Ninety Percent Mental takes its title from the old Yogi Berra quip “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” Tewksbury (with baseball writer Scott Miller) makes a convincing case that Berra was right. It’s hard to imagine a better account than this one of the mental skills required to be a pitcher in the major leagues.
Tewksbury isn’t necessarily the guy you would figure to become one of the best thinkers about developing and instilling the perfect baseball mindset. A 19th-round draft pick in 1981, Tewksbury climbed the New York Yankees’ minor league system “rung by rung” before surfacing in the MLB in 1986. In all, in fact, Tewksbury was sent from the major leagues to the minors a total of seven times.
By the time he retired from playing in 1998, Tewksbury had played for the Cubs, Cardinals, Rangers, Padres and Twins as well. He was with the Cardinals for seven straight years in the middle of his career. Faced with shoulder and arm problems off and on, Tewksbury became known as a control pitcher. In 1992, he went 16-5 on the season with a 2.16 ERA.
One stat really jumps out: In 1993, Tewksbury came very close to ending the season with more wins than bases on balls allowed. He ended the season with 17 wins and 20 walks. Twenty walks all season.
What does that kind of focus require? That’s what Ninety Percent Mental, in deliciously granular detail, is all about. Tewksbury, who was in the vanguard of those who realized that it might be a good idea to help young players develop mental skills alongside their physical ones, came to the mental skills issue organically through observation and self-analysis and a burning desire to survive. Part memoir, Ninety Percent Mental grounds us in Tewksbury’s modest New Hampshire upbringing in a tense household full of financial stress and marital tensions.
A chance encounter with Og Mandino (The Greatest Salesman in the World) led Tewksbury to devour Mandino’s books and then also absorb the positive-thinking world of Norman Vincent Peale. Tewksbury was—a reader. Go figure. “Always, in the down moments, something consistently led me into those self-help sections. I had a strong, natural interest in the subject but, really, no resources for learning.”
Early in his career, Tewksbury incorporated breathing exercises and self-affirmations into his daily routines. “Three decades late, I believe today what I began to believe while listening to that tape all of those minor league locker-room floors. That my improved performance on the field that month happened from the inside out. The change—real, productive change—occurs in a person from the inside out.”
You’ll know if you are a true baseball fan if you enjoy the chapter titled “Perfect Game.” (I did.) This is a blow-by-blow, moment-by-moment deconstruction of one of Tewksbury’s games as a Cardinal against the Houston Astros on August 17, 1990. Tewksbury came into the game on a hot streak and got hotter that night, not giving up his first hit until the eighth inning. In “Pitch Perfect,” Tewksbury goes through every batter—a nearly 20-page recap. The chapter includes some keen insights on the nature of perfection in baseball (or any sport). “Perfectionists tend to have low self-confidence, making it difficult for them to cope when things don’t go as expected. And in search of gaining confidence, they practice more and more, which increases the risk of burnout. The constant striving for perfection creates high levels of anxiety, they worry more about what others think of them and they focus more on their failures than on their successes.”
Modest throughout, Tewksbury pays credit to those who came before him. He devotes an entire chapter to Joe Torre and Torre’s natural ability to connect with, and inspire, athletes. Tewksbury has worked with Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller (among many others). The individual ups and downs of those three players, particularly Lester, make for convincing testimony that success in baseball requires a keen sense of self and a keener sense of self control.
Looking for a step-by-step “how to”? Well, it’s here, but it’s embedded throughout the entire narrative. It’s about controlling what Tewksbury calls the ‘Little Man’ who tries to thwart your performance with negative thoughts and dark vibes. (The book is co-written with award-winning baseball columnist Scott Miller, who no doubt played a key role in the dramatic shape of the book and its colorful style). More than anything, Ninety Percent Mental makes you realize these are real human beings out there on the mound and that, like anything else in life, how you go about your work is every bit as important as your talent. Yes, baseball is ninety percent mental. At least.