Confidential, With an Asterisk
I can understand why there are so many calls for the heads of the 104 players on the so-called “list
Every player feels overwhelmed at one time or another, by one thing or another. (Even all-stars — in fact, it may be worse for the stars of the game because the microscope they are under is set to a higher magnification.) It could be the strain of maintaining a marriage when you spend half your time on the road. It could be because your batting average is plummeting during a free-agent season, causing the pool of teams interested in you to dry up. Or maybe it’s just because the cumulative effect of performing every day, center stage, has finally come home to roost.
All the little requests players receive during any given week can really build up. Can you meet with this wonderful charity before the game? Can you do this photo shoot in the concourse? Can you do this interview with ESPN? Can you find time to read a few lines for a commercial? Nothing nefarious; in fact, often it’s for a good cause or simply part of your responsibility to promote the team. You are happy to be in the big leagues, and you welcome any opportunity to do more while you have the gift of being at that level.
So why can it become such a struggle?
For one thing, thoughts can escalate if they are not managed. And the pressure of fulfilling all those requests can start to follow you out of the locker room. Suddenly it’s hard to deal with all the ticket requests in your hometown, whereas before you couldn’t wait to have 25 people at the game. Or you can’t commit beyond a few hours in advance because you don’t even know whether you’ll still be on the team tomorrow. Or you feel clammy because your girlfriend wants to know if she can visit you six weeks from now and you can’t begin to imagine what might interfere unexpectedly that day, despite the fact that your schedule is posted in every media outlet on the planet.
The future seems surreal and untamable because you cannot forecast what you may have to do down the road, even though your life since you joined professional baseball has been conspicuously laid out on a one-inch-by-one-inch pocket schedule.
It reached a head for me after a dream season in 1999. No one in the National League could get me out that year. I was a step ahead of just about every pitcher who threw against me, even Cy Young Award winners. You would think that I didn’t have a care in the world.
But life has a way of smacking you right in the face when you least expect it.
The open palm hit me in spring training of 2000 when I was informed of my father’s stroke while I was on the other side of the country. I felt powerless, I had no answer, and somehow I had to continue to play in that agitated state.
I’d gone to sleep with all-star expectations, a .325 batting average and more than 200 hits for the season — the first time in 20 years a Phillies player had hit that mark. All I needed to do was hit “repeat” on my baseball iPod and I was in for another year of bliss. Then I woke up to the reality of life itself, lying on my chest like an 800-pound gorilla.
I was not alone. Many players with bright stars have experienced dark nights that swallow them up. In fact, it is a given. How they deal with it is another story.
A few weeks ago, first baseman Joey Votto returned to the Cincinnati Reds after a stint on the disabled list. One minute he was dominating the National League with a sizzling .357 batting average (to go with his runner-up as Rookie of the Year last year), and the next he had disappeared. The team relayed that he was struggling with an ear infection, but lurking behind it was something Votto later explained: he was totally overwhelmed with grief and anxiety.
Votto has publicly attributed his anxiety to the death of his father in August 2008. He had been frequently coming out of games because of it, and on two occasions, it drove him to call 911. The death of his father left a huge void in his family that he feels the responsibility to fill. His three younger brothers and his mother are in Toronto without him.
I am not an expert, but I understand that there are many types of anxiety. Some relate to general situations, others to social settings; performance can be a cause, and panic attacks can creep into the mix. Anxiety can seem like a silent disabler to those on the outside, but to those affected by it, it is active and dynamic.
Dontrelle Willis, the young pitcher who is a two-time all-star, who led the National League with 22 wins in 2005, who has won a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins, was placed on the disabled list last month for the second time this season. After being a mainstay in every rotation he was part of, he only threw 24 innings in 2008. In March of 2009, he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that has affected him throughout this season.
And there are other stories, like the Royals ace Zach Greinke, who was in the big leagues by age 20 and in 2006 was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder; or Khalil Greene of the Cardinals, who has been working through the challenges of social anxiety disorder, which caused him to go on the disabled list for the second time at the end of June.
If you are living the dream and making enough money to be royalty, why the stress?
I remember when Mark Wohlers, the Atlanta Braves closer, suddenly could not find home plate. A guy who normally was lights-out whenever he came into a game, he’d just lost all sense of the strike zone. During the period when he was fighting his way back, we played against him in Atlanta.
I was asked to lay down a bunt, which was not exactly a comfortable thing against a pitcher throwing 95 m.p.h. who was having issues finding the plate. The first pitch missed the catcher entirely. Eventually he threw one I could bunt, resulting in a slow roller right back to him. Cruelly, he now had to throw the ball again, to first base. I had my head down, trying to beat it out when I heard the crowd give a collective groan. He had lobbed the ball, as if throwing a timing pattern to a wide receiver; it sailed over the first baseman’s head by a substantial margin.
After going on the disabled list for anxiety disorder (initially he was told he had “Steve Blass” disease, named after a pitcher with the Pirates who lost complete sense of hitting a target) with the Reds in 1999, Wohlers eventually made a comeback with Cleveland, not quite regaining his old form, but still putting in some quality time before he stopped pitching. He had found a way to turn it around, even though the window for his dominance had closed.
On a smaller scale, I remember the constant stress of trying to navigate my emotions during my father’s illness. Eventually, it became tangible, creeping out of my head and manifesting itself through my body. I started having trouble focusing on the pitcher as well as I needed to — it seemed like my eyes were darting all over the place. When I would look at the video, everything looked pretty normal. But I certainly didn’t feel that way.
Since you have only a microsecond to react to a 95 m.p.h. fastball, that little bit of doubt — Am I seeing what I think I am seeing? — can turn into an exponential miscalculation in the space between home and the pitcher’s mound.
Then the snowball effect kicks in and you become more and more conscious of what was not even there six months ago. The routine and mundane become next-to-impossible.
So I had to learn a little bit about anxiety and its roots. I began to understand that even though you can recognize that the anxiety is unreasonable, irrational or even ridiculous, it can still consume you.
Thankfully, it can be addressed. But many baseball players are conditioned to resist help until it is very late. They don’t want to give in because that would be admitting something a professional athlete is never supposed to admit: “I have vulnerabilities.”
I was thankful to see Votto take time out and share with the world that he is human and needed help. He was able to get back on the field and instantly contribute to his team. Dontrelle Willis came back this year feeling very optimistic, had a setback, but is committed to getting through it. Just as Zach Greinke has been a dominant pitcher in the American League for most of this season.
It may not be a torn tendon or a broken bone, but what put these talented athletes and others on the disabled list was much more challenging to overcome. Something they may have to manage for the rest of their lives.
But it can be done, as long as they don’t suffer in silence.
(My thanks to Sarah Getch for her thoughts on this subject.)
New York Times 08/03/2009