Amazing How the most Casual Brush Can Leave An Imprint. Thanks, Ken Ravizza.
So I was checking out the obituaries, which is my demographic’s equivalent of Instagram, and I saw the name Ken Ravizza.
Hmmm, I thought. How many Ken Ravizzas could there be?
The one in the obituaries died last Sunday in California and was described as a sports psychologist who specialized in the mental aspects of athletic competition.
That could be a phrase dreamt up by a delusional talk radio caller to make himself sound important. In Ravizza’s case, it was shorthand for an impressive legacy.
After earning his Ph.D from the University of Southern California and starting a teaching career at Cal State Fullerton, where he would eventually become a professor of applied sports psychology, he worked with thousands of athletes, up to the highest levels, on how to improve their games.
One of his closest pals, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, hired Ravizza in 2015 to work with his players on sharpening their focus. The next year they won their first World Series in 108 years and while Ravizza was probably not the only reason, it’s impressive that after he died, almost the whole Cubs team from Anthony Rizzo to Addison Russell sent messages of mourning and condolence.
So did the likes of Justin Turner from the Dodgers and Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, along with athletes in sports that ranged from women’s gymnastics to pro football, where Ravizza’s clients included the New York Jets. Okay, we didn’t say every one of his teams immediately won a championship.
To oversimplify, he preached the power of positive thinking. You had a bad at-bat? Forget it. Visualize your next one being good. You gave up a home run? Don’t throw your next pitch until your next pitch is all you’re thinking about.
Actually, the title of his most popular book might summarize it best: Heads-Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch At a Time.
Now if you’re wondering whether all athletes warmly embraced the concept of sports psychology when he got into the field 45 years ago, the answer is no. “I don’t need no shrink” is as common a response among athletes as it is among, well, the rest of us.
Ravizza persisted, and gradually became what Kris Bryant of the Cubs described as a sports psychology pioneer.
Like most good salesmen, he started by selling himself. By all accounts he was friendly, accessible and down-to-earth. Pitcher Dan Haren remembers some of their quality time being conducted at bars.
However it worked, Ravizza convinced athletes they could learn something from what he had to say, and get better at what they did.
That’s a good legacy for anyone — and in Ken Ravizza’s case, I have no trouble believing it’s true.
I didn’t know sports psychologist Ken Ravizza. Although I love baseball, I confess I hadn’t heard his name in that context.
The Ken Ravizza I did know, very slightly, was a tall, cool kid who sat next to me in Mrs. Genova’s seventh grade homeroom at Sedgwick Junior High School in West Hartford, Conn.
And like I was saying, how many Ken Ravizzas could there be?
So yes, my seventh grade classmate and Joe Maddon’s good buddy are the same guy.
I should stress I didn’t really know him in seventh grade, and I never would. He was from a different stratum. He was handsome and popular, the kind of guy you knew was going to own high school. And sure enough, when we both moved on to Hall High, he did.
He was co-captain of the football team. He was co-captain of the basketball team. Oddly enough, given his future career, he didn’t play baseball. In the spring he ran track, where he won the conference championship in the 440.
He had a sports nickname, Kevizza, which is how his fellow athletes and their circle saluted him when they passed in the hall. A sports nickname was a very cool and exclusive thing. You earned it like you earned a letter.
Did I mention he also dated the alpha cheerleader?
Now it’s always been a point of some comfort to those of us who could only imagine Ken Ravizza’s visible high school achievements that the people who rule high school do not necessarily go on to rule the world.
In fact, it is sometimes declared, many of those rulers peak in high school and 20 years later surface as characters in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
“Glory days, they’ll pass you by / Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye. . . .”
While the nerds, the geeks, the dorks and the invisibles grow up to manage a hedge fund or invent a billion-dollar app. Look at Bill Gates.
This premise might or might not stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny. It clearly would not account for the career of Ken Ravizza. Nor would I wish it to, because like Bert Blyleven and Anthony Rizzo, I learned valuable things from being his classmate.
Two valuable things.
The first sprang came in Mrs. Genova’s homeroom, to which we all returned for the last period.
That meant we often started our homework there. One day, while glancing around the room at nothing in particular, I noticed that Ken was writing in a way I hadn’t seen before. Instead of cursive script, which was the style for schoolwork in those pre-computer days, he printed each letter in upper case. For capitals, he simply made the letter bigger.
Hmmm, I thought. Now there’s a way to ensure that everything you write is irrefutably legible. I didn’t adopt the style at the time, since cursive was preferred, but I would use it occasionally when I needed to be sure some message was clear.
As I got older and my writing began to look like a Rorschach test, printed caps became my default style when I needed to write so someone else besides me could read it.
My second Ken Ravizza lesson was that being a big man on campus didn’t mean you also had to be a jerk.
Ravizza, and a few others from his stratum, were cordial to everyone. He didn’t act like he owned the school, even though from where many of us sat, he did.
So whenever I succumb to the temptation of remembering high school as three years that just sucked, I have to admit that like the rest of life, it’s not that easily classified.
And that Ken Ravizza, may he rest in peace, apparently succeeded in the world with the same principles that he used to succeed in high school.