“Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical,” Yogi Berra once observed. Although that confusing statement usually draws a chuckle when repeated, those who play the game understand exactly what it means. More than any other major team sport, baseball is a game played as much with the mind as the muscle. Not only do the many split second decisions require intense mental preparation, but the psychological toll of the long season, with all of its failure, must be maddening. After all, the very best baseball players fail more often than not, and what’s worse, their shortcomings are spotlighted by the individual nature of the game.
If any sport benefits from the use of psychology, it’s baseball. And, if Yogi Berra wasn’t the game’s first psychologist, that distinction certainly belongs to Harvey Dorfman, who passed away on Monday at the age of 75.
In 1984, Dorfman became the first full-time counselor employed by a major league baseball team when the Oakland Athletics hired him to “coach” young players identified as having trouble focusing. At the time of his hiring, Dorfman actually sounded a lot like Yogi. “Ask any coach and he says 80 percent of the game is mental…but yet they have never had anyone working full-time on that part of the game,” he reasoned. Based on that sound logic, a new component of player development was born.
Dorfman, who studied psychology in college but had previously been employed as a baseball columnist and school teacher in Vermont, first started working with the Athletics’ minor league teams, including the Albany-Colonie affiliate, which won 25 of the first 40 games played during his consultation and coasted to the Eastern League regular season title. By the next spring training, Dorfman was working with the big club, a relationship he maintained over the next 10 years.
After his tenure in Oakland, Dorfman continued a long and successful career in baseball, including three years on staff with the Marlins. One product of his time in Florida was Al Leiter, who completely turned around his career upon joining the Marlins in 1996. Yankees’ fans watching on YES should be very familiar with this case study. One of the most repeated phrases uttered by Leiter when serving as an analyst is the need for a pitcher “to visualize and execute a pitch”. That’s Harvey Dorfman.
He told me to stop making excuses for bad outings. Nobody cares. Just get out there and get it done. He’s one of the main reasons why I was able to pitch for another 12 years after I got hurt.” – Al Leiter, speaking about Harvey Dorfman, Newsday, April 9, 2010
In order to crack into the big leagues, Dorfman needed a benefactor with roots in the game. Considering the macho culture of major league baseball, the stigma of “counseling” was a significant obstacle to overcome. All it took, however, was for someone to make the connection between counseling and improved performance. That man turned out to be career minor leaguer and former Expos manager Karl Kuehl.
After eight minor leagues season without getting a call-up to the majors, Kuehl served as a scout and minor league manager for over a decade. Then, in 1976, he got his first taste of big league life when he was named manager of the Montreal Expos. Unfortunately, the rookie skipper didn’t last the entire season, which was mired by several conflicts with veteran players. Following his brief stint in Montreal, Kuehl (who was one of the three Yankees’ scouts involved in the walkie-talkie caper during the 1976 World Series) returned to scouting and coaching, but in the meantime also started dabbling in sports psychology. Eventually, Kuehl, working in conjunction with The Wilson Learning Center in Minnesota, had the chance to put his theories to the test during consultations with the Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies in 1983.
The Athletics were so impressed by Kuehl’s program that they hired him to become minor league director for the entire organization. That decision proved to be a gateway for Dorfman, with whom Kuehl had been working closely on his theories. Eventually, their collaboration resulted in the 1989 release of “The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance”, a seminal publication that has become required reading in clubhouses throughout the major leagues.
The publication of “The Mental Game” came amid a run of great success for the Athletics. Not only did the team win three consecutive pennants from 1988 to 1990, but the minor league system churned out three consecutive rookie-of-the-year winners starting in 1986. With ample evidence to suggest that Kuehl and Dorfman’s philosophy was yielding substantial results, the duo’s book served as a kind of blue print for exploiting market inefficiency, namely developing alternative methods for fostering prospects that went well beyond on-field tutorial. Interestingly, almost 15 years later, another book, “Moneyball”, would outline how the 2000-era Athletics took advantage of another market inefficiency to create success on the field.
In addition to publishing several other books about the mental side of baseball, Dorfman ended his career by serving as a consultant for super agent Scott Boras, a job that brought him into contact with countless players, including as recently as last season. As a result, the former school teacher leaves behind an impressive legacy of many valuable lessons taught…lessons that ultimately came from within. Dorfman was always fond of saying he wasn’t responsible for a player’s failure or success, but only helping to unlock each individual’s potential to achieve the latter. Modesty or not, the evolution of psychology within the game speaks for itself.