Steve Blass' Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Disease

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:

knoblauch.jpgVictim: 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.vanderjadt.jpg

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.patch-adams-poster01.jpg
  • 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
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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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