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On Baseball’s Mental Health Crisis

Major League Baseball, and the sport at large, have a challenge ahead of them. Whether they rise to meet it remains to be seen.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Being an athlete, let alone a professional one, is stressful. Each sport has its own eccentricities and nuances that lead it to be so. No sport is unique in the matter of its players, on some level, struggling psychologically—whether those struggles are realized or not, by the individual or those around them. But baseball, for all of the idiosyncrasies it possesses as a sport and the nature of the business itself, is rather distinctive in what causes these woes and how potential triggers manifest themselves.

As a general collective, we find ourselves at a number of different crossroads on a variety of matters: socially, politically, economically, and on the list goes. On the mental health front, we’re facing a very different reckoning, and it’s one that started well before the events of the past year. Already a concept that was overlooked and often stigmatized, we are now facing entire generations of individuals saddled with the emotional weight through all that we’ve all experienced over the past calendar year, regardless of the scale on which those experiences fall. People who may not have been struggling before may now find themselves in a situation similar to what others have faced for eons prior. Stress, trauma, general anxiety. It’s all there.

Baseball was already failing on this front. The long-established culture present in the game has been infectious at every single level of the sport. And now, in the time of a pandemic from which we are still on the other side, it must now confront the beast of mental health or continue to find itself embroiled in a very real, and increasingly public, crisis.

At its highest level, baseball has already—this year alone—seen multiple players step away from the game either temporarily or on a permanent basis. Ryan Buchter has publicly acknowledged his struggles with his mental health. Drew Robinson survived a suicide attempt early last year before returning to the game this season. Andrelton Simmons noted his own battle with depression and thoughts of suicide in the midst of last year. While not all have struggled to extreme degrees, others—including Ryan Sherriff, Adam Haseley, and Chris Devenski—are among the names on an alarmingly-fast-growing list of players who have experienced enough mental turmoil that their careers and lifestyles have been completely disrupted. Some irrecoverably.

I encourage you to read the pieces linked above. The first-hand accounts help to really illustrate the importance of the topic. Although little written recently on the topic has profiled the crisis better than Tom Verducci’s piece at Sports Illustrated. Verducci looked at the scale, some of the more specific situations in recent memory regarding the collective mental health of players, and what some of the elements amplifying those struggles happen to be to this point.

A mental health crisis is percolating in baseball. To be clear, not all players placed on the restricted list for “personal reasons” experience mental health issues. One agent, though, with a client who stepped away from the game says he asked the players association how many players were on the restricted list with mental-health-related issues and was told, “More than a dozen.” Unlike players who have physical injuries and are placed on the injured list, those with mental health issues sometimes do not receive pay or service time if they are placed on the restricted list

There are two notable things in this excerpt. For one, there, at a bare minimum, appears to be a general awareness of the problem. It’s not that mental health issues are new, but living in a COVID world for over a year now has absolutely exacerbated those issues not only on an individual level, but a more generalized one as well. So while it’s not something that has become widespread in terms of the normalizing of it, the general awareness could be a sign of a potential shift, however naïve that may seem.

In regard to that last bit, Verducci does go on to say that some players may have a pre-arranged situation in financial matters in the event that they do wind up on the restricted list. Such players have, in some situations historically, also been placed on the Injured List in order to continue being compensated. However, the very idea of withholding pay or service time due to mental health issues is not only an abhorrent one, it could definitely spark situations where players are not comfortable coming forward about their struggles due to fears about those exact things. As a relative outsider to the game, that’s obviously speculation, and it’s entirely possible that the situations in which players continue to be compensated in these situations could outweigh those where they don’t. But speculative as it may be, doesn’t it seem fairly realistic given today’s financial climate in professional baseball?

More from Verducci:

On top of those stressors, however, baseball presents high-profile, high-intensity challenges. The pressure to perform (in a public, measurable way) at a time when clubs churn rosters more than ever. The isolation and curbs on personal freedom created by COVID-19 protocols. The lack of minor league baseball for the past 18 months. The elimination of more than 700 professional roster spots because of the downsizing of the minor leagues. The ease and proliferation afforded by social media to direct hatred toward ballplayers because of their public profile, including known salaries.

It’s really not a consideration for the average fan—or even some within the game—to consider the myriad of hurdles a baseball player has to overcome in order to be successful. The game itself is more stressful than ever. Velocity is up all over the place. Analytics are woven through every single facet of the game. While these are benefits from an entertainment and excitement perspective, these have enhanced strategy to the point where one could very easily become overwhelmed while also considering their own performance and their own mechanics.

And the roster turnover. While the piece linked above discusses Ryan Buchter and his experience as a reliever, a position which (arguably) has it worse than most, one of those idiosyncrasies within baseball is just how replaceable players are perceived to be. Upper tier players are disposable when their contracts become “too large”, service time is manipulated, and positions like relief pitchers and bench types experience near-constant turnover, all while being referred to in many circles as “assets.”

Then you’ve got the social media factor, where fans have 24/7 access to any player that chooses to log on. And in 2021, it’s virtually all of them on some platform that face the vitriol that comes pouring out of the fingertips of thousands. The anxiousness that instills within a player is incalculable and goes well beyond jitters or butterflies. It all culminates in a perfect storm of mental destruction for some.

It’s what’s led someone like Dansby Swanson, a fairly high profile player, to discuss his own struggles with mental health early in his career:

What’s cool about Swanson is that he A. Is willing to discuss and advocate for mental health after his own experiences (as many of the players noted above also are) and B. Was able to kind of seek out organizations on his own that played to his individual strengths. Coping on his own reached a point where he wasn’t healthy, and he sought resources through the right channels. Not all players are as willing to discuss, or have the ability to discover those resources for themselves. And while there are league-wide resources in place for players at all levels, not only is the cultural component of baseball is a fairly intense specter to confront, those resources don’t really work for everyone (Buchter being an example).

You’ve got this entire sport that requires not only the body to be at peak performance, but the brain in every single situation, both inside and out of competition. Then what happens is you have kind of this cultural wasteland that baseball has historically been and you dump a pandemic on top of it. How anybody could be expected to perform at a high level in such an environment is almost beyond reasonable comprehension.

This is from former player Billy Bean, who is quoted in the Buchter piece. While Bean’s situation is more unique than many other players in the game, the sentiment itself really is not:

Says Bean, who has candidly told his story about the stress of being a closeted gay major league player from ’87–95, “A lot of us are afraid to change the dynamic of the team. There is so much peer pressure. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the player today with all the extreme measurements of analysis. It just feels like … I can understand why it’s stressful.”

Now, sure, they’re professional athletes, it’s a game, this is what they get paid to do, etc. etc. etc. They can overcome it. That’s not really the point. We here at BtBScore are pro-worker which in this context means pro-player. And even if there are certain resources in place, the accessibility, knowledge, understanding, and willingness to such resources may not be. And just as being a professional athlete does not prevent an individual from maintaining and voicing a political opinion, as is the case in the matter of mental health resources.

So perhaps what we really need to be confronting here is baseball culture as a whole. Again, I’m an outsider at the professional level, and regardless of what my future aspirations may be, my interactions with professional ballplayers are also limited. But I have been in the game for a while. Writing, but also coaching—middle school, high school, and some of the college ranks. Let me tell you what I know for sure.

That stigma that exists in society in regard to mental health? Multiply that by a lot. And you get the perspective of the baseball community. As much as the game likes to think it’s progressed—and it has in many respects—it still falls short on a social, racial, and, in this case, a psychological level.

The nature of accessibility in baseball has changed. In order to have the shot you desire, you need funds and you need time in an almost unlimited quantity. Young athletes are burning out at the high school level or even earlier. Any sign of injury or mental weakness is not only meant to be frowned upon, but it’s meant to be exploited by your competition or, worse yet, your coaches. Youth sports are obviously a separate issue in this discussion. But the root of the issue is there. The culture is toxic. You can play through the pain. And you sure as hell can’t show emotion. That’s weakness. The coaches will tell you. Your teammates will tell you.

Now imagine that setting for a kid or a teenager and amplify that as they get older. Because that’s what happens. The disregard for the emotional and mental side starts early, and it only gets exponentially worse. You’re conditioned to play through the pain. The physical pain. The emotional pain. If not, you lose your spot because ultimately, it’s next man up. That’s how it works at every single level. So while those “resources” very well may be in place, there’s a stigma there that some players may be unwilling or incapable of overcoming. Again, outsider here at a certain level. And there are healthy programs out there. But I’ve been around and talked to a lot of players from a lot of age groups and a lot of programs. This is what baseball has always been.

I will admit I have a personal stake here. My own mental health struggles and my current coursework at the University of Florida are driving me toward a future in sport psychology. And not only do I want to maximize the safety and mental well-being of athletes, it’s also (and perhaps even more so) because I want to change the culture. This culture.

Everybody has some level of baggage. Some are more adept at handling it than others. Some do it naturally; others need help. Change comes from the top, but also needs to occur on a very grassroots level. Youth coaches need to validate the emotional and mental state of their athletes. Coaches at the top level need to protect their players. Some do, but not enough of them can let go of their bootstraps mentality long enough to recognize the fact that we’re not only dealing with a collective trauma as a global society, but that the lack of validation as to the emotional well-being of athletes is eroding said well-being, while also eliminating any hope of vulnerability in these matters in the future.

The volume of players stepping away in the short-term, the long-term, or experiencing something far more sinister in the way that a guy like Drew Robinson did is showcasing the idea that baseball is facing its comeuppance in regard to matters of mental health. This isn’t something unique to Major League Baseball. Or even really to baseball. But I’ve experienced enough clubhouse talk in my life to know exactly what is occurring here. And, more importantly, what’s not.

If your immediate reaction to the mental health of athletes, professional or not, is to encourage them to “toughen up” or something to that effect, then let me simply implore you to not look at this as a matter that is black-and-white. Because mental health isn’t remotely that. It’s a shade of gray that has so much complexity that it requires a full-scale evaluation of not just a single level of baseball, but all of it.

The good news is that there’s a conversation happening. And the events of the past year may be serving as a catalyst in order to get this moving at a far more expedient pace than it may have been otherwise. Bean noted as much in the Buchter piece (linked here again to prevent from scrolled through a couple thousand words). But it’s not just about establishing the resources. It’s about diverse, dynamic resources that can cater to a variety of individuals and a level of comfort and acceptance in pursuing such avenues on the road to not only confronting mental health struggles, but the culture of baseball at large.

Too optimistic? Maybe. But I’ll be in that arena soon enough, and I’d be willing to bet there’ll be an army alongside me before long.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.