The dark spark: Baseball players and depression
The old adage is that baseball is a metaphor for life. Well, if that’s true – and I think it is – it means the ups and downs go beyond just slumping and soaring, striking out and blasting a grand slam, or riding a ten-game winning or losing streak. Sometimes, for some players, the darkness lurks beyond the diamond.
Two of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars – Zack Greinke and Joey Votto – have recently grappled with depression. Greinke won the American League Cy Young award in 2009, and Joey Votto was last season’s National League MVP. There’s no doubt about it: both of these guys can play. They’re also susceptible to the same illnesses, torments, and life woes as you or me.
Five seasons ago, when Zack Greinke was 22 years old, he almost quit the game. He suffers from social anxiety disorder, and didn’t know if he could handle the things that go along with being a baseball star. Traded this off-season from the Kansas City Royals to the Milwaukee Brewers, Greinke shuns the spotlight. Fans make him nervous. When on a road trip, he doesn’t like to leave his room for fear of being swarmed and bombarded with questions or requests for autographs. In a perfect world, he’d probably like to pitch in an empty stadium. Some would say he chose the wrong business. I would say that Zack Greinke didn’t choose baseball – baseball chose him.
“The main thing is, I want to pitch against the best players in the world,” he said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “You can’t do that by playing in a pickup baseball league in your town. It would be nice if no one knew who I was in Milwaukee when I wasn’t at the baseball field, but that’s not going to happen.”
He continues to play the game he loves despite the off-field pressure, despite the sometimes alienating media scrums, despite the fame monster. Some consider Greinke arrogant and rude, others consider him brave. Perhaps he should simply be considered a human being with a cannon for an arm.
Joey Votto, on the other hand, began suffering from panic attacks after his father and role-model passed away at the early age of 52 in 2008. The attacks got so bad that Votto had to call 911 in the middle of the night and be brought to hospital in Cincinnati. Walking onto the field every day, his mind was consumed with the stress in his personal life. Eventually he went on the DL to deal with his issues. He was batting .357 with 8 homeruns and 33 RBIs in 38 games at the time – incredible statistics for someone wrestling with demons.
“The stuff I was dealing with off the field finally seeped its way into the game and I just couldn’t go out there,” Votto said in an interview with the Toronto Star in 2009. “It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to go through anxiety or panic attacks, being depressed. Ever since, I have been really struggling with this in my private life.”
Votto came back with a incredible year in 2010. He bat .324 with 37 homeruns and 113 RBIs. He won the National League MVP award and stirred up talks of being a possible triple-crown winner throughout the season. Amazing.
Both Greinke and Votto have received treatment and therapy for their bouts with depression. To put up the kinds of numbers they have while fighting their respective off-field battles is nothing short of inspiring.