Inside the Games
What do baseball players talk about at first base? What's a gymnast thinking seconds before soaring 20 feet into the air? And how precise does a coxswain need to be? A window into the little-known worlds of some highly skilled athletes.
Hurts so good
In the NBA, setting the perfect screen requires commitment and self-sacrifice. Executed at the highest level, the skill demands that the biggest men on the court stand in the path of opposing guards and small forwards, freeing teammates for shots. Without a screen setter like the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen would be endlessly harassed on offense, looking at obstructed views of the basket. With Perkins, opposing players are often left wondering what hit them. The answer is a 6-foot-10inch, 280-pound center who craves contact. Throughout the season, Perkins has bruises on his arms and chest to prove it, reminders of all the elbows, shoulders, and heads that have collided with his body.
"Learning how to set a screen is just giving up your body," he says. "It's like setting a block in football. I'll try to go down and really take somebody's head off with my screens. If I set a good screen and, ka-boom, make somebody's neck jump, I love that."
Perkins estimates he sets some kind of screen on every Celtics possession, which can translate to roughly 40 per game. When he sets a screen for Pierce, Perkins singles out Pierce's defender from the moment the Celtics bring the ball up court. Next, Perkins sizes up the angles at play, asking himself where and how he can intersect the defender for a solid hit.
After four seasons together, the two rely on an intuitive sense of timing. Pierce must make sure Perkins stands set in the proper place before he makes a run that will force his defender into the Celtics' center. If poor positioning and poor timing occur, the defender can more easily get around Perkins and increase the odds of an offensive foul. But when they're in synch, each player boosts the other. "With me setting the screen and Paul hitting the shot," Perkins says, "I feel like I hit the shot because I got him open."
-- Shira Springer
There is a dance at first base when a runner's on. Chitchat. Game on. Chitchat. Game on. But it's only when that dance veers from its normal routine of game talk and family talk, only when it becomes touchy-feely, that Kevin Youkilis begins to take notice. "Maybe rub his leg or something if he's got a bunch of hits," he says of an odd baseball custom. "[Cleveland's] Casey Blake always does that. If I have a bunch of hits in a game, if he gets on first base, he'll always try to touch me. Try to get hits. They just try to rub your arm. They try to take your hits away from you. Some guys try to rub the good luck onto them."
Superstitions are part of the sometimes awkward, sometimes amusing conversations around the first-base bag. Although Youkilis says holding runners on is his least favorite part of his job, he doesn't mind certain appearances on his stoop. Like Minnesota's Justin Morneau. Or former teammate Kevin Millar, now with Baltimore. Or "The Mayor," from Detroit: "Sean Casey's probably the number-one guy that everyone loves seeing, because he's the nicest guy in baseball," Youkilis says. "Always has positive things to say to you as a player."
Former Sox player Carlos Pena, now with Tampa Bay, experiences the negative - at least when Manny Ramirez gets on first. Pena says Ramirez often greets him with a complaint. How exactly do you react when a player with more than 2,000 hits tells you he simply isn't feeling right at the plate? "He makes you wonder, Is he just joking with me, or is he that crazy?" Pena says.
When David Ortiz reaches first, Pena gets a hug. It's hard not to like Ortiz's warmth. But does it have to be on first base? Pena laughs and says he tries to hide those from his dugout. "I'm like, `Dude, don't hug me. You want my manager to get mad at me?'"
-- Amalie Benjamin
What's it like to line up across from two aggressive football players and get absolutely mauled? Willie Andrews knows all too well. The second-year defensive back is often the "gunner" on the Patriots' punt coverage unit, the player who lines up outside, usually against a double-team, and is charged with being the first one down the field, no matter who stands in his way.
What muscles come into play the most?
"The biggest one is the heart. Even if you get past those [two] guys, there might be another guy waiting for you, and then you still have to get down there and make the tackle. You have to have determination."
How do you prepare for that job?
"Knowing your opponents. Just holding strong to your technique. You know you have to get inside leverage. The hardest thing is taking that first step."
What's inside leverage?
"You have one man lined up in front of you and one man lined up on the inside of him, and they're baiting you to go outside. They don't want you to go inside and get to the punt returner quicker."
How much tape do you watch of opposing players to prepare?
"I go over my special-teams tapes every day, maybe 35 to 40 minutes a day, where we just look over film, read the scouting reports, look at their speed."
What are you looking for in the other team's formation?
"How far they're split apart. If they get kind of wide, maybe give them a jab step and go for the split [between the two]. Also, what kind of guys are they? The big guys might want to jam you up, and maybe I'll try to outrun him. If it's a smaller guy, maybe I can try to jam into him to get past him."
What's it feel like to take the pounding over and over again?
"Somebody has to do it. You get out there, and even if you don't get down there, you know it's two for one, so it can leave another guy open to make a play. If you can make it three for one, that's even better."
-- Mike Reiss
The windup and the pitch
Eileen Canney's softball pitching motion is an indecipherable blur. The ace right-hander for the New England Riptide pro team has thrown pitches clocked at 70 miles per hour. (She estimates she averages about 150 pitches a game. Try that, Josh Beckett.) At Northwestern, where she was a two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, she once threw the ball so hard, she broke her opponent's bat. Aluminum bat.
But speed is only part of her success; the 22-year-old Canney has pitches that move. In all, she has six pitches in her repertoire: fastball, change-up, curve, screwball, the drop, and the riser. How, exactly, does she make the ball jump and dip? It starts with flawless windmill technique, a multistep pattern that must be practiced, week in and week out, year-round.
She describes part of the delivery: "While pushing off the rubber, I turn sideways, body facing third base, and my arms come apart in a T shape. From this point on, it's called a slingshot.
"The right arm, where you get most of the power, comes down, and the left arm comes down, too, providing resistance. As the left foot steps, your right arm comes down, and the release is right at your hip. You snap your wrist in different ways, depending on the pitch."
Strength, she says, is generated by the legs. "I dig a hole in front of the rubber, and I push down into the hole and use that to drive out."
The finish of the pitch is called a figure four. "You bring your right leg up to the middle of the shin of your left leg," Canney explains. "You should be balanced enough so you should be able to hold it there, in the figure four."
And that baffling spin she puts on the ball? Finger strength is important. "You have to be able to twist your hand to put certain spin on it," Canney says. At this level, you can't get away with just throwing fastballs - she actually doesn't throw them in games - "because you just give baters the power to hit it hard."
-- Barbara Matson
I've got rhythm
Yasmin (Yaz) Farooq, head coach of the women's rowing program at Stanford University, coxed the US Olympic women's eight-oared crew in 1992 and 1996. She gives the annual steering tutorial to coxswains before the Head of the Charles Regatta.
"Coxing requires a great deal of multi-tasking. You're not only steering the boat, you're also executing the race strategy and providing information to the crew. You have to see what's up ahead but also be aware of what's going on around you. Generally, less information is more. What you say to the oarsmen has to be relevant and meaningful, and how you say it is important. It's about projection and clarity and a tone that's confident.
"Less steering is more, too. You want to impact the boat as little as possible. If you're good at it, the oarsmen will not feel your hand on the tiller. In a straight-shot course, you're moving it by millimeters.
"Wind is a huge factor. In a headwind, the resistance actually makes it easier to steer. A tail wind is harder, because you feel you have no traction. A cross tail wind is the most difficult to steer in; it's almost like you're skidding.
"You feel everything when you're coxing. You feel swing, when the boat's really in rhythm. You feel check, when it's jerking. And you feel when the boat's off balance. If it's riding to port, the left side of your butt is sore.
"Coxing in the Head of the Charles is a special challenge. The Weeks footbridge at Harvard is the toughest racing turn in the world, especially with all the traffic there. You see collisions all the time. When I give my tutorial to the coxes before the race, I try to keep things simple. I show videos of crashes - this is what happens when you go too tight, this is what happens when you go too wide. Hitting a bridge abutment in a boat is like hitting a wall in a car. I'm going to make it a rule at Stanford that any kid who wants to cox has to have a driver's license."
-- As told to John Powers
One on one
The shoot-out - the series of one-on-one contests (three shooters go up one at a time against the opposing goalie) that decides NHL games still tied after overtime - is hockey distilled to its essence. The Bruins' overall record ranked them in the bottom third of the 30-team league last year, but they finished tied with the second-highest number of wins in shoot-outs (nine), thanks largely to Phil Kessel. As a rookie, he was the game-deciding shooter in four victories, prompting teammates to compare him with the Yankees' Mariano Rivera for his game-closing flair. He reveals some insight:
Preparation helps, but it's only a start. The "cheat sheet," which displays the strengths and weak- nesses of the opposing goalie, is available for each game. Before each shoot-out, Kessel takes a quick glance, but doesn't consider it his primary source. "The sheet's there," he says, "but it's more read and react."
Learn from your teammates. For the team's last four shoot-outs, Kessel was chosen to be the critical third shooter. Like the rest of his teammates on the bench, Kessel watched for the outcome of the first two players. But he was also reading their moves - they often threw fakes and tried to go five-hole (between the goalie's legs) with wrist shots, for example - and took note on how the goalie reacted.
Speed equals opportunity. Assault the net hard, forcing the goalie to make the first move. Once the goalie has committed, then more options open up. "Just go out there; go with speed," Kessel says. After that, it's adjust on the fly.
Stay flexible, and don't overthink. Even more important than his moves is his mind. At a win-or-lose time when every variable - Will the goalie stay up or go down? Should I go backhand or forehand? - is sprinting through players' heads, shooters can hesitate and misfire, or be predictable. Former Bruins coach Dave Lewis says Kessel knows that each goal is different. "He doesn't have a favorite move, like some other guys do," he says. "Whatever's there, he takes it."
-- Fluto Shinzawa
Winchester's Alicia Sacramone, 19, a member of the US gymnastics team, won her third medal in the vault last month in the world championships.
"When I was younger, I didn't like the vault - I was scared to run as fast as I could into a solid object. Now it's one of my specialties. My favorite is the Yurchenko double full - it's a round-off [a variation of a cartwheel] onto the springboard, then a back handspring onto the horse with a double twist in the air.
"I've been doing the Yurchenko for four years, between 40 and 60 a week in practice, so I basically can do it in my sleep, but I still do a mental run-through when I'm at the end of the runway. Even though the vault takes only six or seven seconds, there are a million things going through your mind - the run, the round-off, the block, the flip, the twist, the landing.
"I'm looking straight ahead at the horse when I take my 10 running steps. You can definitely mess up the vault if you over-run it, so you have to find your speed. After I do the block, which is the two-handed push off the horse that gets me in the air, I've got to stay clean, with my arms and elbows tight.
"At some point, you're between 15 and 20 feet in the air. You have to think about the little things, like pointing your toes, because a lot can go wrong up there. If something is wrong, I can tell. But there's a way you can still save the vault by knowing what to tweak. It's how much you're in touch with yourself. When I'm in the air, my eyes are open. I'm always looking for the mat to know where I am, to get ready for the landing.
"The vault can be dangerous; gymnasts have been paralyzed doing it. I try not to think about getting hurt, but it's always in the back of your mind. So when I'm on the runway, I say a little prayer - and then go."
-- As told to John Powers