In many ways, baseball is an extremely complex game. In others, it's very simple: one man tries to throw a ball past a man holding a bat. To go a little further: the first man stands on a mound, while the second stands in a box. That's just the way it is, and always has been. Nobody much questions the existence of the mound and the box.
According to Kevin Kouzmanoff, however, this seemingly inconsequential mandate is anything but.
"I get claustrophobic in there, man", says Kouzmanoff. "Society pigeonholes us into these little boxes. You have to go to school, and then university, and then you're going to be a doctor, and you're going to be a carpenter, and you're going to be a copy editor, and then you get married, you have kids, and then you die. It's just one huge box made up of tiny component boxes, and there's no breaking out of it."
But Kouzmanoff says this existential anxiety he feels isn't the only kind of claustrophobia present when he steps into the box.
"Oh yeah, it's physical too. Those lines… I can't deal with those lines. I feel them pressing on me, pushing me up, pulling me down, squeezing me like a straitjacket, from every direction. The only way I can handle it is with the knowledge that, if I hit the ball, I tear a hole in the fabric of that box, allowing me to break through and escape."
Despite Kouzmanoff's discomfort, he says that once he's in the batter's box, he never steps out, even between pitches. "How could I?" he exclaims. "It's solid. There are no exits. It's made of diamond, or carbon nanotubes, or something equally impenetrable. It would be physically impossible for me to leave that box before I succeed in my quest to rip it open."
Removed from the action, Kouzmanoff seems completely self-aware of his condition. But as he describes it more and more, it becomes clear that he can't fully accept the illogic of his inability to leave the batter's box. He seems to truly believe that, once he steps in, some sort of tangible, transparent, extremely durable box descends and envelops him. It isn't rational; how, for example, can his hands and bat extend out of the box when he swings? How does he walk back to the dugout when he strikes out? But then, psychological illness is complicated and doesn't always make sense.
Kouzmanoff recognizes that his struggle to overcome his fear is an ongoing process, and has been attending therapy for several years. His therapist has tried novel strategies, such as building a mock batter's box in his office.
"I believe that recreating the circumstances of the difficulties is paramount to vanquishing them." That's Dr. Robert Placzek, who specializes in batter's box-related phobias. When asked whether this strategy has worked, Placzek's face falls a little. "Unfortunately not. Thus far, each time Kevin gets in the box, he hasn't been able to leave until he hits a baseball. I've lost a lot of windows, and my entire collection of autographed framed photos from the 1929 Yankees. I'm not sure why I kept hanging them on the wall."
But Placzek is resolute. "We've made progress", he says. "Kevin no longer needs the ball to be fair in order to break out of the box. Foul balls work too. (It isn't clear how Kouzmanoff and Placzek determine what's fair and what's foul in a therapist's office.) Unfortunately, this breakthrough hasn't yet translated to real games, but it's something. Baby steps are always the mode d'emploi in this field."
Of course, phobias often develop as a result of childhood trauma. Kouzmanoff is reluctant to talk about what first instilled this deep-seated claustrophobia, but his doctor believes that unwrapping the mystery is the key to understanding Kouzmanoff's condition.
"I can't force him to talk about it; it just doesn't work. A few times, I've managed to get him into a relaxed, wistful state, where he just lets the words babble out without thinking about what he's saying. From what I understand, there was an incident one Halloween. I don't really understand this part, but it seems that one year, Kevin dressed up as a batter's box. I believe something terrible happened inside that box, but I haven't got that far. As soon as he realizes what he's saying, he wakes from his trance and is absolutely furious. He's smashed up my office so many times, I really have no idea why I keep suspending priceless crystal ducks from the ceiling at piñata height."
But no matter the cost, Placzek says it'll all be worth it in the end. He's a man utterly dedicated to his profession, and the knowledge that he helped a single person overcome their fears is worth more than any number of priceless crystal ducks.