• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Sudden loss of genius makes mere mortals of our sporting heroes

READ a book.

Ian Baker-Finch walks to the 18th tee en route to winning the Open at Royal Birkdale in 1991. Walking the course actually became the Australian's forte once the art of hitting the ball deserted him. Picture: Getty Images
Ian Baker-Finch walks to the 18th tee en route to winning the Open at Royal Birkdale in 1991. Walking the course actually became the Australian's forte once the art of hitting the ball deserted him. Picture: Getty Images

It is the best thing to do with them, though the sports editor swears by throwing them at employees with the injunction to "get a few ideas in their napper".

The book I read was called The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a name so American it whistles Yankee Doodle Dandy while peering at a map looking for a country to invade. Chad's novel has lots of words and pages and characters and situations. But part of it concerns a shortstop who has lost the art of fielding, suddenly and awfully.

A shortstop is not what I was continually doing last week in the bathroom after a terrifying embrace with Norah Virus. It is, rather, a position in baseball.

The shortstop has to be quick, sure and intellectually agile. It is a position that makes great demands, some of them only truly visible to those who know the game intimately.

Henry Skrimshander, the shortstop in The Art of Fielding, is a phenomenon and then he loses his mojo (a music magazine, but that is not important just now). No, his genius deserts him to such a degree he just cannot throw the ball. This, of course, is only part of the novel and to state as much is not to spoil the enjoyment of The Art of Fielding.

But it does raise the question of the fragility of sporting prowess. One is not referring to the Fernando Torres syndrome, whereby a great player has an injury and loses that element of pace, suddenly becoming a rocking horse rather than Frankel.

It is not about the boxer who loses his reflexes to such a degree he could be hit by a punch thrown on Sunday and landing on Wednesday.

It is about something darker. It is about simply not being able to do something that one once took for granted.

It is an occurrence that happens regularly in baseball, darts and golf. Henry Skrimshander is based, ever so loosely, on Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost completely the ability to throw the ball accurately, finally trudging away from the game.

He gave his name a disease that subsequently infected other pitchers. Steve Sax, who won two World Series rings for the LA Dodgers, also donated his name to a syndrome whereby a fielder cannot throw the ball to base. Fans, those eternally compassionate beings, wore helmets when in range of his increasingly wayward throws.

In darts, the psychological syndrome is so severe that sufferers simply cannot let go of the arrow. They are condemned to flick away the offending object as if it were a piece of flypaper stuck to their fingers. In golf, the disease takes two forms. There is the yips when a putt becomes a task whose difficulty compares to Ollie Reed threading a needle after a night on the electric soup.

Others find they just cannot hit the ball in competitive scenarios. This was the awful fate of Ian Baker-Finch. In the opening round of the 1995 Open Championship at St Andrews, he hit his tee shot at the first out of bounds on the left side of the fairway shared with the 18th. This is so far off track the ball only just landed in Fife. This was calamitous, inexplicable and unnerving. Particularly as Baker-Finch was not just a professional but an Open champion.

This, too, was not just one major error. It is what Baker-Finch continued to do when faced with competitive situations. He would play beautifully in practice and then crash his tee shots in tournaments with the sort of pace and direction that resembled a malfunctioning North Korean missile. With more resulting bloodshed, of course.

Some of these sporting heroes overcame the dread of the putt, the throw or the drive. But many did not. They limped off, baffled at how genius had suddenly deserted them.

They had become worse than ordinary. How must it feel to be a great sportsman and then to be a hacker, a serial incompetent?

How must it feel to be someone who can throw a ball at speeds of more than 100mph with slide, curve an unerring accuracy and then find your last throw just beaned a peanut seller in row Z?

The victims must be demoralised. I find it stunning. Then again that may be just because the sports editor has hit me with a book.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

129645