A Royal Winner: Buddy Biancalana
“Well that felt great, how can I get back there?”
Playing on the grandest stage in sports offers the opportunity for any athlete to emerge as a hero.
The history of pro sports championships is dotted with unlikely players who came out of nowhere to lead their teams to titles.
Guys like Brian Doyle and Timmy Smith are forever cemented in the annals of their sports for what they did in the World Series and Super Bowl. Doyle, a .161 career hitter, batted .438 in the 1978 World Series and Smith, who played one mediocre full season in the NFL, rushed for 204 yards in the Super Bowl XXII.
For that one series and one game, they were “in the zone.”
The Kansas City Royals have their own player who fits that category, 1985 postseason star Buddy Biancalana, and he joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Just about any athlete can tell you what it is like to be in the zone. The descriptions are always similar. The game slows down, movement seems effortless, every move you make is the right one. It’s a strange, abstract state of mind that’s hard to explain and once you experience it, you are always seeking to return to the zone.
Doyle was in the zone in ’78 and so was Smith in the Super Bowl. Biancalana was certainly in the zone in the 1985 World Series when he helped the Royals to a title over the St. Louis Cardinals.
The switch-hitting shortstop batted .065 points higher than his career average in the World Series and seemed to be in the middle of every rally the Royals had. He came up with key hits, made plays on the bases and maintained his usual high level of defense. That was Biancalana’s “zone experience.”
The difference with Biancalana is that after having his zone experience, he has spent years researching the biological and neurological reasons why athletes have that experience and how they can have zone experiences more frequently.
Quite frankly, it’s absolutely fascinating stuff.
Shawn Green was in the zone for a series in Milwaukee against the Brewers in 2002. He was 3-for-8 with two home runs and a triple the first two games.
He homered his first at bat of the third game and as Green tells it, “That’s when it all clicked, and I realized I was in the zone.”
Green would go 6-for-6 with four homers, six RBIs and seven runs scored in one of the great offensive games in Major League history.
Apologies to friend of BallNine Glendon Rusch, who gave up two of those homers.
1985: You're safe, Buddy. You're safe.
Over a stretch of 47 starts from the end of 2001 through the 2002 season, Barry Zito went 34-6 with an ERA south of 2.50.
Zito described that stretch in an interview with his alma mater, USC. “I was in the zone. I wasn’t going out trying to be a great performer, I was just going out competing. When it’s that pure, magic can happen.”
It’s no coincidence Zito described his performance that way. He is one of the many professional athletes who has worked with Biancalana and his company, Zone Motion.
Zone Motion was developed through extensive research and independent studies and has been proven to help people find “the zone” more often. In addition to Zito, Biancalana has worked with Matt Cain, Jeremy Affeldt, Adam Ottavino and many others.
It’s not limited to baseball, or even sports. Zone Motion applies to musicians, artists, executives and really anyone else who is looking to optimize their performance in whatever it is they do.
Biancalana has even helped George Brett with his golf game through Zone Motion.
Often at BallNine, we mock the nerds who have overtaken the sport. This is one time where they could come in handy. We’re about to examine the mind-body connection, Theta brain waves and neuroscience.
But first, baseball with a little Bruce Springsteen mixed in.
So, grab your thinking caps and let’s get in the zone as we go Spitballin’ with 1985 World Series hero Buddy Biancalana.
“We won two out of three there then went back home and swept them in Kansas City. I guess the baseball Gods struck down on them.”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Biancalana. I am really looking forward to this as I find Zone Motion so fascinating. Let’s start with your baseball experience though. How did you develop your love of baseball when you were young?
My dad was a big baseball fan. He wasn’t much of a player, but he loved the game and that led me into it. I grew up in the Bay Area and we were Giants fans.
I lived in a home where we had a retaining wall in our front yard, and I would throw a rubber ball against it. I did that every day for God knows how long. I was able to make every play in the yard. I would have to avoid planter boxes and pillars and windows to make my backhand. It provided me the opportunity to build up some good footwork without your typical devices they have today.
That’s awesome. I definitely believe in the value of doing that as a kid. Did you have any players you looked up to growing up?
Being a Giants fan, I certainly loved Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds. I loved Juan Marichal. When I was about ten, I became a Dodgers fan. We had a friend, Bill Singer, who pitched for the Dodgers and my father was helping him get in the stocks and bonds business.
So, I became a Dodgers fan and loved watching those Dodgers teams back in the day. That had some really great teams, and I was able to go down to LA and stay in Bill’s home. We went on the field and in the clubhouse and that was really impactful in my youth.
You had a great high school career in California and were being touted as a high draft pick as a senior. What was your mindset going into the draft?
Leading up to the draft I heard that I would go in the third or fourth round. I heard Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were interested. On the morning of the draft I received a phone call from John Schuerholz, the Royals farm director who is now in the Hall of Fame. He told me they were planning on making me their first pick at number 25 in the first round.
He asked me if I would sign and I said if all things were right, I would certainly consider it. I was really surprised I was picked in the first round. Kansas City had that turf, and they liked my range, arm and speed. They put together their teams with good pitching and defense, so that’s why they took me.
1985 ALCS: You're out, Jesse Barfield.
That was 1978 and the Royals had such a great team back then. What were your thoughts on being drafted by them?
At the time, I honestly didn’t know anything about Kansas City except that’s where George Brett played. There wasn’t the television exposure back then that you have today. The first thing I did was learn about Kansas City, who played for them and even just where they were located. I was only 18 at the time, so it was an opportunity to learn a little geography.
You have a unique story about your first Major League hit in 1982. Records on inside-the-park home runs are spotty at best prior to World War II, but you almost became the first known player to hit an inside-the-park home run for your first hit. What’s the story there?
It was the last day of the season and we’re playing the Oakland A’s at Royals Stadium. Mike Heath, a catcher, was playing right field. You know, late in the season like that they play guys all over. So, I hit a line drive at him, and he came running in and the ball sailed over his head.
I got to third and saw Mike Ferraro, the third base coach, waving me home. I was pretty shot because I hadn’t played. A September callup isn’t going to play much in a pennant race. I was really out of gas, but he kept waving me. I ended up trying to run down the catcher but was called out. It would have been really interesting to have an inside-the-park homer as my first Major League hit, but I came up short. Nonetheless, very exciting.
Absolutely very exciting! Now let’s jump to the 1985 World Series. You were down 3-1 to the Blue Jays in the ALCS and came back to win and were down 3-1 in the Series to the Cardinals and came back again. How important was it to have those great veterans on the team to lead the team to those comebacks?
First off, playing in the World Series was something I never fathomed as a young guy and even in the Majors. Our veteran leadership certainly helped us win three in a row. We had some really incredible leadership. Guys like George Brett, Hal McRae, Frank White, Willie Wilson. They were really great players who played the game hard.
You know, we lost the first two games in Kansas City then flew into St. Louis. We were on the runway and there was banner on one of the buildings at the airport that said, “Welcome to St. Louis, home of the 1985 World Champion Cardinals.” We were like, “Really? That’s a little presumptuous.”
We won two out of three there then went back home and swept them in Kansas City. I guess the baseball Gods struck down on them. We had such great starting pitching and when you have that you can string together wins.
Al Hrabosky knows what's up.
You’re still seen in Kansas City as a World Series hero to this day. You just seemed to be in the mix in so many crucial plays in the Series. Can you talk about your own personal experience, looking back 35 years later?
Now that I understand how the mind-body connection works, when you’re not expected to do something, it’s easier to do. Being down three games to one, it was clear the Cardinals were expected to win. That actually took some pressure off of us.
I know this is cliché, but for about a week I would wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if it was just a dream. Did that really happen? I feel really fortunate because there are players much better than me, guys like Ernie Banks, who never won it. So, to be able to win a World Series and be the starting shortstop, I feel really blessed. It’s been a real nice thing to carry through life.
I interviewed your catcher, Jim Sundberg, about the Series and he said something that I thought was great. The final game was a blowout and he said playing those final innings just knowing you’re going to win Game 7 of the World Series was the most fun he had in his long career. What were your thoughts on Game 7?
There was such a momentum shift in Game 6. We came from behind with two in the bottom of the ninth to win. I wouldn’t have said it publicly, but after that, I thought all we needed to do is get to the ballpark safely and we’d win Game 7. I certainly didn’t think it would be 11-0 though.
We broke out on top fairly early and had our ace, Brett Saberhagen, on the mound and that was it. You know, that whole season we felt like there was some force aligned with us. You can call it destiny, or whatever you want to call it. We won games on misjudged fly balls and windblown pop ups. It was just happening for us.
I think once we got to Game 7, whether that force was with us or not, we just weren’t going to let a lead slip away.
With the guys you had on that team, I absolutely believe that’s true. And you were a huge part of it, that’s great. OK, so I would like to ask about Zone Motion. I know it’s complex to explain, so let’s start by talking about what it means to be in the zone.
OK, so if you ask 100 athletes in any sport how they felt when they play their best, they would likely describe it in three ways. They’ll say that things slowed down for them, that they weren’t thinking, and their motions were very fluid and effortless. The timing of everything for them is perfect. It’s typically a very mysterious experience. I had that experience in the World Series and then I was out of baseball 18 months later.
The 1985 Champs.
How does Zone Motion translate that to the people you work with?
We try to demystify that and teach it. We teach that certain processes in the brain allow an athlete to have that experience by design. When combined with the proper kinetic chain of the sport, that is the zone. You hear about flow, it’s different than flow because the kinetic chain is very important. The angles and mechanics combined with the process of the mind and brain, that’s the zone and that’s what I teach.
What is the biological aspect of the zone and how do you help people make that connection biologically?
Teaching drills and concepts on and off the field and using some paradigm-shifting thoughts that provide the athletes with the neurophysiological experience that becomes undeniable. Then we train their nervous system to start to build the neuropathways while they’re practicing and playing. We want that state to become their default state, as opposed to it just being hit or miss.
I like to use the analogy that a baseball hitter might go 4-for-4 in a game and saw the ball great. Then he wakes up the next day feeling great, puts on his right sock before his left, his right cleat before his left, his lucky t-shirt, does work off the tee, takes his soft toss and then just hopes he can perform as well as he did the night before without understanding at the most fundamental level of the brain, what took place the night before being in the zone. So, we build the neuropathways and that becomes the default state.
My question off of that is, we know that every athlete experiences the zone, so without knowing or practicing any of that, how does an athlete experience the zone?
For whatever reason, that’s what happened to me in the World Series. Something triggers one’s physiology, typically just by chance, and they have this experience. They ride the wave as long as they can and then the wave crashes. Then they’re thinking, “Well that felt great, how can I get back there?” Typically, they’ll always work on the physical mechanics to get back there, yet when they’re experiencing that feeling of being in the zone, it doesn’t have anything to do with the mechanics.
Don’t get me wrong, the mechanics are very important, especially the proper physics. When the brain is in the right state and the mechanics are based on physics, everything integrates very quickly. It expedites development and increases performance dramatically and even reduces soft-tissue injuries.
That’s fascinating. So, that ties into all of the other training athletes do?
Yes, that’s a good way to put it. It’s not a substitute for anything that’s being taught now. It’s not a substitute for traditional coaching or sports psychology or nutrition. It’s a part of a holistic approach. It works right at the intersection of the mental and the physical, thought and action and intention and execution.
I think you explained it all perfectly for our readers. Your site, www.ZoneMotion.com, goes into it a little further and you have a great video too explaining it all. So, I am calling an audible here. We were talking before the interview about our love of Springsteen, so what are your top three Springsteen songs?
Wow! You know, USA Today did this with me years ago. So, my top three, I have to put Born to Run in there. Thunder Road for sure. Jungleland, Badlands, maybe Rosalita. You know, Out in the Street is really good, there’s a great live video of that. What are yours?
I always start with Jungleland, to me that’s the masterpiece. I really like No Surrender, that’s my top one off Born in the USA. Then maybe a slower one like Jersey Girl. But how can I leave off Born to Run and I like Sherry Darling a lot. I don’t think either one of us stuck with three. OK, one final question. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with? What would you say to baseball fans?
For the fans, you know, I always appreciate them. All the fans who have supported baseball over the years and will offer their support going forward. The game has gone through some changes, and we just hope they are for the better. Sometimes it may not look like it, but I just ask for continued support for this great game, America’s game.
For more information on Zone Motion, visit www.zonemotion.com. According to the website, Buddy Biancalana has taught Zone Motion to athletes in 12 different professional sports and over 20 amateur sports. Not only has Zone Motion been proven to increase performance, but also reduce soft-tissue injuries. Biancalana also published the book 7 Secrets of World Class Athletes, which is available today. You can follow Biancalana on Twitter @BBiancalana.