Still, nothing defibrillates a team like a stud pitcher, and that’s something the 2007 Mets never had. Sure, last year’s staff had two certain Hall of Famers in Glavine and Pedro Martinez. But Glavine was a 41-year-old junkballer who longed for his Atlanta home. Martinez, now 36, was shelved for most of the season. By the time he returned in September, he was an outsider in his own clubhouse, reluctant to call out teammates he hadn’t seen much of in five months. The Mets’ two strongest starters, both 26, were Oliver Perez, a chronic head case, and John Maine, an aw-shucks kid from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Neither is exactly intimidating. That is why the Mets had to go out and get Santana—in baseball parlance he’s called a stopper, because he stops misery. Losing streaks end. Bull pens get a night off. Teammates don’t feel like they have to hit five-run homers. The stopper takes his teammates back to their happy places.
But is one new pitcher enough? In a good year, Santana will start 34 times. That leaves another 128 games divided among four other guys. Here’s a cautionary example: Steve Carlton won 27 games for the 1972 Phillies. But the rest of the rotation won half as many, and the team finished dead last. If Santana goes 21-6 but the rest of the rotation folds, Shea will still close with a whimper that will likely get Randolph bounced and Minaya placed on double super probation.
No one said this was an exact science.
A major-league pitching coach and a psychotherapist have much in common. On a busy day, both have to deal with ten or eleven psychological specimens battling varying degrees of narcissism, insecurity, and profound fear.
Starting pitchers are the worst; they have four days between performances to obsess. The Mets starters all have their issues: Santana is the new guy. Martinez is the diva. Orlando Hernandez is on another planet. John Maine must overcome excessive humility. Oliver Perez has major focus issues.
Keeping the kids happy and effective falls on the pitching coach. In ancient times, pitching coaches were hired because they were the managers’ drinking buddies. Billy Martin kept Art Fowler around simply because Art could help Billy find the team hotel at 2 a.m. Peterson is not that guy. The son of a former Pirates general manager, Peterson pitched professionally in the seventies, until his career was derailed by injuries, then wandered the country doing yoga and studying Eastern philosophy. Eventually, he decided to take what he had learned and apply it to coaching. He made his bones as Moneyball hero Billy Beane’s unorthodox pitching coach with the Oakland A’s.
“Do you know the sports psychological test?” Peterson asked me shortly after we met. He speaks in a mellow tone and has longish salt-and-pepper hair—well, long by baseball-coach standards. “There’s sixteen psychological tests that rank you on a scale of one to ten, with concrete thinking being a one and abstract thinking a ten. We found in the seven range happened to be ideal for pitchers. Calling pitches and setting batters up is really abstract. It takes a special way of thinking. Martinez has that kind of a mind.”
As a kid, Peterson dreamed of becoming a comedian. He would write out Red Skelton routines and try to figure out what got laughs. From a young age, he’s been fascinated with process as much as performance. He keeps a tattered notebook in his back pocket. Peterson opens it and shows me a page with performance broken into three categories: fundamental skills, conditioning, and mental toughness. “In the West, when people talk about peak performance levels, they talk about an athlete who is in the zone and describe it through adjectives,” says Peterson. “In the East, they have a noun: It’s called satori. It’s a state where mind and body is one. Everyone at this level has the talent, but can you consistently put it into practice?”
Peterson knows this sounds a little squishy for the tobacco-spitting world of baseball. After talking for a bit, he has one request: “All I ask is, don’t make me sound like a kook or a guru.” He tailors his approach to each pitcher, letting the aces go their own way. “With someone like Johan, it’s just about finding out what makes him comfortable,” says Peterson. “Small things like what side he wants me to sit on in the dugout.”
With his younger charges, it’s more hands-on. One humid morning, Peterson works with Oliver Perez to increase his stride in his follow-through (so he throws more straight on and less across his body). Peterson draws a line in the dirt about a yard from the pitching rubber. “What if I told you, if you landed here every time, you’d make $8 million?” asked Peterson.