Friday, March 30, 2007


The Neurology of Baseball

The signs of spring are here: the smell of freshly cut grass, longer days and the sound of a bat striking a baseball.

More than eleven years ago, I began an affiliation with the Norwich Navigators and the New York Yankees. Since that time, I have enjoyed spending a week each year at spring training in Tampa, Florida. Growing up in the Bronx, it seemed as if supporting your favorite team was a family obligation. My grandparents emigrated from Italy and yearned to become “Americanized.” What better way than to learn about baseball and cheer for the Yankees, who at the time had so many Italian-American players.

A baseball game is a lot like one of those puzzles where everyone sees something different. Some are watching the base runner, while others may focus attention on the fielder, pitcher or possibly the batter. Excitement builds and the action shifts very quickly.

Neurologically speaking, the act of a batter hitting a ball as it travels 90 miles per hour is an amazing feat. This seemingly simple activity is arguably the most demanding in all of sports. It involves the precise interaction of multiple neurologic functions. The batter must first use visual input to assess the spin of the pitched baseball. He must then anticipate the direction of the ball. Will it be a curve ball, sinker, fastball or maybe a slider? If it is a wild pitch, he may need to swiftly dodge the ball or face serious injury. Subsequent actions involve complex movements and motor functions, enabling a batter to strike the ball with enough force at just the right angle, unable to be caught by a fielder. This whole process is referred to as eye-hand coordination.

These abilities require years of intense training. A concussive head injury can be devastating, wreaking total havoc on neural connections. Most fascinating is how these damaged pathways can be reconditioned after a head injury. I spoke to Mark Littlefield, Head Athletic Trainer for Player Development, who is in charge of rehabilitating injured players for the Yankees in Tampa.

Mr. Littlefield described a tedious two-week batting drill regimen that begins after a player has been cleared by a physician. Swing mechanics that have been carefully chronicled on video during spring training each year can be regained during this time period. Swinging at a tee with no ball (dry swing) is followed by hitting a ball off a tee, then having a ball tossed to the player from about 15 feet. This progresses to hitting in a batting cage, then simulated games and eventually, minor league assignment.

Billy Connors, a former major league player and now a Yankee pitching coach, feels that overcoming the fear of being hit again is the greatest challenge in recovery. The stress caused from this apprehension has ended many baseball careers.
When attending a baseball game this summer, try to remember that there is an intriguing game within a game. The people sitting next to you may be watching a totally different part of the action, especially if they’re neurologists.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is a neurologist on The William W. Backus Medical Staff with a private practice, NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dr. Alessi and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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