Matt Rizzotti, 23, is heading into what he hopes is the first game of the rest of his life. He is armed with (in chronological order): an empirically tested and proven wine red Louisville G-174 baseball bat, a deepening appreciation of the Eastern philosophy of Wei Wu Wei, a recently ingested chicken teriyaki Subway sandwich and John Mayer's live version of the song Clarity streaming from his iPod to calm his nervous mind.
He listens and remembers the time he silenced 10,000 people in a College World Series qualifying game by hitting a home run off a slider thrown by Joba Chamberlain, who is now a standout pitcher for the Yankees.
He can do this.
In about 10 minutes the National Anthem will be sung for the first regular-season Clearwater Threshers baseball game. About 10 minutes ago, the air in the locker room started to feel thick. For Rizzotti and most of the players around him, this is the first day they will play truly professional ball.
"This is where the pitchers get smarter, and the hitters have to follow suit," he explains. "This is what determines if you have what it takes to make the majors."
Baseball is a superstitious sport, and good stats are believed to be the result of a kind of life stew. And every player has a recipe, born of experience, coincidence and life's mystery. Here's what's cooking in Rizzotti's head:
Wine red Louisville G-174: Rizzotti's first swing of the red bat, last year in a mid-season game, was a home run. After that his average went uphill, from .240 to .290. In baseball, that meets an unspoken and universal definition of sacred. Rizzotti has never swung the red bat in batting practice or in the cage. "You find a bat like that and things fall into place. Whether you bat better or not, you start to feel better."
A few dozen games later the bat tragically breaks on a line drive single, and Rizzotti's average begins to dip. The end of the season stops the slide.
"It's $150 for a box of four. Now I have an arsenal."
Embracing Wei Wu Wei, AN ancient eastern philosophy of "action without action" or "effortless doing": Rizzotti noticed players hit better in spring training than the regular season.
"If you ask guys what it would be like if you could extend spring training all year, they'd say, 'Oh yeah, I'd be hitting .500.'
"Last year as soon as the season started I locked down. Your whole mind-set changes. These games count."
This year he is trying to extend spring training in his mind. "I'm trying not to care too much. Not in the sense of not caring about the game, but in the sense that if I'm 4-for-4 or 0-for-4 it doesn't change me."
No more trying to outthink the pitcher.
"Now I get in the box and it's just sit back, arm down, elbow down, get your hands in position, two breaths, bring the bat back, one deep breath before the pitch, and just barrel the ball."
Subway sandwich: In spring training, Rizzotti was 3-for-3 at the plate for two games in a row after eating Subway chicken teriyaki for lunch. So he tried another for the last preseason game and hit a double. Though science has not studied the neuromuscular effects of Subway chicken teriyaki, hits are hits. And Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game.
John Mayer "Clarity," the live version: Important ingredient in establishing new transcendental mind-set. Also important in the mix, Dave Matthews' Everyday, also the live version. Live versions are longer, which helps establish and maintain new chill attitude.
The opening game results? An RBI, two singles and a fly out. Not bad stew.