How Did A-Rod Get So Good?

When Anders Ericsson and his colleagues in the “expert performance” movement — we’ve written about them before, and we’ll write about them again — try to explain what it is that makes someone very good at what he or she does, they focus on “deliberate practice.” This means that, your level of natural talent notwithstanding, excellence is accomplished mainly through the tenets of deliberate practice, which are roughly:

1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
2. Set specific goals.
3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

This Times article by Tyler Kepner describes how Bobby Meacham, the Yankees’ new third-base coach, recalls seeing a young Alex Rodriguez approach the game. At the time, Meacham was a minor league manager whose team was hosting A-Rod’s minor league team:

“I said, ‘This guy goes about his business not like he wants to get to the big leagues, but like he wants to be the best,’” Meacham said.

“He knows he’s going to be good, but he wants to be great. There was just a method to it.”

In fielding practice, Meacham remembered, Rodriguez would ask for grounders to his right and to his left, and he would ask for fielders at second for a double play and at first for throws across the diamond. In batting practice, he would focus on specific disciplines — grounders the other way, liners to the gaps, and so on.

“At 18 or 19 years old, he already had a plan,” Meacham said. “It was pretty awesome to watch.”

If you ever forget what Ericsson and his crew are talking about when they talk about “deliberate practice,” just remember A-Rod. This isn’t to say that A-Rod wasn’t born with great athletic skills; but so was, e.g., Ryan Leaf.

Leave A Comment

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COMMENTS: 68


  1. geej says:

    how did he know the things he was “deliberately practicing” were the things that would make him very good?

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  2. Andrew says:

    What does deliberate practice say about the playoffs?

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  3. Davey says:

    The great ones work at it. I follow soccer and there’s a saying–”It takes a million touches [of the ball] to make a great player.” There’s a similar saying about writing, that “the first million words are just practice.”

    Larry Bird was said to stay after every game and practice free throws.

    As much as we would like to think there are naturals, in the end it comes down to putting in the effort.

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  4. Malic says:

    This is very true. Natural talent / sheer time spent are usually the only factors considered, but the ability to efficiently improve yourself is undervalued. There are MANY ways to push a boulder without moving it at all, and it’s the same for your own ability.

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  5. Max says:

    hey #2, does it mean anything to you that a-rod did better in the post season last year than “mr clutch” (not that i believe in such a thing as a clutch player) Derek Jeter?

    I do know that super agent scot boras has had a-rod on special training and work out regimens. on top of whatever else he does.

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  6. andrew says:

    A-Rod batting over .500 in spring! (8 games played, I know)

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  7. Spoiler says:

    The article specifically suggests that there is something qualitatively different about A-Rod. That someone else, practicing the same way wouldn’t get the results. Even that someone nearly as good shouldn’t attempt to practice the same way because A-Rod is special.

    Which is to say, the article only supports the expert performance movement’s ideas because of Dubner’s confirmation bias. (and his readers’)

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  8. Sully says:

    The article specifically suggests that there is something qualitatively different about A-Rod. That someone else, practicing the same way wouldn’t get the results. Even that someone nearly as good shouldn’t attempt to practice the same way because A-Rod is special.

    Which is to say, the article only supports the expert performance movement’s ideas because of Dubner’s confirmation bias. (and his readers’)

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  9. gene says:

    Claiming that A-rod, or any great athlete for that matter, achieved hall-of-fame status mainly through deliberate practice is ridiculous. Deliberate practice is more of a pre-requisite than a cause of greatness. I’m sure you could find hundreds of players stuck in the minor leagues who practice just as hard or efficiently as A-rod did.

    Something to think about:
    if deliberate practice is the main factor of greatness…How does tiger even have time to play? Considering how much better he is than everyone else, he’d have to hit balls at the range for at least a lifetime.

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  10. shoez says:

    Ahh, Ryan Leaf. Why does Washington State University’s most famous sports product have to be such a toolbag?

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  11. The Bud says:

    In response to Reej’s comment: Suppose you are learning trigonometry for the first time and do not know what a sin function is. In order to master trigonometry, wouldn’t you want to learn every aspect of that sin function first, just in case that sin function gets hit at you at about 80 miles an hour one day with runners on second and third with 1 out? I would, because if I knew I wasn’t very good at that sin function, then I know I’d probably be screwed if it ever got thrown at me in a real-life situation. That is how you master something.

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  12. T says:

    Any advice to the golf professionals who apparently play worse when they face Tiger Woods?

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  13. Justin says:

    Practicing all facets of one’s game doesn’t sound extraordinary to me. But nevertheless, yes, with equal talent, the guy that works harder will be better, clearly.

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  14. Kris says:

    @shoez – some of us from WSU have decided to ignore Leaf’s pro career and focus more on the quiet success story’s like Bledsoe. He was great in college, but ruined it by going pro before his attitude was “deliberately practiced” in not being an egomaniac.

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  15. Jason says:

    Not to be Captain Obvious or anything, but I am the only who noticed that Meacham’s quote is referring to A-rod’s defense?

    I know when he was younger, Arod was a great defensive shortstop, but Arod’s greatness has always been with his bat, and not his glove.

    Wouldn’t deliberate practice need to be closer to you know, what you’re good at?

    Speaking of which, how much time do you think Arod spent deliberately practicing slapping the ball out of pitchers’ hands?

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  16. Maurits says:

    “1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome”. This is more obvious in some fields than in others. Shooting three-pointers for a basketball player, for instance. But how do you do this as a poker player? There are so many fields where “good technique” is difficult to define but outcomes are very clear.

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  17. Wyatt says:

    My favorite counter-example to this (and I’ll admit that it’s simply a data-point, so don’t take it to heart) is man’s man John Daly. Now there’s a guy who doesn’t believe in practice and has made it to the highest level of golf!

    Not that he’s the A-Rod of golf or anything…

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  18. DV1 says:

    I think John Daly is the perfect example of what this article is about. Daly probably has more inate golf talent than just about anyone, but he’s more known for his partying than practing. Yes, Daly has made it to the PGA Tour and won a couple majors, but he in NOT in the pantheon of all-time great golfers. If John Daly had Tiger Woods’ desire and drive, who’s to say he would not have been the world’s #1 golfer for a long period of time?

    A-Rod probably already had enough raw talent to make it to the Major Leagues, but the authors are arguing that it is something more that has propelled him to the pinnacle of his sport.

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  19. Steve says:

    I think Vince Lombardi described it best:

    “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

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  20. sourcreamus says:

    I recently read John Daly’s book and can tell you that growing up he practiced alot. He was good enough to shoot 47 over nine holes the first time he ever played as a seven year old. He still practiced all the time until he became a pro. Nowadays, he practices losing money at casinos and drinking beer, and has grown into an expert at both those things as well.

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  21. StatingWhatShouldBeObviousButSomehowIsNot says:

    There must not be many former athletes reading this post. Only #18 was able to state what should be totally obvious.

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  22. Timothy says:

    To #16 (Maurits) – It is funny that you have chosen poker as example of a field where focusing on technique is not applicable. Actually, because poker involves chance, in the short term it is especially important to focus on technique versus outcome. Pick up nearly any poker book and it will stress the importance of not being results oriented on a given hand or session. Instead, one should focus on making the correct decision given the available information.

    Poker play is very(!) subject to analysis of technique. Poker bulletin boards are full of a single hand that generates hundreds of analytical posts.

    Obviously over the long term, outcome (winning or losing) is the most important. Given a reasonable sample size of hands, however, making logical decisions should make concerns about outcome a moot point.

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  23. Yngwie Malmsteen says:

    Deliberate practice is especially useful when learning to play a musical instrument.

    My guitar teacher always preached the importance of small incremental approach to learning. Slowly building on what you already know.

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  24. mikeg says:

    I think it is easier and more enjoyable to practice when you have natural talent. I have seen players without natural talent practice and it takes more effort and time. The advantage to natural talent is, as the game changes you can change with it more readily. All games change and all records are broken.

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  25. JJ says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the authors. Read “Mastery” by George Leonard.

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  26. Illi-noise says:

    A-Rod: the king of April homeruns and October disappointments.

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  27. charlie says:

    Tiger DOES practice and it is deliberate practice, His life is deliberate life. Trevino hit 600 deliberate practice balls every day. Deliberate practice. Deliberate practice makes one rise beyond one’s level of incompotence.

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  28. Brian says:

    At this level of skill, talent is mostly what separates the cream of the crop from the average MLB player.

    I’m willing to bet that there are many major league scrubs that practice just as efficiently. More talent just goes further.

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  29. Grant says:

    Tony Gwynn used to swing at five hundred batting cage pitches a day, even on game days, focusing on placement. Explanations of “natural gifts” are, I suppose, complimentary to an athlete in the same way that deifying somebody as a god is complimentary; and such explanations come about the same way: We see something we can’t explain, and–being human and all–we are uncomfortable without an explanation. So although we acknowledge the obvious benefits of practice and coaching, when those explanations start to fall short in explaning a Tiger or A-Rod or somebody else is cranking out stats that are head and shoulders above their contemporaries, we fall back into the “natural talent” explanation.
    In fact, a body can be physiologically more suited to one sport than another, or one aspect of one sport, but nobody has isolated a gene for “natural talent,” and once practice and outside influenced enter the picture, the waters are muddied too much to claim it’s all natural.
    Statistically, some athletes are going to excell. If you’re a sports fan, enjoy watching them–without attributing their skills to anything in particular, but just recognizing that when all you see are the results, you’re in no position to write the history.

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  30. Mark says:

    Essentially this is a “nature vs. nuture” debate in a sports context. Science debated this for years and I believe finally concluded that that there is a complex interplay going on here and that both are essential. To play in the MLB a very high level of both natural ability and effort are required. For some a little more natural ability can offset a little less practice and vice-versa. I like to think of it like multiplying two numbers together, one for natural ability and the other for the overall effectiveness of his practice. The player with the biggest product of those two numbers will be the best. So if a player has both top ability and top training, he’s off to the Hall of Fame because nobody can catch him.

    If you want to get more sophisiticated, there’s probably a third factor and that is opportunity to play, which implies good health and a chance to play baseball and probably an indulgent parent or two when the player is younger. I have to imagine that some potentially great baseball players will never make a contribution because they never played baseball as a kid.

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  31. David Samuel Mann says:

    Talent, work ethic and practice.

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  32. Floyd Rongonski says:

    As duly noted by Grant, armchair and Monday-morning quarterbacks, who’ve never been great at anything, except changing channels, are in no position to speak to write history.

    Too much time on their hands….

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  33. Edwin Kosobucki says:

    Don’t forget the Human-Growth Homone

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  34. jj says:

    A-rod doesn’t do steroids, but he should be allowed to if he wanted. Think about it (because I know you have not): steroids are banned because they give players an edge over others and allow them to compete at a level where they otherwise would not be able to. But there is no one better than A-rod in all of baseball ever in the history of the game, so he would not be cheating anyone if he took roids. He’d just be challenging himself. And that’s what sports are all about!

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  35. sam says:

    it was osum

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  36. Dale says:

    It’s been suggested in a number of the comments that the difference between the great ones and the good ones is talent. That both work equally hard, but the naturally talented rise above the rest.

    I think they’ve got it backwards. When you’re talking about the highest levels of anything, everyone up there possesses an abundance of raw talent. The great ones work harder.

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  37. Honest John says:

    A-Rod is proof that,”No matter how good you are, you can alway do better by working harder than your peers”
    Michael Jordan and Tiger are perfect examples.

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  38. John says:

    A-Rod is good at baseball because he grew up in Florida where they play all year long. What I would like to know is how Larry Walker and Justin Morneau got so good only playing a few months a year up in British Columbia. That takes real talent.

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  39. Jose Canseco says:

    … oh, and steroids.

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  40. Mike Remas says:

    We talkin about practice here. I mean practice, we talkin about practice. Not a game but practice, we talkin about practice. Not a game. Practice. we talkin about practice

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  41. sunny615 says:

    Arod already had the talent to get to the show and be good. It was his constant desire, motivation, and work ethic that made/will make him the best ever. There’s a difference between a good player, a Hall of Famer, and the best who ever played the game.

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  42. steven says:

    There’s so much that goes into all these different sports it’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations about this stuff. Alex has natural talent and a great work ethic, and he gets great results. What about John Kruk? The guy barely could move, was not known for hist work ethic, but could fall out of bed and hit .300. Sports is full of these examples. John McEnroe could barely touch his toes and his coaches could never get him to work out. Roger Federer hasn’t had a coach for much of his career. Walter Jones would miss training camp every year and still be the best offensive lineman in football. It’s obviously a combination of natural physical ability for a certain task, a knowledge both instinctive and learned for that task, good coaching, and an appropriate work ethic. Who knows? Maybe the reason a-rod falls off in the playoffs is because he works too hard earlier in the season.

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  43. a says:

    “A-rod doesn’t do steroids.” Right, he told you himself.

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  44. big e says:

    hasn’t it all been said here?

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  45. Bill says:

    Why can’t he hit in the post season?

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  46. Josh says:

    Roids.

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  47. Michael says:

    A-Rod is a great player, but he’ll never deliver the ultimate prize to new york. you can train all you want but the simple reality is that you can’t teach “heart”, which A-Rod has proven to have NONE of. That opt out decision proved he is a greedy player, in it only for his own financial gain.
    tradearod dot com

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  48. YankeefantrappedinMaine says:

    A-Rod is a mechanical Yankee. He does not have the heart/soul of Paul ONeil, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera etc. He plays for the glory and the money. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, as long as he doesnt claim that he plays for the love of the game and for being a Yankee.

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  49. Tom says:

    In our efforts to get good at what we do, we are instructed first to “focus on technique as opposed to outcome” and then to “set specific goals.” Aren’t these essentially contradictory directives? Specific goals are an outcome, which we must both set but also not focus on. It’s the sort of koan Zen masters meditate on for years to finally reconcile.

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  50. Pmack says:

    He should practice ‘deliberate swallowing’ as opposed to ‘unintended choking’.

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  51. anon says:

    um, steroids. and whining a lot. and slapping at gloves to try to knock the ball out. and shouting to distract fielders. all the things that make baseball a classy American pastime.

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  52. Jack says:

    I agree with all of you guys that deliberate practicing is something common with athletes.

    I think the point of the story was A-Rod’s motivation, he didn’t just want to be good enough to make the major leagues, he wanted to be the best, had that drive and focus.

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  53. old time yankee fan says:

    in another yankee thread i agree with yankee stuck
    in maine you gotta have heart to play sports
    beats practice any day any body remember lee trevino
    man he was great what a heart most athletes i say some are robotic sad yankees need to get rid of the robots get guys who will hustle to first base
    almost may ist now the addition of you know who mister money
    upset the delicate balance
    where are the yanks looking for an identity
    trade or do something
    its not about the dough
    you play ball or golf because you love 2
    bottom line
    old time yank fan
    mr money should never come back
    we all groaned

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  54. blade says:

    classic.

    we talkin ’bout practiss!

    I wish I could say that I’ve never mastered a video game with deliberate practice just so I could dominate… but we all did silly things when we were young.

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  55. Joe says:

    Arod is really not so good even though his numbers reflect the opposite. He is not a team player. He is, what we call, a poser. He’s a self-conscious and insecure guy who just happens to have great physical genetics. He hasn’t come through for the Yankees or for that matter, any of his previous teams. A ballplayer can have a fairly low average and not as many homers as Arod but, that guy can come through in the clutch. Arod can’t.

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  56. SevMan says:

    Im lovin the Ryan Leaf part at the end…hahah
    Deliberate Practice is just the tip of the iceberg…sport greatness is achieved mentally.

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  57. Byron, Fl says:

    “What does deliberate practice say about the playoffs?

    - Posted by Andrew ”

    Um, its says, no matter how hard you ‘deliberately practice’ the game is still a TEAM effort.

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  58. Tim says:

    I wonder if people are forgetting those few people who really are gifted athletically. I remember when roller blades first came out. A high school class mate of mine bought a pair and within days was jumping over cars, doing amazing stunts, and just plain impressed the pants off the rest of us. His ballance, timing, and instinct for not falling were all inborn. (or at least it appeared so). I mean, how do you do something for the first time, do it really really well, and not say that it is natural talent.

    To take a non-sports approach. Another friend of mine can play any song on the piano, even though she has never taken piano lessons. She can’t read sheet music, and only needs to hear a song 3 or 4 times to get it 98% perfect the first time. That was like 15 years ago. Has she gotten better over time with Practice? Yes, but she was already amazing with no practice, better than everyone else. I know lots of people know people like this. We all hate them, because we know that even without practice, they are better than we are with lots of practice.

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  59. Durim says:

    I would say for any athletes it takes a high level of natural talent but in order to be great one has to refine that talent by hard work. Just because you work hard however does not mean you will be great or even good for that matter (e.g. 95% of NCAA athletes). I look at the average athletes in a given sport and I see they work just as hard and sometimes harder just to be able to keep there spots on teams. So in the end I would say that natural talent is what in the end counts more then hard work. Do not miss interpret me I do believe that in order for an athlete to maintain that greatness he must continue to practice and work out and whatever else it takes to maintain your edge.

    In the words of a former NBA MVP Alan Iverson “Practice, practice where talking about practice”

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  60. mark musial says:

    Ever see the chest on this guy now vs. when he was in the minors…sorry, that ain’t natural, that was gotten with the help of some “juice”.

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  61. zensports says:

    As a teacher and scholastic coach of nearly 30 years I’d just like to add that I often knew of kids in the school who were not on any team who were better athletes than the kids on the teams. For many different reasons they didn’t commit themselves to developing their talent. Motivation, life circumstances and support have everything to do with the level to which an athlete rises.

    P.S. The whole line of steroid comments here is moot. Any adult who does not understand that virtually all world class athletes use performance enhancing substances is wearing blinders.

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  62. Griffith says:

    #61 I agree with you completely about athletes who “For many different reasons they didn’t commit themselves to developing their talent.”and also,”P.S. The whole line of steroid comments here is moot. Any adult who does not understand that virtually all world class athletes use performance enhancing substances is wearing blinders.” As an orthopedic surgeon whose goal it was to play baseball at an elite level. I found out first hand that many of my college classmates were extremely gifted naturally(?), Then as I began to practice medicine, The majority of my patients were athletes from New England area minor league baseball and hockey teams. The types of injuries that I was treating were caused by the use of performance enhancing substances. Bone degeneration from the increase in muscle mass and reduced flexibility these drugs provide being just the tip of the iceburg.

    However, to the point of the authors. I do believe that it is Arod’s work ethic that has won him 2 Gold Gloves and also allowed him to make the move from shortstop to third base so seemlessly.

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  63. nancy says:

    At his level, A-Rod’s success is pretty much mental. He refused to believe that he couldn’t be the best.Even if some people don’t believe that he is , his mental approach to the game probably won’t change until the stats drastically change. I thought the steroid issue had faded, and the replays were the topic of contention. Shouldn’t the umpires have just as long as careers as the players? Some of them have lost a significant part of their vision. I feel sorry for all the minor league umpires who never get the chance in the lucrative major leagues.

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  64. Alex says:

    i no everything about him but whqat were 5 things he did that was speacil

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  65. Paul says:

    Baseball historians and purists know they will never get the game back they so admired. I rather go to a little league game now.

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  66. Michael F. Martin says:

    Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset comes to very similar conclusions.

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  67. Romyr says:

    Steroids. Period.

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  68. David says:

    Does deliberate practice work for song writing? if so, why aren’t the music charts filled with the older musicians (who have had far more practice time). Why are so many musicians’ first albums their best?

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