SweetSpot: Steve Sax

Mackey Sasser doesn't deserve disease

December, 16, 2010
12/16/10
12:28
PM ET
More from the mixed-up files of Mr. William E. Robinson, this time about a tough old catcher named Clint "Scrap Iron" Courtney:
    By the time Scraps joined the Orioles in 1960 he couldn't throw very well anymore. The story was that he'd hurt his arm Indian wrestling a teammate on the trunk of a car. They'd gotten into an argument about who was the best Indian wrestler and decided to settle it on the spot. Not only did Clint not throw to bases well, but during the season he began having trouble just throwing the ball back to the pitcher, which sometimes happens to catchers who otherwise have strong arms. It becomes a mental block we used to call "getting the monkey on your back." Courtney definitely had the monkey on his back. With runners on base, he'd be afraid he might throw the ball by the pitcher and allow the runners to advance. To build his confidence, he'd catch the pitch and walk out in front of the plate to toss the ball back to the pitcher.

Today that mental block is called "Mackey Sasser Disease." Which hardly seems fair, now that we know Mackey Sasser wasn't the first to suffer this dreadful malady.

Actually, we already knew he wasn't the first. If memory serves (sorry, I'm not near my books), Dale Murphy also had problems throwing the ball back to the pitcher.*

* Yes, Dale Murphy first reached the majors as a catcher. When that didn't work out, the Braves turned him into a first baseman. It wasn't until 1980, Murphy's fifth season in the majors and his third (mostly) full season, that he took over as Atlanta's center fielder. I'm generally a supporter of Murphy's Hall of Fame candidacy, but it's a stone fact that Murphy played 120 games as a center fielder in just four seasons in his entire career. I learn something new almost every day.

Mackey Sasser just got stuck with it because ... I don't know, actually. Maybe because when it happened to Courtney, nobody was coming up with such clever tags? Maybe because when it happened to Sasser, "Steve Blass Disease" had been a part of the vernacular for so long that it was easy to make the adaption? Right around the same time, of course, Steve Sax had trouble throwing the ball to first base ... and when the same thing happened to Chuck Knoblauch a few years later, he was said to have come down with a nasty case of "Steve Sax Disease."

But Sax wasn't the first, nor was Blass, nor Murphy, nor even Courtney, probably. If we're going to stick guys with these terrible honors, we should at least make some effort to find out who really deserves them.

Anyway, there's a wonderfully coda to this story (which is appropriate, because Courtney was wonderfully colorful) ...
    Later, after we moved into the Astrodome, Courtney became our bullpen catcher. He warmed up relief pitchers in the Astrodome bullpen, which was down the right field line. He still had a problem throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Many times he'd throw the ball wild, and it would go onto the field, stopping the game while someone retrieved it. One night after throwing a couple of balls away, he was so embarrassed that he went into the clubhouse in the middle of the game, took his uniform off, and said, "I quit. That's the last time I'll put on a major league uniform." And it was ...

Courtney later managed for Eddie Robinson in the minor leagues, and keeled over dead one afternoon in the team hotel (and no, that's not the wonderful coda).

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