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Yogic lessons: The Rockies are choosing hope, and so am I

The relationship between yoga and baseball is more than stretching and flexibility

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I’m choosing hope.

The Rockies are still “true believers,” despite a grim May and June that’s left them with a 36-38 record and an expensive bullpen in shambles. I’ve read the stats and the despair on Twitter, so no need to point them out. I’ve even contributed myself. But I’ve made a decision: I’m all in on hope.

It makes me think of the relationship I see between baseball and yoga. (I’m still waiting for the article that explores baseball players doing yoga as a full mind-body practice rather than as just a way to preserve flexibility; this Tom Murphy article is a start.) This season of Rockies baseball has taken me back to my first yoga practice, which taught me important lessons while also improving my strength and flexibility. Now, I’m reconsidering those lessons in light of Rockies baseball with Bud Black as an unexpected teacher.

Here are some relevant principles.

Practice — A yoga routine is called a “practice,” not a workout, because you are always “practicing” and improving. The teacher stresses that yoga is not competitive with a finish line and winners and losers; rather, yoga requires persistent and patient practice. Consider Ian Desmond’s struggles in April and May. Bud Black was clear: He’s working through some stuff, but he’ll get there. Black stresses this when he speaks about pitching — watch any post-game press availability, and this is his message. He doesn’t call baseball a “practice,” but that’s his philosophy.

Clearly, baseball is different than yoga in that players have measureable career highs and declines that cannot be overcome with training. But the part of Black that is a teacher stresses the need for practice.

Acceptance — This was, perhaps, the greatest lesson I learned in yoga: To eliminate anger by accepting the things I could not change. That’s not to be confused with complacency or assuming that things can’t be changed, but it is about accepting where you are and what is happening in the the world right now. The failure to do so results in suffering. My first teacher stressed that suffering is self-inflicted largely by refusing to accept what is. I can’t say that I’ve mastered that one (I’m still practicing), but it’s made me more aware that when I’m frustrated, I need to do an inventory of what I can control and what I can’t control and what I can realistically do to facilitate change.

For example, I’m going to have to accept that Bryan Shaw is struggling right now, and that my getting angry about it changes nothing — and if I don’t accept that, I will only inflict suffering on myself. The anger that filters through Twitter does nothing but voice a pointless frustration.

Failure — Embracing acceptance also means accepting failure. My teacher would put it like this: “When you fall, you fall perfectly,” in which falling is a metaphor for failure. I don’t like failing — I don’t think many of us do — but yoga reminds me that it’s impossible to get better at anything with the risk of failure. When I fell in class, I did so in a relatively closed environment. My classmates showed me compassion, which I was obligated to return. I need to extend that understanding to others — which includes the Rockies bullpen. I have to remember that Shaw, who has a record of being very good at what he does, is failing in front of a public audience. He isn’t doing this deliberately. It’s where he is now in his practice.

In Bud Black’s postgame interview after the second Met’s game, he is careful to praise Shaw for getting better (while pointing out that lead-off walks are never a good idea).

Bryan today, had a flyball that eluded Charlie (Blackmon) in center, and then there was a groundball to (second baseman) DJ (LeMahieu’s) left, and then a tapper back to the mound that he threw away,” Black said. “But Bryan is getting close his last couple of outings. The pitch quality is better.

And this:

Balls aren’t ricocheting off walls and homers aren’t happening,” Black said, referring to the bullpens performance. “We need to clean it up the leadoff walks, and that’s something we are addressing.”

In all of this, he is accepting failure while trying to get all of us to see more: that Shaw and the bullpen are practicing and improving:

Case in point: Adam Ottavino. Think about where he was last year and where he is today. That is practice.

Persistence — I learned from yoga to be persistent, to try poses that I wasn’t sure I could do. The criticism of Desmond and Shaw has been deafening, and yet they persist. When they are told to go into a game, they do it, even in the face of booing fans. They are practicing in front of us, despite great personal risk. Yes, they are well paid, but public failure is hard regardless of a bank account balance.

Consider Wade Davis’s outing in the final Texas game. He was entrusted with a lead and went in to close, the thing he does best, and he blew it. He failed while we all looked on. Here’s how he described it: “There was definitely something not going right. I’ve never done that before. . . . I can’t be more frustrated with myself than I am right now.”

But on Tuesday night against the Mets, he earned the save — despite a lead-off walk. Jon Gray is practicing in front of us and is very open about his struggles — he articulates his practice. How he manages to summon such honesty and face the press after a bad outing is remarkable. That’s persistence. I don’t know where Gray will come out this season, but I admire his character and his persistence.

I’ve come to see Bud Black as a teacher — and I realize that all coaches are, but there’s something in the way Black talks about pitching that makes me think. The way in which he is handling Chris Rusin is fascinating, trying to help him find himself again as a pitcher. Here’s how Nick Groke describes it:

He [Black] wants only for his relievers to find again an aggressive attitude, to trust their stuff enough to pitch in the strike zone with force. Even if that means one-batter outings or low-leverage situations, they will reconstruct bullpen confidence one block at a time, like a Lego set.

“It takes one or two outings to get your confidence back,” Rusin said. “You’ll see the action on your pitches and the reaction of hitters on pitches. And something clicks. And you’re like, ‘there it is.’ You want to take that and run with it.

“If you have a good outing, it’s easier to sleep at night and you can visualize what you did and keep it fresh in your mind so next time you go out there, you can do it again.”

There it is: patience, practice, failure, persistence.

I don’t understand or agree with all of Black’s decisions (Brooks Pounders, anyone?), but I do think there’s a method, even if I don’t understand it. When Black says, “That’s baseball,” he’s giving an answer that comes off as flippant. What he’s saying, I think, is that baseball is complicated, which makes it beautiful but also, sometimes, infuriating.

So with that in mind, I’ve chosen hope for the 2018 Rockies. I’m seeing this season as a time of learning. The offense got better, and I think the bullpen will get better, too. We can see improvements already. Baseball has taught me that the season is very long, that we tend to stress single games too much because they are recent, but really, the long season gives time for lots of failure, practice, and improvement.

Is it worth believing in the Rockies when the losses, like Sunday’s 13-12 washout to the Rangers, are so discouraging? Ryan Spilborghs said on Twitter it was “gut wrenching, the worst loss in all my years watching baseball.” Why put ourselves through this? Why not sell off the assets, and begin rebuilding for next year?

Here’s my answer: I’m happier when I choose hope, and so I’m going to until it is mathematically impossible for the Rockies to make the postseason.

When Bud Black left the post-game press conference against the Mets, here’s how Groke describes it: “I tell ya,” Black said, pausing to look over his shoulder, “the bullpen is getting closer.”