Right Opinion

‘Big League’ People

Roy Exum · Jun. 27, 2010

There is a wonderful and very gutty article in last week’s issue of Sports Illustrated that, in presenting a side of major-league baseball nobody wants to see, offers a view that everybody alive should bring sharply into focus. And it was only by coincidence that I started “reading” writer Pablo Torre’s story the day before my magazine arrived.

Late one afternoon several weeks ago I was spending a private minute with a dear friend of mine. We were laughing at first but then he said he was worried about drinking too much. From there we talked about “why” and then I asked “Why not,” as in, “Why not let me help you get some help?”

You want to know what his problem is. It’s the exact same thing that the Sports Illustrated article revealed the very next day – macho “big league” people, whether they play baseball or not, have the toughest time of all asking for help. I’m talking about mental anguish, about depression and anxiety attacks and other disorders that are so easy to treat but have been shrouded by silly pride for way too long.

And I know what I’m talking about.

Baseball, as life, is about statistics so let me give you a couple. From 1972 to 1991 there was not one reported case of mental disorders in the major leagues. But the National Institute of Mental Health has documented that, in any given year, 26.2 percent of Americans age 18 and over are suffering from diagnosable problems.

It has been said that the hardest feat in sports is to hit a 95 mile-an-hour fastball that is actually less than three inches wide. The greatest players in the game today are all-stars if they can do it just three times in every ten tries. So don’t you think with fickle crowds and pressure-cooker expectations life at the top might get a little testy on a psyche?

Like I said, I know about “the black dog.” I also know that when suddenly a pitcher in “the bigs” loses the ability to find the corner of the plate with his curve ball, when his Earned Run Average skyrockets, the old baseball hands call it “the Creature,” and the psychological monster is frightening indeed.

About 15 years ago I had my first anxiety attack on an airplane headed for surgery. I thought it was because I was “afraid of being afraid,” if that makes sense. So as I began to privately delve into the “whys” and spooky parts of my brain, I’ll never forget the late John Bollinger greeting me in his psychiatric office with the gleeful admonition, “You’ve had 90-something surgeries in less than 10 years and nothing’s wrong? Welcome home!”

So, yes, Zack Greinke (who won the Cy Young Award last year as the best pitcher in the American League) and I both suffer from clinical depression. That’s right, the phenomenal Kansas City pitcher who signed a four-year contract for $38 million, is married to a former Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleader, and is currently struggling with a 3.84 ERA has the same problem I do.

What is so wonderful is that he is now one of a handful of major-league players who are admitting it, who are urging others – just like I did with my friend last week – to go get help. “Zack Greinke is the perfect example for players today,” said Bill Pulsipher, a phenom in the mid-90s who left the Mets when depression and anxiety robbed him of his game.

“I mean, if you can talk to someone about your issue, and that fixes you? Or take a pill once a day for 10 years? Why wouldn’t you do that?” Pulsipher asked.

Greinke, a somewhat quiet introvert who is now famous throughout baseball for having the courage to bring the bare bones of mental anguish out of baseball’s closet, says of his treatment, “The medicine is unbelievable,” Greinke told reporters during spring training. “I’m still the same person, but my attitude about everything is different.”

And that’s the most unbelievable part about the brown-colored pill I take each morning, too. I can’t tell I take it. It doesn’t make me jumpy, give me blurred vision or cause me to itch. But instead of the high peaks and deep valleys that I had been trying to manage, I enjoy the rolling hills that life presents every day. It’s a “no-brainer” and if I miss taking it for a few days, that’s when I can tell.

And that’s why I am writing this today. Help is available but you have to ask. Let’s listen to Dr. David McDuff, professor of psychiatry at Maryland’s medical school and team psychiatrist for the Orioles and the Ravens. “It’s one tank,” he told Sports Illustrated. “We can artificially break it down, but there’s no actual partitioning in the mind.”

Some people abuse alcohol is a desperate way to help. On Saturday the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced emergency-room visits due to nonmedical use of oxycodone have increased by 152 percent while that of hydrocodone rose by a 123 percent increase and that of methadone exhibited a 73 percent increase. Obviously drug abuse doesn’t work either.

So, what do we do? In baseball the mental stress is so huge that Brewers pitching coach Rick Peterson said he is only surprised by the fact it has taken so long for league executives to address it. “How many apples had to fall off the tree before someone said, ‘That’s gravity’?”

Don’t you think it’s time for the rest of us – who aren’t in the major leagues but who are “big time” people – to notice the apples?

Trust me and 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. It’s so easy to do. All you have to do is ask.

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