Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fritz Peterson: Who needs a coach?

This week’s guest article is from former All-Star and 20-game winner Fritz Peterson. After the self-coached Bubba Watson won the Masters tournament earlier this month, Peterson reflected on his own experiences with coaching during his major league career.

“I don't need a coach.”-- Bubba Watson 4/8/12

“I didn't either.”-- Fritz Peterson 4/11/12

In golf, you are out there all by yourself. As a pitcher you are the only one out there on the mound. The type of pitch you throw is ultimately up to you even though your catcher can suggest a pitch he thinks you should throw. The ball is in your hand until you let it go at the end of your delivery. Bubba Watson chose his clubs at the Masters last Sunday and even though his caddy may have made suggestions, it was ultimately Watson's decision. On April 8th, 2012 it was Watson that walked off the course after the second hole of the playoff against Louis Oosthuizen with the green jacket.

Fritz Peterson / Baseball Alamanac

Who needs a coach? After Watson's father showed him the basic fundamentals of the swing and the grip, Watson took it from there. After my father showed me the fundamentals of throwing a ball and having an idea of where each pitch should go, I was done, in essence, being coached. Everything I picked up over the years was from experimenting on my own, not from a coach other than my dad until I got into college. By the time I finished my major league career, I had six pitches I could use effectively. Since Thurman Munson only had five fingers he had to start backwards and use his little finger for my 6th pitch. Jim Bouton did teach me his palm ball which angered our pitching coach because Bouton had taught it to me and not him. Bouton was not “old school.”

The odd thing, especially in the major leagues, is that every team has a coach for everything, but in most cases they do more harm to the players than good. The majority of coaches think they have to justify their positions (jobs), so they dabble with their players, sometimes actually causing them to over think, which can negatively affect their performance.

I know! It happened to me in my first year with the Yankees in 1966. I was privileged to be one of the starting pitchers on the New York Yankees where I was surrounded by pitchers like Whitey Ford, Al Downing, Jim Bouton and Mel Stottlemyre. All of them were, or would become 20 game winners and all had been an All-Star at least once. Our pitching coach was Jim Turner, a wonderful hearty man from the “old school,” in his ways. New ideas were taboo. You just did things like they've been done from time immemorial. Turner was a sincere man and truly believed everyone should do everything the same way.

I got to the big leagues with only two pitches, a sinking fastball and a hard sharp breaking curve-ball. My strength was that I could get both of them over the plate where I wanted them to be 95% of the time. Mr. Turner, in an attempt to help me, suggested I throw my curve ball like Whitey Ford threw his. Since Turner was my coach, I tried it. It messed me up. It cost me my real curve-ball for a few weeks, until I got "my" curve-ball back. I wasn't Whitey Ford; I was Fritz Peterson.

The point is, at that level pitchers and hitters know what to do. Coaching (especially over coaching) can do more damage than it can help. Bubba Watson is Bubba Watson and he knows it. Now that he has a green jacket he will be able to be Bubba Watson for a long time if he chooses to be.

My friend, roommate, and author of Ball Four once told me that Johnny Sain was the perfect pitching coach. He said nothing. Instead, Sain befriended his pitchers like children of his own. He didn't mess with their mechanics. If I had been a pitching coach, I would have been just like Sain. By the way, Bouton was the only ex-player who attended Sain's funeral. He truly was Bouton's friend.

The rest of my career (11 years) in the big leagues, I did my own thing out there on the mound. I did it “my way,” like Frank Sinatra, and now Watson. Sure, I listened to my pitching coaches, but without them realizing I was doing it my way just the same. On top of that, I gave them credit in the press because I knew their intentions were good. What harm could that do? The coaches were going to be there anyway, looking good with their little notebooks and clipboards. Besides, we’re all there together trying to win games for our team. Watson is his own team. Leave him alone. He's having fun being Bubba Watson and that's the way it should be. Who needs a coach?


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