MLB: Opening The Door On Mental Illness In Major League Baseball

David Freese, Pittsburgh Pirates

An article published by Newsweek in 2014 revealed that almost one in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. As might be expected, MLB is not immune to this health issue. And as we will see, MLB, much like our Nation, has more work to do in this area.

Updated: March 20, 2019

A week ago, the following email was sent to the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). To date, there has been no response.

Good Morning: In February 2018, I published the following article on my website Reflections On Baseball which was titled Opening The Door On Mental Illness In MLB. The article has received widespread readings and interest via searches on the topic such as this Google search where it lists Number One.

Accordingly, the article should be updated with avenues the MLBPA currently has to assist former and current players who are afflicted with mental illness, along with those that are in the planning and development stage.

I searched but could not find anything in the current bargaining agreement pertaining to services for those afflicted. Please REFER ME to someone in your organization who can reply with information regarding your interest in this matter. Without a response, I will need to update the above article with the contents of this email, along with an indication of your non-response.

Regards, Steve Contursi

Returning To The Original Article

That number is somewhat striking, isn’t it? Apply the amount to any cross-section of America and its stark reality comes into focus. In any classroom of 30 students, there are six children who are affected. In the United States Senate, twenty of its one-hundred members are likely to have an issue with some form of mental illness. And for our purposes here, five of the twenty-five men in an MLB dugout of the team we root for is likely to be affected, but not necessarily diagnosed for treatment, to some degree by an issue with mental illness.

As with our entire culture, MLB players who suffer from mental illness have been a part of baseball for decades. And as with our culture too, the affected players have been swept under the rug, ignored, or readily dismissed as “just one crazy dude.”

MLB had it’s most serious brush with mental illness and one it couldn’t possibly ignore with Jimmy Piersall during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), introduced the extent of Piersall’s illness in a compelling article in 2010:

One exception was Jimmy Piersall, an outfielder with teams including the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the New York Mets during the 1950s and ’60s. In 2008, The Advocate profiled Piersall, who lives with bipolar disorder. The two-time Golden Glove winner and All-Star player was perhaps best known by fans for his colorful behavior on the field such as fights with other players and stunts like running around the bases backward. Piersall had a family history of mental illness, and some of the entertaining antics fans most enjoyed were manifestations of his bipolar disorder.

Following electroshock therapy in 1952, he believed his career was over, but instead, he received tremendous support from both his teammates and fans. Piersall returned to the Red Sox in 1954 and shared his story with local television and the Saturday Evening Post, a bold move during a time when few spoke about such experiences with extended family or friends, never mind the American public. He also wrote an autobiography; Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story, in 1955, which was made into a movie.Christine Armstrong, NAMI

As a kid, I can recall tuning into Yankees games whenever they played the Cleveland Indians to see what Piersall would do next. I was rewarded once when Piersall hid behind the monuments on the playing field at the old Yankee Stadium. And then once more when Piersall kicked a fan who was charging at him square in the butt with real cleats. I thought it was funny. Little did I know then.

While Piersall’s candor in later years helped to remove some of the stigma attached to the disease, it wasn’t until 1981 that MLB introduced an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for all of its workers, including players. But even then, the focus of the program was largely on substance abuse, not on mental illness, or more importantly perhaps, mental health.

More recently, MLB players have been willing to air their battles with mental illness. I was aware of some of these stories, but not all of them, and the sheer volume of these reports startled me when researching this piece.

David Freese, for example, spoke openly with Mike Bates (MLB Daily Dish) about his struggles with clinical depression, substance abuse, and mental health. In April of 2017, Freese told Bob Nightengale of USA Today about his experience, which continues to this day:

I was depressed. I was always depressed…. I didn’t care about my life. I didn’t care what would happen to me. It was almost to the point that if this is my time, so be it? “And there was definitely a lack of care about my well-being at certain times, for sure. Bob Nightengale, USA Today

That recklessness almost cost Freese his life when he was almost killed while driving drunk in 2013.

Mike Bates goes on to add:

“We don’t know how many ballplayers are suffering from depression. Evan Gattis has opened up about his struggles. Aubrey Huff contemplated suicide after his playing career ended. Zack Greinke and Joey Votto have both fought through mental illness to find success”Mike Bates, MLB Daily Dish

But on the other hand, Khalil GreeneDontrelle WillisJustin DuchschererIan Snell, and Hong-Chih Kuo all had difficulty getting their careers back on track. And guys like Eric Show and Tommy Hanson, both of whose struggles against depression led them to use drugs to self-medicate, eventually died from their addictions.”

So many players. Who would have known? Well, you would think MLB might have known since these are the players who represent their interests. Or, you would think the Major League Player’s Association (MLBPA) might have known, or at least when they learned of these incidents have started something up to provide a source of refuge and assistance for their MLB constituents.

But in neither case could I find a comprehensive program by either party devoted exclusively to mental illness.

Superagent Steve Boras has one for his clients, though. That’s right, say what is said of him at times, Boras pulls out all the stops for his players. His newest facility is soon to open in South Florida as mainly a workout facility.  Don Carman, a former major league pitcher who later became a sports psychologist, heads the mental-development program.

So, much as in the case when then-commissioner Bud Selig elected to ignore what was happening before his eyes with the burgeoning use of steroids, MLB adopts the same mode with players fighting mental illnesses. Instead of this lapse by MLB, some individual teams have responded to the need.

Joe Lemire, writing for USA Today Sports, pointed to Ken Ravizza has been working with professional ballplayers for 30 years, with the Angels, Rays and now Cubs and, no, it’s not a coincidence that his career trajectory has mirrored that of current Chicago manager Joe Maddon, a vocal proponent of mental conditioning. Ravizza explains:

People realize now that we’ve tapped the physical conditioning aspect,” Ravizza said. “We’ve tapped the mechanic’s aspect. We’re tapping the computer aspect and all the numbers. I think now they’re realizing the next edge is the six inches between the ears.Joe Lemire, USA Today Sports

While not attacking the problem of mental illness directly, programs of this kind aim to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place, which would seem to be a solid step forward.

In conclusion, it would seem to be a stretch expecting MLB to zoom to the forefront in providing mental health services for its players. As a business entity comprised of millionaire owners, the interest of MLB is mainly to generate profits for its teams.

I find that is not so with the Player’s Association. The MLBPA has done a splendid job in ensuring its members enjoy financial rewards with contracts that continue to boggle the imagination. But they are doing precious little to ensure that players remain fit to enjoy those rewards with a quality of life free from mental health issues. After all, what’s the use of having all these riches if you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning?

All of which is to say we don’t know enough about mental illness in this country of ours and that indeed extends to the sport of baseball and the players who entertain us. Shining a light on the problem, as this piece is intended to do, is one thing. Inaction though on the part of those with the power to do something (MLBPA) is quite another. Shame on Tony Clark and the organization he runs.

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Written by Steve Contursi, Editor, Reflections On Baseball
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Author: stevecontursi

I am an amateur writer with a passion for baseball and all things Yankees and Mets.

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