Tuesday, June 21, 2005

What’s a Five-Letter Word for “Sports Afficianados”?

See, I told you my Sunday pastime isn’t just for us bookish types.

They were once the exclusive purview of Mensa members, university literature professors and people who considered pocket protectors must-have fashion accessories.

But in the past few years, crossword puzzles have started getting out a bit, leaving the tweed-jacket set in the library and the bookstore for Major League Baseball clubhouses. And that’s a good thing, says John F. Murray, a clinical and sports performance psychologist in West Palm Beach.

“It occupies the mind in a very constructive, challenging way,” Murray said. “It’s healthy. You’re learning more about the nuances of vocabulary. It’s a challenge.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s just a good way to kill time. Anyone who says baseball is a timeless game has never spent time inside a big-league clubhouse, where players and coaches can spend as many as seven hours a day sandwiched around a 150-minute game. That leaves a lot of time to fill, which is where crosswords come in for most.

“I’m just passing time. I don’t do it for any other reason,” said first baseman Darin Erstad who, along with outfielder Steve Finley, are the main crossword players on the Los Angeles Angels.

“That’s the way I fight boredom,” agreed Marlins reliever Jim Mecir, who works on three or four puzzles a week.


Murray said it’s no surprise that most of baseball’s crossword players are pitchers, especially relief pitchers, because they’re the ones with the most free time. Unlike position players, relievers don’t take daily batting practice — especially in the American League — and they might go a week or more without appearing in a game. But because they’re always on call, they have to remain sharp, mentally as well as physically.

“The more the downtime, the more the sport has mental demands, [and] the more chance there is for any kind of distraction to empty your mind and throw you off,” Murray said. “Relief pitchers are the perfect example of pressure performers. Everything is preparation. Everything is what you do in the downtime.

“Crosswords do wake you up. It’s a creative endeavor, really.”

And perhaps more important, Murray said, the mental skills used to do crossword puzzles might actually help players, both in their on-field performance and in off-the-field endeavors such as television interviews or public speaking.

“It’s not just dead time,” said Murray, acknowledging that athletes in most sports devote a lot of time to exercising their bodies but precious little to exercising their minds. “It’s not like sitting around doing nothing. It might wake you up a little bit and get you thinking a little bit.”

Yeah, but do they do the Sunday Times one in ink?