Mariano Rivera. Babe Ruth. Christy Mathewson. Sandy Koufax.
Even now, three World Series rings later, it sounds almost comical when I hear my name mentioned among some of the greatest players in baseball history. Those guys were elite, the best of the best; every one of them a Hall of Famer who left indelible marks on the game. Me? Not so much. Yet when you check the all-time postseason ERA rankings, there I am.
I sometimes wonder if I told people just how close (and how many times) I came to quitting the game altogether, whether they'd even believe me.
In talking to other Big Leaguers about it, it seems that having doubts about playing baseball isn't all that uncommon. Baseball, by its nature -- the long season, the travel demands, the commitment it requires to play at the top level -- is a love/hate affair. The game tests your resolve and your patience, and not just from season to season, either. The worm can turn instantly; all it takes it one bad inning, one bad at-bat, one bad pitch, really.
And that's the secret when it comes right down to it. To succeed, every serious athlete needs to understand that it's not the highs and lows that define you; it's how you respond your next time out.
In retrospect, none of the success I have achieved in the game would have been possible if I hadn't learned life's most important lesson: How to fail.
I grew up as a military brat. Most bases are not unlike American towns, really. You have grocery stores, gas stations, schools, etc. And kids, lots and lots of kids. My father was in the Air Force, a B52 bomber radar navigator, and we spent the majority of my childhood stationed overseas -- in the Pacific, primarily.
My dad was always on call. We rarely knew when he was going to have to report for duty on a moment's notice. Oftentimes I would wake up in the morning, and my mother would inform me, "Dad left in the middle of the night, a mission in the Philippines, I think." Sometimes he was gone for a week at a time, and that wasn't always easy -- for us or him. When he was home, it seemed like he was always decked out in full flight suit, even at my games.
My mother wasn't alone, of course. Organized sports are often a military mom's greatest salvation. Simply put, there are few other ways to get kids out of the house. Games and practices allow for some well-earned time off, and a chance to bond with other parents in the same situation.
Ironically, it's the same for my wife today.
When I am home, it's often like I am not even there. I leave for the ballpark by midday, and typically get home late at night, well after she's already put our three sons to bed. When I am on the road, it's obviously worse.
When I was younger, I thought I was going to be the best ballplayer in the world. It wasn't so much that I was cocky -- well, maybe just a little -- I was simply a product of my environment, and the limited exposure I had to really talented opponents.
When my family returned stateside, we settled in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and I attended a really small school. As early as my junior year in high school, I was already throwing over 90 mph, and I was touching 94 by my senior season. And when you're a teenager doing things no one else around you can do, your ego tends to swell -- there's no way around it. (Being left-handed didn't exactly hurt, either.)
Back then, I was being recruited by a dizzying number of universities to come play college ball for them. There were pro scouts at all the games, too, and it felt like everything revolved around me. Eventually, I was offered a full scholarship to attend Gonzaga University, my hometown school, but I ultimately decided to declare for the Major League draft. It wasn't an easy decision, but I would be lying if I didn't believe that I would quickly ascend to the Show, and that nothing was going to stand the way of my achieving greatness.
Ignorance, of course, was bliss.
I was a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1997, but to say my minor league awakening was rude would be putting it lightly. During one season, I led the entire Royals' organization and the Single-A league I was playing in with 15 losses. My time in the minors wasn't all bad, of course, but I rarely gave up a hit in high school, let alone a run. The level of competition I had faced was was far inferior to what I saw in the minors.
All of a sudden, in the pros, everyone was able to hit my stuff -- and that was an incredibly difficult thing for me to deal with.
I didn't understand that giving up hits was part of the game. I had no perspective about how experiences -- especially the kind where I got beat -- were opportunities to learn something, to dust myself off and get better. I simply wasn't used to failure, and I certainly wasn't equipped to admit that being the best wasn't necessarily in the cards for me.
At some point early on, playing became less about being great, and more about simply fulfilling my goal of making it to the Majors. I know it will make me sound like a stereotypical, out-of-touch and entitled athlete, but at the time, I was completely consumed with worry that if baseball didn't work out, and the big payday never came, I might end up as some 25-year-old washout, with no education -- forced to go find a "real job."
Thankfully, my dad was there to set me straight. In his job, people's lives were at stake when he failed. I was just playing a game, after all, so how could I ever consider quitting when my father had sacrificed so much in service of his country to do his job? Walking away just wasn't an option, no matter how badly I felt about myself, or how hard I was getting hit.
Four years later, I made the Show at the age of 22, but it was more of the same. The hitters were bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced. The ball went even farther when hit. There was simply no room for error; even the briefest of mental lapses would lead to mistake pitches being crushed, and innings spiraling out of control.
Things went on like that for the majority of the first five years of my Major League career. I was rarely able to make it longer than five innings as a starter, and even when I was pitching relief, I had no idea what I was doing out there on the mound. I had no approach, I was just throwing stuff hoping it wouldn't be hit.
And therein lied the problem.
In baseball, even the best hitters make an out 70 percent of the time. The entire game revolves around failure! To be successful, a player needs to realize that he isn't going to have things go his way all the time -- a concept which is especially valuable for a pitcher.
It really wasn't until I arrived on a one-year in Cincinnati in 2008 that I finally embraced the idea of failure. A veteran hurler by the name of David Weathers helped open my eyes to the reality of the game. "Look, you've got good stuff," he said, "but we pitch in a small ballpark, and you need pitch to contact around here. If you want to stick around in this league as a reliever, you need to get contact earlier in the count and let guys hit into outs. I am going to teach you how to throw a sinker."
It was as if a light bulb went off in my head.
I didn't need to strike guys out to be "successful." I just needed to get outs quickly. More outs meant less pitches. Less pitches meant more appearances. And more appearances, I hoped, meant greater value to the team.
The next season, in 2009, I was named MLB's Setup Man of the Year for my current team, the San Francisco Giants. I became known as a guy who pounded the strike zone, able to induce a lot of ground ball outs by relying on my fielders behind me. I was reliable, and could pitch on multiple days in a row. Pitching to contact became a mentality, and it became readily apparent to me that by deploying such a strategy, I no longer had to worry about failure. Not only am I not afraid of contact, my success has led me to invite even more of it.
"Go ahead, batter," I sometimes think to myself on the mound. "I want you to to hit the ball. You're only making my life easier."
That's my career ERA in the postseason. Only the great New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and St. Louis starter Harry Brecheen (they called him Harry the Cat, coincidentally) compiled better marks.
Most people don't believe me, but I really don't do anything different on the mount in the playoffs than I do in the regular season. My success in the most critical of situations is just as easily attributable to my managers putting me in good positions to succeed and my defense making plays behind me as it is because of anything I am doing out there.
What I can say is that my experience -- four World Series in nine years, having pitched in every single inning of those games, in every possible game situation, at one point or another -- has been invaluable in helping me navigate the tremendous mental toll the highest level of competition takes. Having failed so many times, I don't waste energy worrying about the consequences of failure. Heck, my first time in the playoffs, Ryan Howard hit a home run off me that literally left the stadium; it still hasn't landed.
In the end, no one likes to fail -- and professional athletes are no different but the key is avoiding the fear of failure. It makes no difference whether you are trying to "make it," or you've already set out to do what you intended, and you are trying to live up to the expectations that come along with success.
It's like my dad used to tell me when I was growing up. "Just focus on the task at hand, and don't worry about the outcome. Let someone else do the worrying, they'll let you know if you're not good enough." He was right; they still haven't.
Jeremy Affeldt is a pitcher for the World Champion San Francisco Giants. He is a philanthropist -- an active leader to help end poverty, social injustice & human trafficking. He works to provide food for the hungry in San Francisco, Spokane and around the world. He is the co- founder of Generation Alive, a non profit organization that works to teach and inspire young leaders to serve others who are faced with extreme poverty.
He is the author of To Stir A Movement, Life, Justice and Major League Baseball.
Follow Jeremy on twitter @JeremyAffeldt and his non profit @GenerationAlive.
First seen in the Cauldron.
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