Mound Talk
By Maxwell A. Quinn

In 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fydrich took the American League by storm, compiling 19 wins and a 2.34 ERA for the woeful Detroit Tigers, and claiming the Rookie of the Year award. It wasn’t just his ability that captured the nation’s attention – it was what he would do while on the mound.

Not only would Fydrich run out to a teammate’s position to congratulate him after a great play, he had a particularly interesting habit.

He talked to the ball.

He would tell the ball where to go. He would hold it up to his mouth, speak directly to it, and tell it to “go inside”, or “make sure you stay down with this guy.”

27 years later, Jeremy Affeldt of the Kansas City Royals takes the mound, a pitcher with as much potential as Fydrich - before Fydrich wore out his arm.

Affedlt talks on the mound as well – but not to the ball, nor to himself, nor to anyone who can be seen.

Drafted in the third round by the Kansas City Royals out of Northwest Christian High School, Affeldt considers himself a late bloomer. “I was real skinny,” he says. “I weighed about 175. I threw hard, but didn’t have a clue where it was going.”

A forkball that was part of his arsenal of pitches had to be abandoned. There was too much stress on the arm. A curve ball Affeldt considered to be good deserted him. He was left with nothing but a fastball, and he was getting rocked.

It was three years, and Affeldt was still not out of A ball. In fact, he set a record for losses in ’99, going 5-15, although his run support was miniscule, and his team was shut-out eight times.

Still not able to throw his curve for a strike, Affeldt was sent to the instructional league, where he ptiched every seven days. The Royals staff broke down his curve ball. “It was so detailed. My body was flying open. They made some changes with my mechanics and paid attention to my release point.”

That’s when his career began to take off. Placed on the 40 man roster, Affeldt was sent to AA, where he had a great year, making three all-star teams and winning 10 games.

Not only were his mechanics different, his attitude was as well. He was learning how to pitch.

“I pay attention to who I’m facing and what I throw to them. I don’t want to throw the ball 94 mph right over the plate. Sometimes, your stuff is so good and you’re in such a zone, you can just throw. Sometimes you need to learn to pitch.”

Learning to pitch is what crafts raw talent into art. A hard-throwing lefty, Affeldt has always had the arm to pitch successfully in the majors. Now he’s learning the mental aspect of the game as well.

“Lots of times I’ll throw a hitter a pitch he wants, and he’ll swing,” Affeldt says. “Now I’ve seen his swing. I know where he likes it, and I’ll pitch away from his swing. And there are times when he thinks I’m not going to give him a pitch he likes, but I do, and get him out. Then he’s frustrated.”

Ironcially, it’s when Affeldt doesn’t have his best command that he actually learns the most about pitching.

“The days when you’re not getting it in the zone are tough. You have to stay with your pitches, even if they’re not working. You can’t give up. You have to stay with it and know that even if your stuff is not there in the beginning of the game, you’re going to figure it out. As the innings go by, your mechanics click in, and you really start painting (the corners).

“When you have to pitch instead of just throw, you learn. If someone goes out there and always has success, they don’t learn. When you have to pitch through difficult innings, that’s when you learn things – about yourself.”

And that’s when those conversations on the mound become even more intense.

When Affeldt is on the mound, talking, the One he’s talking to is God.

“People have asked me why I talk to myself on the mound. I’m not. I’m talking to God. Through the course of a game I have a running conversation with God. I don’t remember always what we talked about. I get caught up in my own little world out there.

“To sing in church is fun, but to use the ability He gave you to honor Him – that’s the best way I know to worship.

“Being on the mound is my way of worship. I feel His pleasure and presence on the mound. When I am on the mound, it becomes a sanctified day – a day set aside for worship.”

It was in A ball, in Wilmington, Delaware, when Affeldt, frustrated came to a crossroads. He came to grips with God, and gave up his career. He hadn’t made the progress he had wanted to, and it was getting to him. “I said to God, ‘Things haven’t gone my way. I don’t like worrying about my career. So I’ll give it up. You do want You want with my career.’”

There was no sudden upswing in Affeldt’s career. In fact, the next season was the year he set the record for most losses. But things were beginning to change inside. The seeds of peace had been planted and were growing.

The next year, Affeldt went to spring training, and his new attitude was obvious. “I prayed that God would give me a supernatural peace, determination and the focus necessary to do my job. The whole spring training I had a ridiculous peace.

“I lean even more on God. Baseball can be taken from me, because if I’m not having fun with God I’m not in the right place.

“I love Jesus more than anything in the world.”

Sounds like those mound conversations are divine.