science behind nerves.

Some level of nervous stress can be quite useful. We don’t confront wild animals in our daily lives, but our ancestors did. And when they came into contact with that wooly mammoth or saber-toothed cat, their sympathetic nervous systems were activated, triggering the release of stress hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine.

When we encounter stressful situations in sports like a big at-bat or a fourth-and-goal, these hormones are released and the fear-induced, sense-heightening response of past epochs can be activated, setting off a plethora of delicious side effects.

We begin to experience increased energy and strength. Our heart rate and breathing rate speed up in an effort to provide more oxygenated blood to our muscles. Sugar is pumped into our blood streams so our brains and muscles can burn it easily and quickly. Obviously this is useful in a fight with an animal, but it’s a welcome result with a bat in our hands.

Sharper vision is also a helpful byproduct of this hormone release. I reckon Miggy Cabrera’s feeling pretty nervous these days.

Experiencing less pain is perhaps the most exciting reason to be nervous. During the fear response, the body dulls our perception of pain. Ever wonder how a guy plays with a broken rib or a pitcher goes seven with a slightly torn labrum? Maybe the answer is nerves.

In 2005, I went to Japan to play after our World Series Championship run in 2004 in Boston. I had an itch that I had to scratch and I fell on my face. I absolutely sucked for two months before returning to the Red Sox mid-summer.

I can recall a conversation with my close friend Chris, who was making fun of me for performing so miserably. He asked me why I was so bad. I said, “Chris, I’m not nervous. I don’t know what it is but I can’t manufacture the adrenaline I need. My heart isn’t beating in the batter’s box.”

Maybe the excitement of 2004 coupled with the language barrier in Japan led to poor game performance. Ultimately, the responsibility fell squarely on my shoulders. But I attribute at least a portion of my crappiness to a lack of stress. I couldn’t feel what was on the line and therefore I wasn’t nervous.

Because we are human, most of us experience nerves. In some ways, they can be directly responsible for good performance in stressful situations.

That’s not to say that all players respond the same way. There is a fine line between those who encounter the same stressful situations as a challenge as opposed to a threat, with some evidence that there are distinct physiological reactions that can impact a player’s performance depending on the kind of emotional response an athlete has to the stresses of games.

Still, elite performers learn to channel heightened senses to their benefit. Many of them, in fact, can’t function without some kind of stress — real or manufactured — to sharpen their performance.

So the next time you hear a player say he wasn’t nervous at all out there after going 3-for-4 with two doubles in his first MLB game, call B.S. on him. It’s okay, tough guy. We know that’s just your fear talking.

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