There's No Crying In Baseball

Zack Greinke suffers from social anxiety. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Let’s put it another way. Zack Greinke has social anxiety. Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s a little less ominous; a little less sky-is-falling. But I think we can do better.

Zack Greinke lives with social anxiety. Yeah, that’s better.

It sounds trivial to say it that way, but it almost feels like you have to. It feels like you have to remind the general public every now and again that a mental disorder doesn’t mean you belong in a padded room or in a therapist’s office five days a week. Some disorders can get out of control and be debilitating to the point that a person can actually “suffer” from it, but in the case of one of the top 10 pitchers in the world, it’s safe to assume he’s not suffering.

So let us all stop referring to it like it’s a negative, like it’s a chink in his character. It’s not.

What it does do, however, is make Greinke a recognizable figure in the sports world. “Hey, there’s that guy who quit baseball because he’s loony.” (Sorry New York fans, that’s just not the case, either.) He’s become That Guy with That Thing that causes him to quit something everybody wishes they could do.* He’s a mental midget, a 5-cent head and is unable to deal with pressure and winning, and he’ll always be that way.

*Another disgusting side of this issue is Joe Fan projecting his envy and his own regret onto another person because he never made it as far. It happened last year when Royals prospect Danny Duffy “quit” because he thought he just didn’t want to play baseball anymore. Joe Fan was quick to call him a “quitter” and a fool, that he would someday regret this decision. How is it of any concern to anyone if another person chooses to play baseball or not? How is it that a medically diagnosed mental disorder makes you out to be somehow less than?

The struggles the ex-Royals pitcher has had to battle through already in his short life have been well-documented. Unfortunately, those battles have had to be played out in the public eye, as he’s one of the better talents of his generation. What’s also unfortunate is that his “fame” has turned more into “celebrity,” the likes of which the “normal people” like to poke fun at. He’s become more a punch line than the star he deserves to be. All because of a mental condition of which people are ignorant, even though they could learn about it in their nearest high school psychology text book.

It continues this way, not only on fan forums and the blogosphere, but by major media personalities as well.

National baseball writers use the cop-out line: “you have to question whether or not Greinke can handle the big market spotlight given his past issues.” No, you really don’t. At least not for those reasons.

It’s ignorant. It’s irresponsible. It’s Baseball.

*                             *                             *                             *

It first became noticeable in high school. Well, probably much sooner than that, but it wasn’t until high school that a firm handle of what it was became clear. There’s a certain uneasiness in a crowd. A certain confusion about yourself and wondering what is the right thing to say or do. Say something too smart and they’ll look at you funny. Say something too stupid and they’ll look at you funny. Stumble over your words, have your voice crack a little, have just the tiny bit of drool come out the corner of your mouth, and they’ll look at you funny.

It’s not easy when they look at you funny.

At 16, I first began to notice something different about the way I interacted with others. Not my close friends, no, but people outside my box that I knew didn’t know me that well, which was damn near everyone. Funny about it that way, it becomes self-serving. You’re not comfortable around people because you don’t know them, and you don’t know them because you’re not comfortable. How ‘bout that?

Group conversations are where it was really bad. One-on-one, I’m fine. Online chat, I’m golden. In a group and in person, not a chance.

What do I say? What if it’s not funny? What if it’s kind of funny, but not really and they just courtesy laugh? What if they’ve heard this joke before? What if they heard the joke and it offended them? What if I offend them? Where do I put my hands when I’m talking? Wait, when do I talk? Is it now? Damn, the conversation has moved on…

My brain would go Mach 3 trying to figure out every angle of every question, just to make sure all means of embarrassment were eliminated. It was like that always. It never went away. Sometimes I just jumped in anyway, said my two cents, and prayed for the best. Most of the time though, I never said a word. The alternative was much too much to take.

It was like that on the baseball field too, only it manifested differently. It was fear. The fear of screwing up not because screwing up would mean the difference in a win or a loss – I never cared much about that – but because screwing up would cause embarrassment.

As a “ballplayer,” you’re supposed to be all about baseball. Girls are yours and the game is great, and nothing means quite as much as success on the baseball field. But not for me.

I was good. Don’t think I’m being humble here, I’m not. I was good. Real good. Baseball was easy. Simple. Uncomplicated. I never understood why teammates and friends couldn’t do the things I could do. I guess it’s the burden of being both one of the smartest in every class you’ve ever been, and one of the best athletes all at the same time. You do what you do and don’t understand how others can’t. For me though, it wasn’t a blessing.

To try and fail would cause embarrassment. To try and succeed would mean the standard is set. I couldn’t win, with myself.

*                             *                             *                             *

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Zack Greinke talk. He had just been drafted No. 6 overall by the Royals and the local afternoon sports-talk radio show had him on to welcome him to Kansas City. He was…different.

Zack talked funny, gave vague answers, and said “um” enough times to make Johnny Damon jealous. He was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year and sounded like he could not have cared any less. Needless to say, I liked him immediately. I could see a little of me in him.

He was also quite clearly the player of Allard Baird’s dreams. The apple of his eye. Baird gushed about this high school kid’s abilities from day one, talking him up like he was the next big thing. And immediately, he was.

During Greinke’s first full season in the minors at stops between High-A and Double-A, he threw 140 innings, striking out 112, and walking only 18. Eight. Teen.

As a 19-year-old in Double-A, he threw 53 of those innings, more than holding his own with a 3.23 ERA. He was a star ready to burst. He was what all Kansas City fans born in the ‘80s had dreamed of.  He was hope.

Royals’ fans fear the worst though. We have to; it’s really all we’ve known for about 25 years now. Heck, we once had a centerfielder jump to rob a would-be homerun, only to have the ball land on the warning track. So when Baird and Co. called up young Zack after just six starts in Triple-A in 2004, everyone held their breath.

His first start in Oakland, we hoped to see a supernova exploding; a rock star performing on stage making everyone take notice with dominant, overpowering stuff. What we got was a maestro. Five innings and just one strikeout later, we were captivated by the lolly-pop curveball and pin-point command of the fastball. Just one strikeout? Who cares? Greinke pitched like he was never going to break a sweat, and he was ours. Pinch me.

He never really dominated in that first year, even though he finished allowing less hits than innings pitched and with an ERA under 4.00. Let’s be honest, though, what more could you expect from a 20-year-old surrounded by a bad team? He was the best pitcher on the staff, after all.

*                             *                             *                             *

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million American adults (ages 18 and up) have an anxiety disorder. That’s 18.1 percent of all persons in that age group. Anxiety disorders also frequently coexist with depressive disorders.

In the world of Baseball, they would all be referred to as a demeaning, and insulting, expletive.

I’ve likely been referred to by others with that expletive more than a few times myself. Hell, I’m pretty sure I’ve even called myself that expletive.

But such is the case when you live in the world of athletics. Not only are you supposed to be the best of the best in your arena of choice, but there’s no place for perceived weaklings or those who would rather read a book or watch reruns of The West Wing than spend the night out drinking. Perhaps it’s just being a young adult male. Perhaps. More likely though in the world of Baseball thoughts, and emotions, and feelings, and intelligence are rendered irrelevant to the almighty “win.”.

It wasn’t until after my playing days in college that I started to fully understand and manage the uneasy feelings and thoughts when around people. Too little, too late.

By that time my inner demons had reaped enough havoc that the lost years had put me too far behind to reach my goal of getting paid to play baseball. Oh, I came close. One good week in spring training with an independent team and I would have signed that contract. But by that time, I had grown jaded to the game I played as a kid because of the business-played-by-men-I-couldn’t-respect it turned into, to give it my all.

What would have happened if I figured it out sooner?

I ask myself that at least once a day. Certainly this story hasn’t gone the way I once was sure it was going to go.

Perhaps if someone with knowledge, or care for an athlete who wasn’t all about the bravado, would have noticed the quiet kid always standing by himself.  Would have noticed the kid who never seemed to enjoy winning. Would have noticed the kid who never joined in with the group conversations, and bothered to take him aside and ask “why?,” things would be different.

Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t work like that in Baseball. The Game doesn’t have time to help those who may need it, because it has all these other people who don’t. It’s laziness, really.

*                             *                             *                             *

When Zack left the Royals, we all got scared. Not scared because of the personal torment another human being was living through, but because it would have an effect on our favorite team. Fortunately for Zack, Allard Baird didn’t look at it that way.

It takes an awful lot of character for a General Manager of a perennially awful team to ignore for a second the implications of losing a talent like Greinke for the bigger picture. If not for Baird and the support of his front office, there’s no telling where Zack would be now. From what we know now of the attitudes and ignorance that lace the thoughts and the fingers of the Baseball landscape today, what Baird did was remarkable.

He gave the person time to figure out what the player needed. He recognized something that wasn’t the same and instead of immediately casting aside a player like he was an interchangeable part, Baird allowed there to be answers sought. He noticed that kid standing by himself and asked “why.”

Four full seasons have followed since Greinke left the Royals in 2006, with no signs of the same troubles that forced him to leave the game. Yet for some reason, this debate over his mental toughness continues.

In 2009, Greinke was the best pitcher in baseball, turning in a season that goes down as one of the best of the last 30 years, yet questions are still asked about his ability to handle “pressure” and “attention.”

The amusing part about how the disorder is covered is that pressures from the outside aren’t what cause the uneasy feelings; it’s the pressures from within. And on the mound, or in any place of comfort or escape, is one of the few places those pressures fade away.

Baseball doesn’t bother telling you that.

In the world of Baseball, perceptions rule and players play and questions aren’t asked, especially about mental disorders. Writers follow around and worship the personalities and push the messages from a largely uneducated industry. An industry brought up in Baseball, because Baseball is a way of life and it has little use for learning.

Somewhere there’s a kid with all the talent in the world who is living with social anxiety, or depression, or some other very common and manageable mental disorder, and he doesn’t know it. He’s standing by himself at baseball practice without many friends and he can’t wait to go home and watch Zack Greinke pitch.

He’ll do so and he’ll have to listen to announcers mention over and over again how Greinke left the game five years ago and he could do it again someday. He’ll read national sports writers question the toughness of his favorite pitcher because of the same thoughts and feelings and emotions he has on a daily basis. He’ll hear his coach call a teammate an expletive he’s sure he’s been called a time or two.

He’ll stand alone and no one will ask him “why.”

It’s ignorant. It’s irresponsible. It’s Baseball.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Kansas City Royals KC MLB Royals Zack Greinke

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