As I walked from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box at Miller Park in the late afternoon of May 23, 2002, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was about to get drilled by the next pitch. It was the ninth inning and I had already amassed five hits against the Milwaukee Brewers, including three home runs—in their own ballpark. I wasn’t so much worried about the pain of taking a fastball square in the back as I was curious as to how the day would turn out. Being this deep into the zone, I felt more like a spectator than a participant, watching my actions, rather than willing them. I had never had this kind of success in a single game, nor had I ever even seen anyone else achieve such heights, so I wasn’t sure what the protocol was.
I dug my back foot into the batter’s box and went through my usual routine (I silently debated whether to take a pitch to see where the pitcher, Jose Cabrera, stood in terms of baseball etiquette). As I settled into my stance, I realized I was still too locked in to burden myself with thinking. I’d simply look for my pitch and swing hard. The first pitch crossed the plate several inches outside; nonetheless, my body felt on time, as I’d felt all day. Ball one. The next pitch was a changeup that I recognized but missed with my fiercest cut. There’d be no backing down this at-bat; I had a once in a lifetime shot at history. The 1-1 pitch was a fastball thigh-high on the inner part of the plate. My timing was perfect and an all-out swing sent my fourth and farthest home run of the day over the fence. Effortless! I was six for six with four home runs and nineteen total bases … a Major League record.
Journeying around the bases, I relished the moment: a rare ovation from an opposing crowd and looks of amazement from the infielders as I trotted past. As I approached home plate, I made eye contact with a familiar face in the opposing dugout, Gary Matthews Sr., my former hitting coach. He gave me his characteristic military salute, for which he’d long before earned his nickname, Sarge. For two years in Toronto, he’d worked with me in batting cages across the American League, often four or more hours before game time. Now, Sarge’s salute was more than a mere acknowledgment of my record-setting performance. It was recognition for all the work I’d invested over thousands of hours.
As I shook hands with my teammates and acknowledged the standing ovation of the crowd, I reflected on the past. The fruits of my labor here at Miller Park had grown from seeds planted five years earlier, before Sarge had even been hired by my first team, the Blue Jays. In those days, a conflict created a painful rift in my game, my future, my world: a rift that I now understood had created the necessary space for these fruitful seeds to have been planted in the first place, beneath the SkyDome in Toronto.
After two years in the big leagues, I’d already been labeled a slow starter. My hitting seemed to warm with the seasons, heating up in summer, so, along with most of the Blue Jays’ faithful, I suspected that ’97 would be no different. In May, with springtime almost over, my hitting was indeed still as frigid as the Canadian air, but I wasn’t panicked. June was on its way, July after that. Surely I’d find my stroke. This year, however, I faced a new obstacle—being benched—and my opportunities to heat up with the weather were seriously threatened.
Cito Gaston, our manager, had won two World Series and he was much loved by veteran players because of his loyalty to them, as well as his old-school attitudes. Cito viewed many younger players with suspicion. At twenty-four, I’d already accumulated sufficient credentials to be an everyday player (AAA batting title in ’94, voted among the top five American League rookies in ’95, career average in the mid .280s), but I’d never been given the chance. My rookie year with the Jays I hit .288 with 15 home runs on a last place team, yet I only got to play against right-handed pitchers. By mid-May of ’97, Cito finally won out over the front office regarding my playing time. Suddenly, my career prospects were slipping away as I was forced to sit day after day in the dugout watching all the games from the so-called best seat in the house.
After weeks of frustration, I met with general manager Gord Ash and asked him to trade me so I could play somewhere, anywhere. A week or two passed, and every day new trade rumors with my name attached floated around the league until at last Cito had to address it.
It was midafternoon at the Toronto SkyDome, four hours before a night game against the Yankees. I’d put on my uniform and was walking past Cito’s open office door when he called, “Hey, Green, come in here and have a seat. I want to talk to you.”
My heart thumped as I approached my boss’s desk and sat down.
“Look, Shawn, don’t think that I don’t like you, ’cause I do,” Cito said. “I think you have a lot of potential, but …” He stopped, considering, maybe searching out a rationale for benching me. “You need to improve your defense. No manager is going to chance it with you the way you play in the field.”
I began to squirm in my seat. My first couple of years I’d played scared in right field because, each time I erred, I couldn’t help focusing on the irritation on Cito’s face. Still, my defense was improving (within two years I’d win the league’s Gold Glove Award, though obviously I didn’t possess this evidence for the defense at the time).
“Also, Shawn, you need to learn how to pull the ball to hit more home runs because you don’t run well enough to steal bases,” Cito continued.
“How do you know I can’t steal bases if you never give me the green light to try?” I snapped. “And as for pulling the ball, I know how to turn on the inside pitch.”
For a left-handed-batter, pulling the ball means connecting with the pitch early and hitting to right field, increasing the chance of a home run. There was nothing I liked more than pulling the ball with power, but I knew that limiting myself to being a dead-pull hitter would reduce my productivity.
Cito wasn’t having it. “You can go on your way, Shawn. The meeting’s over.”
After a few minutes, my heart rate returned to almost normal.
Cito hadn’t said anything that had taken me by surprise; still, this was the first time he’d told me point blank what he thought of me as a player. Now it was clear why I was sitting on the bench. I returned to my locker, grabbed my bat, and went to look for Garth Iorg, a minor league coach who was in town temporarily, to ask if he’d throw to me in the batting cage. When I found him he said, “Okay, but make sure you ask Willie.”
Willie Upshaw was the hitting coach and he generally marched in lockstep with the boss, Cito. I’d had enough of that regime for now. “I already looked and couldn’t find him, so let’s just head to the cage,” I lied. For the past few weeks, I’d been sneaking into the batting cage without Willie knowing. He was a good guy, but he wasn’t helping me become a better hitter.
When I’d started with the Jays in ’95, my hitting coach was Larry Hisle. He was a prince of a man who never forgot his own playing days and how hard hitting actually is. He was always encouraging to me. He’d say, “Oh, big man, if I had a swing like yours, I’d still be playing. Just keep working.” He stood up for me that year in a coach’s meeting, saying, “Why don’t we give the kid a chance to play every day, against lefties and righties? He’s doing great and we’re twenty-five games behind Boston. Let’s see what he can do. How can it possibly hurt?” But his advice was ignored and at the end of the season Hisle was replaced by Willie Upshaw.
When Willie arrived in ’96, a key component of his job was to convert John Olerud and me into power hitters, which in Willie’s eyes meant pulling the ball. Both Willie and Cito had preferred to pull the ball in their playing days, the 1970s and ’80s, when being late on a fastball was considered a knock on your manhood. So Oly and I often had to hit under Upshaw’s tutelage to work on hooking balls down the right field line.
One afternoon at SkyDome, Cito and Willie instructed Oly and me to stand extremely close to home plate when we were hitting so that every ball would feel inside and we’d have to pull the ball. Both of our performances had been subpar the first part of the season. Olerud had won the Major League batting title for the world championship team in ’93 and had chased .400 for most of that season. Now, his coaching staff was dictating that he give up twenty to forty points on his stellar batting average in hopes of hitting an extra ten home runs a year. Oly and I talked a lot about how lost we felt at the plate. It’s hard enough to get hits even when you’re not being forced to change your swing.
So, on that day in May ’97, I was anxious to get to the cage with Garth Iorg to get in some extra batting practice without overbearing instruction from Willie or Cito. Besides, I needed to take out some of the frustrations of my meeting with Cito—I needed to sweat out the pent-up energy.
As Garth and I walked down the clubhouse corridor, which was adorned with photos of the short but sweet Blue Jays’ history, we happened to pass an old photo of Willie Upshaw playing first base during his tenure with the Jays. At that moment, the door that led out of the clubhouse and into the undercarriage of the stadium swung open. It was Willie, ten years older than the photo but still in great shape.
There was no avoiding him. “Hey, Willie,” I said, “I’m heading to the cage with Garth to take some hacks.”
Confused and irritated, he responded with his gravelly baritone, “What’s the matter with me?”
“Nothing’s the matter with you, but Garth throws right-handed so I want to hit off him.”
Willie was not only a lefty, but he threw erratic batting practice.
He replied, “You’ve got to learn to hit against lefties sometime.”
That really pissed me off. My three years of platooning against only right-handers was a sore subject with me. I had hit well against lefties in the minor leagues, but had never been given the chance at the Major League level.
I snapped back, “I know how to hit lefties, Willie, but I never get to play against lefties. So, I want to hit off Garth.” Meantime, Garth could only awkwardly stand there, anxious for the tension to subside. He was no more comfortable with the confrontation than I was.
Willie’s next sentence left me dumbfounded. “No, you can’t go to the cage anymore without my supervision.”
After a moment of shocked hesitation, I snapped back, “Are you serious?”
He nodded yes.
I stormed off, feeling as if I’d been smacked across the face with my Louisville Slugger. Instead of going to the cage, I headed for the only other place I could take some swings. A shabbily carpeted pathway led from the clubhouse into the dugout, and just off the pathway was a batting tee, a bag of balls, and a net. There, guys would take five to ten swings before they went on-deck, especially in pinch hit situations, because the cage was too far to access during a game.
Now, for me, the tee and tiny net was the only place I could take unsupervised swings.
I grabbed the bag of balls and started hacking away. My swings were 100 percent brute and zero percent finesse. I swung hard not only to release my anger but also to let everyone know how pissed off I was. I didn’t say a word but just kept swinging. Many of my teammates and coaches walked past on their way to the dugout to prepare for regular batting practice on the field. Some of them may have already heard about what happened. By watching my furious swings, they knew something was bothering me. My head spun the entire time I was swinging. “How could Willie say that to me? Am I going to get traded? Cito thinks I’m a horrible player!” These thoughts and fears consumed me. I swung and swung until I was dripping sweat, then I grabbed my glove and headed out for the team’s four-thirty stretching session.
Out on the field I sat cross-legged, going through the team’s stretch routine, worried about my future with the Jays, and that my whole career might be in jeopardy. Though I got along great with my teammates, I knew now that Cito and a handful of others on his coaching staff were just waiting for me to slip up; if I ever got back into the lineup I’d better be on top of my game. The problem was that after my confrontation with Willie I wouldn’t be able to step into the batting cage again this whole season—a line had been drawn in the sand. My new challenge was to improve my swing while neither playing in the games nor working in the cage. All I had was the brief, daily team batting practice on the field and the modest little tee in the runway to the clubhouse.
The tee had to work.
Every day thereafter, I’d change into my uniform, grab my bat, and head to the tee and the tiny net. It didn’t take long for everyone on the team to know my situation with the coaches. At first, I took my swings at the tee with the same angry and fearful thoughts that had swirled in my head that first day. I was young and prideful, and thus I felt pretty cool for being rebellious for the first time in my life. I can see now that I initiated my tee work merely as a way to get loose and for a chance to parade my ego a little. However, four or five days into it something changed. I began to enjoy it. After the first fifteen or so swings, my mind would quiet and the swings would start to feel more fluid. I began to enjoy the twenty to thirty minutes I spent at the tee every day, even developing a routine of moving the tee to different places in the strike zone. I would visualize game situations and pretend I was facing all of the pitchers that I was currently being forced to merely watch from the distance of my seat in the dugout. I began to notice the sound of the ball swishing against the back net, like a perfectly shot basketball. I even made a ritual of placing the ball onto the tee the same way every time. My breathing became rhythmic: inhaling as I put the ball on the tee, holding my breath as I got in my stance, and exhaling as I took my swing. What was happening here? My tee work had started out as a form of punishment, yet suddenly it felt like something else, something more than just a hitting exercise.
Was it becoming a meditation?
As a senior at Tustin High School in Southern California, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. The book’s Eastern perspective struck a resonant chord with me, particularly as I’d come to it wide open to exploring not only the world around me, but also the world within. I devoured other similar books, such as The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Zen in the Art of Archery, and Siddhartha. Compelled by the promise of a more enlightened way of living, I continued my informal study of Eastern philosophies during my three years in the minor leagues and my first two seasons in the majors, developing a more meditative approach to the game of life, even as I worked with my coaches to develop a more efficient approach to the game of baseball.
Prior to that fateful day in ’97 with Cito and Willie, I’d dabbled in qigong meditation. In the winter months, I’d attended a small dojo in Newport Beach, where I learned to control my breathing—in through the nose, out through the mouth—and worked on finding my qi, or vital energy, which flows through the body. I loved the calming effect of the work, taking special note of the altered taste in my mouth and the glassy-eyed feeling upon completion of a session. As a novice, I appreciated such physiological feedback to acknowledge my being on the right track. I intended to maintain the work through spring training and into the regular season, but I lost touch with the practice after just a few weeks of baseball and workouts in Florida. (It’s not easy dragging yourself out of bed at the crack of dawn to get to the training complex by seven, so setting the alarm for an even earlier hour to facilitate meditation proved no easy task; at the end of a full day of workouts in the hot sun, all I’d want was a quick dinner and the rest and sleep necessary to do it all over again the next day.) It’s the most common thing in the world to forfeit a fulfilling routine when one’s schedule becomes more demanding. Pouring myself into spring training, I was unaware that meditation could fit unobtrusively into my daily routine, even at the office. Only later in that ’97 season, at the batting tee, did my two worlds meld into one.
At first, it seemed accidental that I found my own meditation with a bat in my hand. I know now that there are no accidents—everything is as it’s supposed to be. The truth is that my banishment from the batting cage arrived at exactly the right moment. I’d obtained enough apprentice knowledge as a young major leaguer to recognize that my swing was better suited to hit to all fields. Also, I’d read enough books and spent just enough time working on meditation in the off-season to recognize the stillness that arises from transcending the noise of the mind. A couple of dozen sessions into my tee work, I began to notice the same stillness I had touched upon several months prior at the dojo, where I’d worked on qigong. Then, my meditations had been motionless, either seated or standing, whereas now they were centered on movement. I had swung a bat so many times in my life that I really didn’t need to think about it. In fact, I was soon to discover that I was better off doing it with no thought at all.
A novice at any skill will fail to find meditation in the practice of that skill until he or she has achieved a level of technical expertise that makes the skill feel like second nature. The pull approach I had been forced to explore with Willie and Cito required my thinking, so it could never have provided the stillness I experienced when I returned to my natural swing.
It took the first couple of weeks of tee work to recover my up-the-middle stroke. But, in my banishment from the cage, I was free to revert to the swing I had been developing since my youth. My priority was to be ready for whatever chance I’d have to return to the lineup. On June 16, the Blue Jays released Ruben Sierra, the former All-Star who had recently been signed as my experimental replacement. My father, Ira, must have blown out some magic candles that day and gotten his birthday wish. The next day, I was back in the lineup for the first time in weeks.
That was the good news.
The bad news was that waiting for me on the pitcher’s mound was Greg Maddux, one of the best of all time. I’d find out soon enough if my solitary hours spent at the tee would pull me through.
I stepped to the plate in the second inning for my first at-bat against Maddux more composed and calm than I’d expected to be. I drove a 1-1 changeup over the fence in right-center field for a home run. Not only was the pitch of the off-speed variety that historically had given me trouble, but it had come out of the hand of a man destined for the Hall of Fame largely because of the effectiveness of that specific pitch. I followed up that first at-bat with another hit in the fifth inning, then a second home run in the eighth inning. Thereafter, I became an everyday player and raised my batting average about sixty points in a month’s time.
I had a new best friend—the batting tee.
For the first month after I re-entered the starting lineup, my tee routine remained very basic. I’d place the baseball on the tee with the four seams perpendicular to me, take a breath, and swing with my best up-the-middle stroke. I’d then take another breath, and repeat the process, over and over. Next, I would move the tee around to work on hitting pitches in different locations. The process was similar to what I’d done in the cage my dad built in the backyard of our house when I was a kid. The difference now was that I was not thinking about mechanics; I was focusing only on my breathing and on the ball.
The improvement in my swing and my newfound comfort at the plate got me hooked on the tee work. Being a spiritual seeker was a passion, but during the baseball season, hitting came first. It was my livelihood. Up to this point, these two worlds had not yet fully entwined. The meditative and subliminal effects of the tee work were more subtle than the immediate improvement at the plate. Inner stillness grew slowly, like the roots of a fruit tree spreading under the soil. However, as I continued my work throughout that summer of ’97, these aspects gradually became apparent and eventually as important to me as my batting success. I began to thirst for those twenty-minute sessions each day at the tee, not just as a means to achieving more at the plate, but as a way into peace and stillness.
In time, the tee itself became an object worthy of contemplation ….
Initially, I made do with whatever brand of tee the grounds crew set up at the net. Most stadiums had the awkward, yellow Atec brand tee, which was made of hard rubber that had a plastic feel. The tee could be moved up and down only from thigh high to midstomach and every time I took a swing, I’d feel my bat striking more of the tee than the ball. Worse, the thing tipped over on impact. Some stadiums had similar tees made by Louisville Slugger or Franklin that were slightly better, but still didn’t provide a natural feel.
Then, late that summer, our team equipment manager Jeff Ross showed me a new tee he had bought from Joe Tanner, a scout from Bradenton, Florida. The base was a small, square piece of wood about half an inch thick. The vertical piece was a telescoping stem that screwed into the base and had a soft but durable rubber cradle to hold the ball. Easily unscrewed into two pieces for transport, one could raise and lower the tee to work on extreme high and low pitches; also, the rubber cradle was so pliable that upon contact it didn’t even feel like the ball was set on a tee.
I was in love.
I never envisioned becoming a connoisseur of batting tees, but the tool had become the crux of my two worlds: baseball and spirituality. I put a felt pen to the base of the Tanner Tee and branded it with a big 15, my number. For the last two months of that season and the remaining ten years of my career, a Tanner Tee travelled with me on every road trip.
I’d begin my work with the Tanner Tee at its maximum height, swinging with a chopping motion, as if I were felling a tree. After several swings, I’d lower the tee a little, taking as many swings as was necessary to capture the same motion of chopping wood at the new height. This continued until the ball was as low as the tee would allow, just below my knees. By starting at the highest point and working down, I ingrained in my swing a chopping feel, thus guarding against long, loopy upward swings. Also, the height of the ball tended to mirror the depth of my meditative state. By the time the ball was at my knees, I’d be deep into the flow of my practice. Sometimes, it was difficult to get to that magical place. On those days, I’d take more swings at the top of the zone. Other times, the process moved rapidly. There was no clock, no race. The process unfolded on its own.
Sure, friends on the team would razz me about my solitary work. Ed Sprague poked fun at me by mimicking some of my unorthodox drills. He was a right-handed hitter, but he’d playfully mock me by standing at the tee in my left-handed stance and overexaggerate my drills. Other teammates found it peculiar that I packed my own tee in my bag for every road trip. Someone was always commenting, “Don’t forget your tee!” It was all in fun and always good for a laugh (back-and-forth banter is part of life in the big leagues). However, as my success on the field continued, the joking sessions gradually turned into interrogation sessions as teammates and opposing players took serious notice of my work in the cage. Smart hitters, like Ed Sprague, gained respect for my theories on hitting. Many of the drills in my practice evolved from discussions or observations of other hitters around baseball. We all share with each other all the time.
As stillness entered my life, my relationship with the ever-challenging external world also began to change. Late in the ’97 season, I noticed that the outer world wasn’t affecting my inner world to the degree that it once had. A negative newspaper article or comment on the street still might cause me a momentary burst of anger or irritation, but the emotions weren’t as charged as they were before. More important, the negativity didn’t linger obsessively in my head for hours or whole days. Soon, I stopped reading the newspapers altogether, after good games as well as bad. Whatever was said about me, positive or negative, did not have to affect the way I felt about myself.
Of course, thoughts and concerns still inhabited my mind. Such is the nature of human existence. But now the daily practice of stillness altered my relationship to those thoughts, aiding me to control them rather than the other way around. Finding stillness strengthened my ability to recognize and disarm menacing thoughts, thereby helping me maintain my own sense of being. Just as I changed my relationship with the baseball by stopping it and placing it on the tee, meditation enabled me to change my relationship with my thoughts.
In the cage, I would place a baseball on the tee, take a breath, stroke the ball to the back of the net, and then repeat the process, over and over. Outside the cage, I was now able to do something similar with my mind. A stressful or agitating thought would come into my head, so I would take a breath, then calmly stroke that thought away, leaving behind only stillness.
Contrary to general misconceptions, meditation is not about training oneself to live without thought; rather, it’s about training oneself to move beyond one’s thoughts. Skilled practitioners may find themselves experiencing brief moments of no-mind, though not even the most enlightened among them remain in that state at all times. The chatter of the mind always returns. However, the more one practices meditation, the more one can control the mind and in so doing, expend less energy reacting to the endlessly challenging circumstances of our lives. Upon lifting the heaviness of charged thoughts, one’s life becomes much lighter.
One example of such a significant shift in my perspective occurred at a game in Seattle in mid-September of ’97. It was four months since the conflict that launched my unexpected spiritual journey, and I was not only improving my performance at the plate, but also my relationship with the fans. I’d always been conscientious about signing autographs, but I had regarded most interactions with the public as something of a chore. I was too wrapped up in my own thoughts to connect with the people in the stands and so sensitive to criticism of my performance that I’d built a protective wall to keep safe from it. How could I have been anything but distant? However, after several months of working in a place of stillness to become less susceptible to the opinions of others, I allowed the wall between myself and the fans to come down.
We were finishing batting practice as a sellout crowd made its way into Seattle’s Kingdome to see their first place Mariners, which featured All-Stars Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Jay Buhner. I was shagging fly balls in right field when a kid with a baseball glove near the foul pole asked me to toss him a ball. No longer stressed out about preparing for the game, as I would have been in the past, I realized I could provide the kid with a memorable moment at the ballpark. Besides, it seemed like it’d be fun to play catch with him. I threw him the ball and indicated for him to throw it back; at first, he seemed worried about keeping the ball, but after I assured him it would be his when our game of catch was over, he threw the ball back. After we tossed it back and forth a couple of times, an unexpected thing happened. Another kid held his glove up for me to throw it to him. So I did (after again reassuring the first kid that he’d get the ball at the end). Before I knew it I was throwing this one ball to kid after kid after kid, my only criteria being that each needed to have a baseball glove. Before long, batting practice was over and I was left by myself in the outfield with an entire stadium of kids holding up their gloves and yelling for me to throw them the ball. I couldn’t believe that no one tried to steal the ball (I guess the people in the Pacific Northwest are exceptionally honest). This went on for forty-five minutes.
I thought I was providing a memorable ballpark moment to someone else.
Yet I’m the one who’ll never forget it.
That night, I felt a connection with an entire stadium of people. In the past, I’d have been too caught up in nervous preparation for the game I was about to play to experience such a thing, but now I knew that my tee work had seen to my preparation. No longer a slave to worry, about either the upcoming game or what my coaches and teammates might think of my antics, I was truly free to enjoy a spontaneous moment. Later, I would try to recreate it in other stadiums, but beautiful moments cannot always be planned. (Besides, whenever I tried it in New York or Boston it was never long before somebody would just make off with the “souvenir.”) Because I had the stillness of mind to enjoy what the world was offering me, I was able to connect with others in a new way. As the clock hit six-forty, I tossed the ball back to the original kid, waved to the crowd, and headed toward the clubhouse to switch jerseys in time to make it back onto the field for the game. As I ran off, the entire stadium gave me a loud ovation, which felt much more affectionate than any performance-induced cheering. My teammates razzed me a little, but that didn’t bother me. I’d had fun with forty-some-odd thousand fans.
The next day, Blue Jays announcer Buck Martinez told me that in all the years he’d been in baseball that was the “coolest thing [he] had ever seen.” He’d recognized a shift in me and, though he didn’t know about my work at the tee every day beneath the stadium, his kind words were further evidence that I was progressing in the right direction.
The ’97 season ended on a high note. I finished what was potentially going to be a career-damaging year so strongly that I solidified myself into an everyday player, and the team rewarded me with a nice two-year contract (more than the boost to my bank account, the raise signified a new level of commitment from the team). In addition, Cito and the faction of coaches that had been less than supportive during that first phase of my career were all let go at the end of the season. I felt as if the shackles had been removed and that I was about to enter my true rookie season come ’98, even though I already had more than three years in the Major Leagues under my belt.
My measurable growth as a player was obvious from a statistical perspective, but my internal growth was equally important to me. Of course, unlike hitting, spiritual growth can’t be quantified. But I didn’t need measurements. The ball sat still, and I hit it, period. My mantra wasn’t a candle flame or a chant, as in some forms of meditation. My mantra was the ball motionless; the only movement I focused on was the movement of my breath. The swing occurred on its own. Absorbed in the action of hitting, I felt my body moving, I saw only the ball, and I heard the contact of the wood on the ball followed by the swishing sound of the ball hitting the back of the cage—a beautiful practice.
I had reduced hitting, an extremely difficult activity, to its most basic form. As a result, I took each swing with full attention.
Previously, when a pitcher threw a ball to me, the ball was in control. I reacted to the ball’s speed and movement. Since the pitcher was the one who threw the ball, I also reacted to the pitcher. Of course, in my tee routine I no longer worked against the pitcher and the ball. Now, there was no pitcher, and the ball was simply sitting there waiting for me to hit it. I didn’t need to speed up or slow down to time a moving pitch. Instead, I could take the same rhythmic swing over and over, reinforcing quality habits until they became second nature. In essence, I reversed my relationship with the baseball.
And on a deeper level, I was learning to step out of time.
When baseball players talk about hitting, they often talk about time. In sports pages across the country, you’ll find articles in which a player says, “… my timing is off,” or “… I found my timing at the plate,” or “… I’m looking for my timing.” I too worked continually to find and maintain my timing in games. But I learned that the most efficient way to accomplish this was to remove myself each day to a place of stillness, a place removed from time.
There, in that twenty-minute bubble, I’d connect my swing to my deepest sense of being, training myself to become less reactive and more in control both at the plate and in life. Afterward, I could re-enter the world of time as a more centered and emotionally quiet person (as well as a better-prepared hitter).
Prior to my meditative practice taking root, I lived my off the field life in much the same manner that I approached hitting: reactive. I might show up to the stadium fuming over a critical article in the local paper, distracted and intent on proving something. Hitting a Major League curve ball is hard enough without attaching to it a personal agenda. And the potential distractions of being a public figure are not limited to how one responds to press coverage. The same holds true for walking across the street.
In those early years, when Blue Jays fans stopped me to say, “Wow! Shawn Green! You’re my favorite!” it filled me with pride; however, when those same fans tossed off critical comments, such as “Hey, what happened last night on that ball you dropped?” I was left obsessing over an error that I had already lost sleep over the night before. Finding stillness, however, enabled me to understand the pitfalls of allowing the ever-changing external world to dictate my inner world. If one stranger’s opinion could actually change my stress level, anger level, and overall well-being, then who was actually at the controls of my life? And yet that is how most of us live, whether we’re in the public eye or not.
Ultimately, hitting off the tee provided me a much needed refuge of deepening absorption and stillness. The practice changed with time and I got more adept at creating drills that finely tuned my swing. The routine I did in ’97 was more basic than the one I was doing by ’98, which, in turn, was a stepping stone to my practice in ’99 and beyond. Initially, teammates and coaches considered my drills more than a little unorthodox. But, like many other businesses, baseball tolerates the unconventional so long as you’re getting hits. Now, it feels good to think I may have had an influence on the game that extended beyond the stats on the back of my baseball card. Over the last six or seven years of my career, I no longer needed to bring a Tanner Tee with me to opposing stadiums, because by then every cage in the big leagues had at least one or two sitting inside. Of course, I still brought my own tee (the little things matter the most), but I couldn’t help smiling at the sight of all the other Tanner Tees, at the big league proliferation of that old scout from Bradenton’s homemade work.
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For a major-league hitter, nothing seems more menial than working off a batting tee, but it’s actually in menial tasks that we find the best opportunities to practice stillness. I never outgrew my practice at the tee. Rather, I continued to discover other so-called menial tasks that also could serve as practices of stillness. Exercising is a great domain for meditation. Lifting weights, I concentrate on my breathing while at the same time feeling the subtle movements of my body. I learned from my yoga instructor, Steve Rogers, that “all of your movements are anchored in the breath.” In weightlifting, moving from one repetition to the next requires an inhalation and an exhalation. The weight comes down … breathe in; the weight goes up … breathe out.
As a professional athlete, such repetitive physical workouts offered many opportunities to seek stillness. But if physical activity or sitting meditation doesn’t fit into your daily schedule, you can still find stillness by focusing in a new way on your daily tasks, specifically, on the “mindless,” menial ones.
Instead of washing dishes or mowing the lawn in a distracted state, why not do it with full attention? By using your own breath to anchor you to stillness, you can connect with the present moment. For example, in my tee work I’d place the ball on the tee and take a breath, step back and take a breath, swing the bat, hit the ball and take a breath, bend and pick up another ball and take a breath, place the new ball on the tee and take another breath. Ultimately, the mindful breathing, which served to focus my attention, was as much a part of the exercise as the actual swinging of the bat.
Concentrate on whatever you’re doing.
Life is full of menial tasks, which means it is full of opportunity. You can transform any task from an act of distracted second nature into an active meditation—the same awareness you’d employ if you were doing it for the first time. And you will discover that being fully attentive is being fully alive.
© 2011 Shawn Green