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A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
PABLO S. TORRE
June 21, 2010
LED BY PLAYERS SUCH AS IAN SNELL, BASEBALL IS TAKING THE LEAD IN PRO SPORTS IN ADDRESSING DEPRESSION, ANXIETY AND OTHER MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS
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June 21, 2010

A Light In The Darkness

LED BY PLAYERS SUCH AS IAN SNELL, BASEBALL IS TAKING THE LEAD IN PRO SPORTS IN ADDRESSING DEPRESSION, ANXIETY AND OTHER MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS

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Do it, he thought. Just do it already, and be at peace. As the clock struck midnight on April 30, 2009, Ian Snell, the onetime ace of the Pirates, was still brooding in the shower of his apartment outside Pittsburgh. Hours had passed since he'd arrived home from an afternoon game in Milwaukee, an agonizing 1--0 loss in which he'd thrown 131 pitches in seven innings, a career high, but yielded the game-winning home run to opposing starter Yovani Gallardo. Now, standing beneath the spray of hot water—his body exhausted but his pulse racing—the 27-year-old Snell wanted to end his life.

Kill yourself, he thought. Get it over with, and you won't have to deal with this anymore.

This, of course, had been building for far longer than one afternoon. For months Snell had been reliving the anger he'd struggled with since his senior year at Caesar Rodney High just outside of Dover, Del., when he was always "ready to flip at little, stupid things," he says, "ready to fight whoever said something" about him; the frustration of making dumb mistakes in the majors as he tried to compensate for missing out on the college social experience by partying at bars (a couple of times the married Snell had wound up on sports blogs, photographed posing with girls); and the stress of difficulties in his relationship with his wife, Angelica. "I was not respecting other people," Snell admits. "My family, friends, parents."

Worst of all, Snell could not forget what he kept hearing and reading in Pittsburgh: the boos from the stands and the cruel insults online going back to the previous season, when he went 7--12 with a 5.42 ERA. Once the Pirates' minor league pitcher of the year, Snell was now a figure of ridicule. You can find out where these guys live, he would think in a fury, even if they just have some secret name on the Internet.

The loss to the Brewers was a match flickering near all this tinder. Snell felt unbearably alone. Should I just do it? he thought again.

"It was a juggling back and forth, like the angel versus the demon," Snell says. "I felt like I was going to have a heart attack." So he turned the shower dial from hot to cold, trying to cool off, trying to douse a million burning questions: If a player messes up, why does everyone automatically think he's a bad person? Do parents even want me to say hi to their kids and give them high fives? Why am I always being singled out?

And: Is the world better without me?

Snell had no answers, but he did have strength enough to drag himself out of the bathroom and find distractions: He flicked on the TV, paged through a stack of magazines, opened the Bible. Having grown up without his biological father, whose surname he stopped using as a minor leaguer, Snell thought about what it would mean to leave behind his five-year-old son, Ethan. Finally he reached for his phone. "I had to explain to my family, my friends, 'This is what I was going to do.'"

One of his first calls was to a Marine named Mike Crump, Snell's lifelong best friend, back in Delaware. Crump, all too familiar with the military's struggle with mental health issues, "knew where I was coming from," Snell says. "I told him I was having these anxiety attacks and depressed moments, that nobody was there for me." Crump told him, "Your family loves you and is always here for you. If you need me there, I'll be there." And he reminded Snell of an essential truth: "Baseball is just a job."

As intensely personal as Snell's anguish was, he was not, as he feared, alone. Not even at work. Major league baseball, the country's oldest professional team sport and a longtime fortress against psychiatry, has recently taken giant steps to openly acknowledge players with emotional problems and give them the time and resources to deal with those issues. The NFL, NBA and NHL each have had notable cases—from the social anxiety of Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams to the clinical depression of Cavaliers guard Delonte West and former Canadiens winger Stéphane Richer—but baseball has led the way in supporting a growing number of players who have been brave enough to seek assistance for such problems and speak out about them. "Baseball's older generations like to say, 'Guys these days just aren't as tough,'" says Ray Karesky, a licensed psychologist who has directed the Oakland A's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) since 1984. "But what's different is just that guys have come out and actually admitted their problems."

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