San Francisco pitcher Barry Zito is 0-6, in the second year of a $126 million contract, and was just demoted to the bullpen. Could this be Steve Blass disease? Read Jason Plautz's account of other famous victims from last year.
It might not be as widespread as Lou Gehrig's ALS, but Steve Blass Disease has taken its fair share of victims. The disease, named after former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, refers to an athlete's sudden and inexplicable loss of ability. Blass got the unfortunate ignomy of having the disease bear his name after his career derailed when he lost the ability to pitch strikes. Until that point, he'd built quite a resume, acquiring 18- and 19-win seasons, making the All-Star team in 1972 and helping the Pirates win the 1971 World Series. Then, in 1973, the wheels came off. He tripled his ERA, walking 84 batters in 88 innings and striking out only 27. In short, he just couldn't pitch. He was sent to the minors in 1974 and, after a failed attempt to make a return, retired before the 1975 season, becoming a sales representative for a ring company.
What's remarkable about Blass' downfall is that there's no explanation. He didn't have any injury, there was no event that shattered his confidence. he just...stopped. The dreaded Steve Blass disease has struck plenty of other athletes, all without reason. The reigning theory is that it's all mental- one mistake leads the player to start overthinking a simple act, like kicking or throwing a ball. But can a simple brain fart stop an athlete's performance? Well, Yogi Berra did once reportedly say "Ninety percent of this game is half mental." However, baseball genius and sports psychology-non-believer Bill James would chalk up that explanation as a modern-day equivalent to witchcraft. There is, as of yet, no known cure, but I'm sure someone, somewhere, is trying to line up Jerry Lewis to host a telethon.
So, who else suffers from this tragic, tragic disease?
Other notable examples of Steve Blass disease:
Victim: Chuck Knoblauch
- Year of infliction: 1999
- Before Steve Blass: Star second-basemen for the Minnesota Twins before joining the Yankees. Noted for his defense, even getting the nickname "Fundamentally Sound" Chuck Knoblauch on ESPN (is it really a nickname if you double the number of words?).
- After Steve Blass: Started making errant throws to first, a routine 90-foot toss. Made an unprecedented 26 errors in 1999. Hit Keith Olbermann's mother in the face when one throw sailed into the crowd. Changed positions a few times before retiring in 2003.
Victim: Ben Hogan
- Year of infliction: circa 1953, the date of his last majors win
- Before Steve Blass: The Tiger Woods of his day, gaining the reputation as the greatest golfer of his time. He was especially noted for his ability to drive the ball long distances.
- After Steve Blass: Developed a case of the "yips," a condition that caused him to miss the easiest putts. Lost two US Open tournaments because he had to take an extra putt on the last hole. Lobbied to have the size of the golf cup to be increased to reduce the importance of putting. Presumably never played putt-putt with his kids.
Victim: Mackey Sasser
- Year of infliction: circa 1987
- Before Steve Blass: Backup catcher with a strong bat and lots of promise.
- After Steve Blass: Lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Once gave up a stolen base when he hesitated and lobbed the ball at the pitcher. Retired in 1995 after failing to stop the problem. Inspired the character Rube Baker in Major League 2.
Victim: Mike Vanderjagt
- Year of infliction: Closing seconds of the 2005 AFC Championship
- Before Steve Blass: Surest kicking foot in the NFL. Posted a perfect kicking record in 2003, making 37 of 37 field goals and all 46 extra point attempts. Helped the Indianapolis Colts reach the 2005 AFC Championship game.
- After Steve Blass: Lost the 2005 AFC Championship game by missing a field goal in the final seconds. Dropped by the Colts and cut from the Dallas Cowboys after making only 72% of his attempts in ten games. Remains unsigned going into the 2007 season.
Victim: Steve Sax
- Year of infliction: 1983
- Before Steve Blass: Dependable second-baseman.
- After Steve Blass: Developed same problem as Knoblauch, losing the ability to throw to first base. Made 30 errors and inspired fans behind first base to start wearing helmets.
- After After Steve Blass: Somehow managed to cure the disease. Led the league in fielding percentage and double plays in 1989.
Victim: Anna Kournikova
- Year of Infliction: 1998
- Before Steve Blass: One of the premiere female tennis players. No. 1 in doubles and two-time Grand Slam doubles champ with partner Martina Hingis. Knockout beauty.
- After Steve Blass; Lost control of serves. Had a string of 182 double-faults in ten straight matches. Retired from tennis, possibly from spinal injuries. Still a knockout.
Victim: Robin Williams (it even goes outside sports)
- Year of Infliction: circa 1997
- Before Steve Blass: Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire
- After Steve Blass: Flubber, Patch Adams, RV, License to Wed