Baseball + Mental Health (May Is Mental Health Awareness Month)

I have covered my own struggles with mental health in previous posts and probably could dredge up a few new chapters that have been written due to changes in the last 12-18 months, but rather than share a personal story again, I want to illustrate how it is affecting the game I love. I believe that all sports are lacking a positive and healthy mental health protocol, but the MLB has a chance to be the trailblazer. Rob Manfred and team, YOU have the opportunity to positively impact not only baseball and it’s future, but the future of all major sporting leagues – and trickling down from there, hopefully all athletes in any capacity.

Athletes, for better or worse, are role models and looked up upon by children (and the media) all over the world. Baseball is a unique sport where the boundaries of where the best athletes in that sport are not predominantly from North America. Baseball players span the globe and have more representation outside of the US and Canada than any of the four major sports. With this fact in place, it is easy to spot how impactful a change to policy, with emphasis on COMPLETE health (body and mind), can have have such a large reach.

In the ultra-modern game of baseball (post-steroids) we have seen the game change and become more and more specialized. This specialization looks at analytics and tries to maximize each player’s impact while ensuring that the team’s investment is used to its fullest AND maximum life-cycle. We now see players receive surgeries to fix even the most minor of injuries, to prevent worse injuries or eliminate down-time. Pitchers (and even position players) are even recommended to have season-ending surgeries, like Tommy John, just so they have a better chance at having a full life-cycle for their arm. Asking a player to take 12-18 months to “get better” and fix their arm – while still paying them for the time they are missing – is not looked at as throwing money away.

So why isn’t there a similar protocol and emphasis on mental health? To think that only physical injuries can prevent a player from performing to the best of his abilities is absurd. We’ve all had those dark periods in our life where we have let our mood and mental state take away from how much we give back (either at work, at home, or in relationships). Now imagine that you are confined to being surrounded by the very epitome of the stereotypical social construct called “masculinity” AND you have more than a case of the blues – you have real, undiagnosed depression.

The MLB is full of men – all the coaches and players, and the majority of reporters, clubhouse personnel, and executives are all men. Sure, some men are more sensitive and have the outlet to be less “hyper-masculine” but many are thrust into this world and keep up the front. The very fact that no player in MLB history has come out as gay as a player in the MLB is a sign of this awareness to this stereotype of “man”. And what else is stereotypically masculine – “rub some dirt on it and get back out there”.

Up until the beginning of this decade, full contact sports like football and hockey didn’t have adequate CONCUSSION protocol – and that’s a physical injury to the brain. Now imagine the protocol to a non-physical, completely internal issue that cannot be tracked in an MRI or X-Ray… Not good.

But before I get too carried away, why does it matter? Have we ever seen guys affected by mental health that were noticeably affected in how they played/performed? The short answer: Yes.

Many players have been affected throughout history and those are the ones that couldn’t “hide it”. How many others have gone unnoticed will never be known, but if correctly assessed by future protocol, hopefully this number is far less and closer to zero.

So who exactly is affected? Well, first of all you have the guys that suffer from your “traditional” illnesses like anxiety and depression – think Zack Greinke. Then there are the guys that have battle addiction issues – drugs, alcohol, prescription pills, etc. – think Josh Hamilton. Next you have players with body image issues – eating disorders, body building addictions, and even steroid usage – think of the rumors around Pablo Sandoval last year. And lastly you have your situational and uncommon mental illness – guys getting down because of their play, being away from home, thrust into sudden stardom, developing the yips, etc. – think: literally ANYONE.

With so many stories of guys overcoming their obstacles, there are even more than succumb to them – for every Josh Hamilton winning the MVP, there are numerous never-made-the-bigs that lost it all. And before you say that this is part of the weeding out process, I’d argue and urge that it is not. Teams spend money on these “assets” and want to see them develop into what they believe is possible, that is why they offer to pay for them to heal their injuries and develop their skills in lower levels before they go pro. It is very possible that we never got to see the greatest baseball player of all-time because he was allowed to have his “personal demons” overtake his baseball abilities.

But the MLB can fix that. I do not have all the answers, though I believe that a guy like the NBA’s Royce White has a great starting point for any professional league. Royce not only played the game with his condition, but he fought against a league that had no protocol for someone with his mental health issues. I urge the MLB to reach out to mental health organizations – not as a way to “gave back” and “help others”, but as a way to help your own. Look at other industries and look at the leaders in mental health coverage within those industries. What are those companies doing to protect their “investments/assets”?

Let’s not forget the old adage that baseball is 90% mental. We’ve seen resources to protect what remains of the percentage for physical ailments, let’s properly align our focus on what’s missing…

Mental health.

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