Thingish Things

Triple Crown Courage

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Apr• 28•11

Legendary Horse Racing Announcer Tom Durkin

The first time I heard of it, it was being called Mackey Sasseritus. Now it’s simply called Mackey Sasser Syndrome.

It was named after New York Mets catcher Mackey Sasser, who after many successful years in Major League Baseball, inexplicably began double clutching the baseball before  throwing it to second when a base runner was trying to steal the bag. I watched the Mets nightly in those days, so I knew Sasser and his talents well. He had a gun for an arm.

But then he started doing this weird double pump for no apparent reason. He would begin his throwing motion, and instead of releasing the ball, he would re-cock his arm, and then throw it. That one-second delay was enough for the slowest base stealer to take second standing up.

I remember Ralph Kiner in the broadcast booth — and every viewer watching — totally perplexed by it, flummoxed.  But Sasser couldn’t stop doing it. Night after night, he double-pumped that ball and opposing runners stole bases off him. It ended his career.

Similar things have happened to other ball players — Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Blass, and Steve Sax for a time.  Players with near perfect physical control, who had been throwing baseballs since they were boys, would suddenly be unable to throw accurately to another player 10 or 15 feet away.  No one could figure out exactly why, although it was clear it was anxiety-based. Some type of panic trigger was misfiring.

Today, we read in The New York Times that legendary horse race caller Tom Durkin has pulled himself off the Triple Crown desk. Durkin, just 60, has called the last 30 Triple Crown races. He is a master. But debilitating panic attacks surrounding the big races have spiritually flattened him, and he has decided to call it quits.  He’ll continue calling races; just not the big ones.

I am hugely empathetic to Durkin because panic attacks flattened me in my 20’s and 30’s. I had no idea what they were at the time. They came out of nowhere and crushed my confidence to an extent impossible to describe here.  A kid who would hang off the top branches of a tree by his feet to be funny, couldn’t stand in bank lines 15 years later. Cuckoo stuff. Any bluster I once had was pounded out of me. Mercifully, they went away in time, and I gained a good dose of humility from the experience.

Durkin’s voice won’t be heard at Churchill Down’s this year, but his bravery in speaking publicly about the reason will resonate for years, at least with me.



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  1. Me says:

    Lovely post, Billy. But stop giving in to Betsey Bullying!



  2. Billy says:

    I need a grammar defender! I didn’t exactly listen in school.

  3. Your Friend says:

    I love this piece. Of course, I remember Mackey well, can still see his arm doing the double-take, sometimes even a triple-take if I recall. Since I’ve been watching the Mets vs. Nats games for the last couple of nights, I’m being repeatedly reminded of another great story along these lines, that of Rick Ankiel. I’m sure you recall Ankiel helping the Mets lock up the division in 2000 by uncorking a series of wild pitches while he was with the Cardinals. He never figured out how to fix the wildness issue, despite years of trying in the minors. But in a testament to his extraordinary athletic skills, he returned to the majors as a power-hitting outfielder and now starts in center for the Nats. That’s a pretty amazing story.

    Here’s another about using speech patterns to predict success among NFL quarterbacks. I’m dying to know who the land mine in the pending draft is. Enjoy.

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