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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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"I go into a clubhouse two or three times a home stand, arriving at 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game," says McDuff, a doctor who served 28 years in the military, in the gulf war, Syria, Pakistan and Egypt. At the request of the majority of his players, McDuff, whose offices are a two-block walk from Camden Yards, has sensitive conversations with them right in the clubhouse. "That was a surprise," he says, "but there's a convenience and comfort there for them. I won't suggest they lie down on the couch.

"In the Army we called it 'care by walking around,'" says McDuff, whose players call him Doc. "Patients first need to experience you as a communicator with common sense and practical experience—not as overly psychological or mystical."

Adds Karesky, "You need to be able to just shoot the s---. Even players who really don't like having psychologists around—and there are more than a few guys like that—will wind up calling you." One off-season Karesky even took to counseling by text message in order to reach one player who said he felt uncomfortable talking over the phone. "It was very odd," Karesky says, "and it worked."

There is another engine of change: money. As players have become more and more valuable commodities—Bradley, with his eighth team in 11 seasons, is making $11 million this year—protecting those investments has become paramount. Team psychologists like to joke that they are insurance policies. Says House, "If a guy making $12 million has the Creature now, you're going to try and fix him." The underlying hope is that the mind becomes the next major frontier in players' health, as legitimate as strength and conditioning, and that teams cover not only treatment but also prevention, identifying potential emotional problems early enough to avoid the DL.

But EAPs are still maturing, and according to one team official's estimates, there is a bottom third of clubs that lag behind in resources and management support. There are constant questions to consider, such as how to better build trust across cultural and linguistic barriers with Latin American players. "So many of those players arrive young, poor, homesick and with no formal education," says McDuff.

Nevertheless, momentum in the field is growing. "This could be like it was with Tommy John surgery," Conte says. "Psychological issues aren't as scary anymore. They've been taken out of the closet."

Says Pulsipher, "I just wish I had played 15 years later."

When Bradley's problems exploded in the media in May, Snell gave his teammate a simple message. "I just told him that we love him, we care about him, we need him," the pitcher says. "Everybody thinks he's a bad guy. He's not. He just has problems, like a normal person. And if you're afraid to ask for help...."

It's a humid spring afternoon in Baltimore, and a grinning Snell remembers how he was received in Seattle. Last July the Mariners "welcomed me, arms open," he says. The first to greet him when he arrived was Wakamatsu, who—in Sweeney's words—has since become a father, brother, counselor and psychologist to Bradley, who in late May confessed to thoughts of suicide himself. When Snell was introduced to his manager and to pitching coach Rick Adair, he says, "They asked me, 'How are you doing? Is everything O.K.?' They ask you that every day. They're players' coaches: They talk to you instead of waiting for you to talk to them." Right in the clubhouse on that first day, Snell decided to open up about his past to Sweeney, who has since been one of Bradley's biggest advocates too.

Seattle did not expect Snell and Bradley to be successes on the order of Greinke—let alone another Mariner, the recently retired Ken Griffey Jr., who was hospitalized as an 18-year-old after swallowing 277 aspirin in a suicide attempt. ("It seemed like everyone was yelling at me in baseball, then I came home and everyone was yelling at me there," Griffey told The Seattle Times in 1992. "I got depressed. I got angry. I didn't want to live.") In fact, these days Snell is coping with another baseball low: Last Wednesday he was shelled by the Rangers, giving up seven earned runs in only 12/3 innings of a 12--2 loss. "I sucked ... out there, and nobody can blame this on the team," he calmly told reporters afterward. "I just have to keep my head held high and keep going after it." To psychologists and psychiatrists, though, the first priority is simply recovery, which is neither easy nor guaranteed. As Sweeney explained to Snell and Bradley in separate, tearful conversations, the hope is for each of them "to be the man [he's] always dreamt. To be on the field without all that extra weight. To be a better husband, father, teammate, friend." In Kansas City, Sweeney had told Greinke the same thing.

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