Mind Games

The Greene Line

Yogi Berra was once quoted as saying, "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

If nothing else, the adage makes excellent fodder for sports quote books and coaches' pre-game speeches. For the Harvard baseball team, it is the source of a year of frustration.

Princeton entered this weekend's Ivy League championship series against Harvard with an overall record of 19-23 and were 10-10 in the Ivy League. Not that there is anything wrong with mediocrity--indeed it is a goal for many--but an even record is positively abysmal for any team with title hopes.

Harvard on the other hand had rolled through its Ivy League schedule, winning 18 of 20 games against league opponents, and had played the role of giant-killer against ranked opponents Miami and UMass.

But two innings into Game Two of the series, Princeton's chances didn't look half bad. The Tigers already held a one-game lead, having stymied the Crimson for one run on four hits the game before, and were leading 1-0 in the potential clincher.

This funny game we call baseball has played mind games with Harvard's players before. The first time Harvard and Princeton met this season, the Crimson was one strike away from a 6-0 victory...and lost. Princeton scored eight runs in the last inning to win 8-6.

This same core of Crimson players had locked horns with the Tigers in last year's Ivy championship series. Harvard entered that weekend with a superior record that included a season sweep of Princeton. But it was the Tiger players who ended up waving the Ivy League championship flag.

So when the Crimson took a 3-1 lead in the third inning of Game Two, only to load the bases with Tigers to start the fourth, thoughts of hexes, letdowns, and any other conceivable mental barriers danced through the heads of Harvard's players.

Harvard was better, much better. But just as the Royals could never beat the Yankees in the late 1970s, and just as the current Braves seem to have a complex about the American League, the Crimson simply could not close the Tigers' casket.

Until the bases were loaded with no outs in that fourth inning.

Harvard starter Frank Hogan got senior Michael Keck to pop out to third, then got senior Gino Barbera to bounce into a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play. Hogan ran off the mound pumping his first and shouting into the Princeton dugout.

"I shouldn't have said anything, but I did," Hogan said. "I wanted to get the team fired up."

It worked. Harvard held on to win the second game. For the first time in six games, the better team had won. The curse had been lifted.

"That's always a big boost, when it's the bases-loaded like that and you get out with no runs," junior Aaron Kessler said. "You're feelin' great and just go in and stroke the sticks."

In the third game, Harvard scored in each of the first six innings to take a 20-2 lead. With its mental block lifted, the Crimson's physical superiority was finally free to flex its muscles.

"We didn't want to leave any doubt," said captain Peter Albers, whose second-inning grand slam put the game out of reach. "From the first inning we wanted to show the other team that they shouldn't even be in the ballgame."

Somewhere, George Brett and John Smoltz are smiling about Harvard's win. It's about time Goliath got his day in the sun.