Originally published: May 21, 2010 9:48 PM
Updated: May 22, 2010 12:22 PM
By JIM BAUMBACH jim.baumbach@newsday.com

For Mackey Sasser, going through his famous throwing yips was frustrating enough. But dealing with the never-ending flow of random callers with solutions compounded a problem that began in 1989 and lasted for the rest of his nine-season career, which concluded in 1995.

The former Mets catcher knew everyone meant well, that all they wanted to do was help, but that didn’t make these strangers any less annoying. Many times, he said, he wished they’d all just go away.

That’s why when Sasser decided last week to pass along his phone number to Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia – the latest catcher dealing with this throwing issue – he did so without any expectations. “If he wants to talk to me,” he said, “I’d be more than glad to talk to him.” And if he doesn’t, well, Sasser understands.

Once a top catching prospect, Saltalamacchia is stuck at Triple-A these days, fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery but unable to complete the most routine of actions: the throw back to the pitcher.

Sasser said a friend who works in Major League Baseball who also knows Saltalamacchia recently called him, looking for advice to pass along.

This is not an unusual call for Sasser to receive. He said he gets several e-mails a week at his Wallace (Ala.) CC account – he’s been the baseball coach there for 14 years – from people who are afflicted with this same routine throwing problem. He said he always writes back with his phone number.

In Saltalamacchia’s case, Sasser also passed along the contact information for Dr. David Grand, a Bellmore-based psychotherapist whom Sasser credits for fixing his yips in 2003. By then he was eight years removed from his playing days, yet he still had problems when he threw batting practice to his players.

As a player, Sasser kept double- and triple-pumping when trying to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Oddly, he had no problem when it came to throwing the ball to the bases.

Grand, in a telephone interview, said he spent three hours with Sasser in person and followed up with a two-hour session by phone. He said he solved Sasser’s throwing problem by talking him through various traumatic events, most notably a collision at the plate in which he was blindsided by the runner.

“Everyone kept saying I had a phobia,” Sasser said. “I didn’t have a phobia. I just had a lot of things built up inside of me. They taught me how to release all of that and just let it go and live life like you can.”

Sasser’s only regret is that he didn’t hook up with Grand when he was a player. Looking back, he also believes he compounded the problem by putting pressure on himself to fix it. So if the call from Saltamacchia ever does come – it hadn’t as of Friday morning – Sasser said he would start by advising him to take a mental break from his throwing.

Saltalamacchia’s problem appeared to hit rock bottom in a Triple-A game May 11 when observers counted 12 throws bouncing in front of the pitcher or landing in centerfield. He has told reporters since then that to develop a routine, he now taps his glove twice before going through his throwing motion.

The Rangers declined a request to speak with Saltalamacchia. Grand refused to say whether he reached out to him, citing patient-client confidentiality issues.

The person who understands best what Saltamacchia is battling is Sasser, and he hates thinking that someone else might be feeling the same suffocating sensation he dealt with as he tried to fix his problem in the big leagues nearly two decades ago.

“You’ve got to be able to relax,” said Sasser, 47. “You’ve got to take it as just a game and it’s fun. I put so much pressure on myself that it wasn’t fun going to the ballpark. It’s just one of those things that somehow you have to figure out how to relax, take it out of your head and just play the game.”

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