Greinke, Hamilton, Mental Health, Masculinity and Dignity

I know it’s been literally months since I’ve written anything even remotely serious here, but I just want to warn you up front that, unlike most of the stuff I write here, this isn’t going to be funny. Or perhaps this is a better way to put it: this isn’t going to attempt to be funny. I don’t want to presume to speak for Bill or the other guys with this post, but this needs to be said.

In a vacuum, the two best players on the free agent market right now are Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton. Each has won a major award (Greinke the Cy Young in 2009 and Hamilton the MVP in 2010), and each has spent his free-agency years putting up remarkable stats, both traditional and advanced. Each should, most likely, receive a nine-figure contract to play baseball for the better part of the next decade, and good for both of them.

But this free agent class is interesting. Not only because, while it’s relatively deep, it lacks the top-end star power of recent years, but because its two crown jewels, Hamilton and Greinke, are known almost as much for their off-field difficulties as for their on-field prowess.

And about a month into the offseason, I have been truly shocked by how little we’ve heard about the former. It might be a function of my being very careful what bits of the public sports debate I expose myself to, but I’ve been incredibly pleased by how little we’ve heard about Greinke’s anxiety disorder and Hamilton’s battle with drugs and alcohol.

In case you’ve been on the moon since 2005 or so, here’s how the story goes. Josh Hamilton was drafted No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 1999 out of a North Carolina high school. He was viewed at the time as a franchise-defining prospect, possessed of obvious athleticism, a tremendous throwing arm and generational power. He was spoken of at the time in the same awed tones we currently use for guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton. But his minor league career was derailed around the turn of the century by drug and alcohol abuse, forcing him to leave the game for three years to seek help. In 2007, the Cincinnati Reds, having acquired Hamilton through the Rule V draft, gave him 337 major-league plate appearances, and Hamilton made the most of them, posting a .292/.368/.554 slash line and netting them Edinson Volquez in a trade that offseason. Since then, Hamilton has made the All-Star team every year, and in 2010, at age 29, he led the American league in batting average and slugging percentage to win the MVP award.

Hamilton’s skills with the bat have been consistently coupled, in the public eye, with discussion about his addiction. Part of this is by Hamilton’s own choice, and considering what he overcame and what he’s accomplished since, he ought to be open about his faith and his recovery. He serves as a role model for those struggling with addiction, a symbol of hope for those who want to overcome it and seek help by going to alcohol and drug rehabs.

Greinke’s story is similar in some ways. Drafted No. 6 overall in 2002, the famed “Moneyball” draft, where he went ahead of Scott Kazmir, Jeff Francis, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain, Greinke was a prodigy, making 24 big-league starts in his age-20 season. But he imploded in 2005 and missed most of the 2006 season trying to manage social anxiety disorder and depression. By 2009, he was back, to the tune of, by Baseball Reference’s account, a 10.1-WAR season. Since then, he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball.

So two happy endings, right? Most of you are intimately familiar with the details of these stories, but how we discuss mental illness in sports has a significant bearing on how we discuss it as a society. Don’t believe me? Our political media, for instance, borrows much from sports media, from a troubling strain of anti-intellectualism and innumeracy to the struggle to find meaning in minutiae. So how we talk about and think about Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton has an impact on how we think not only about other public figures, but more importantly, about each other.

I’ve been a strident opponent of the Phillies signing Josh Hamilton this offseason. His age, relative to the length of contract he’s likely to receive, scares me. As do his declining defensive utility in center field, his reliance on contact skills rather than plate discipline and his troubling injury history, which stands to get worse, not better, as his body ages. You know what doesn’t scare me? His history with drugs. Hamilton has made a lot of public noise about the great pains he’s taken to remain clean (with rumors of intermittent, though isolated, relapses) since his return to baseball. He’s struggling with a disease, one identified as such by the National Institutes of Health, and one which afflicts 23 million Americans. With proper caution and supervision, which Hamilton seems eager to take advantage of, he poses, in a vacuum, no more risk to a would-be employer than you or I.

The issue is whether he gets that caution, supervision and treatment. And to that I’ll say, the more we stigmatize addicts and alcoholics in our society, the less likely they are to get what they need to stay clean. Staying sober is a choice, but the way we treat addicts as a society speaks to the way we deal with societal inequalities of all kinds. There’s a common strain of thought in modern political culture, that there’s a 1-to-1 relationship between personal failings and moral weakness. And while the most intelligent and hardest-working often do rise to the top, success and virtue are not as well-linked as we’d like to think.

Certainly Hamilton made bad choices, for which he has paid the price. But we’re better off if we help those who struggle with addiction or any kind of obstacle, particularly if they, like Hamilton was, are willing to accept that help and realize their full potential. And for that, in spite of how he got there in the first place, Hamilton deserves…well, maybe not any special respect or admiration, but at least the courtesy of being judged for what he is now, not as a punchline.

So if you’re going to talk about Josh Hamilton’s addiction as part of the calculus that determines his value as a ballplayer, I don’t have any problem with that. I’m probably more willing to give him  a pass than some people, and that’s fine. But don’t use it as a blanket condemnation–factor it in as part of an informed discussion about his overall value. Because while Josh Hamilton is not only a baseball player, neither is he only a recovering drug addict.

***

But I’ve buried the lede somewhat, because this is really about Zack Greinke. And even then, it’s not really about just him either. This is about Joey Votto as well. And Olympic sprinter Derrick Adkins. And Royce White.

A couple weeks ago, White, a rookie forward for the Houston Rockets, spoke out against the Rockets because he felt they weren’t adequately helping him deal with his anxiety disorder. White’s case has since turned into a messy battle of he-said-she-said, but the public discussion around the issue has remained the same–that White can somehow just get over his problem.

And that insinuation, in the moment, made my blood fucking boil. It’s been a while since I’ve been legitimately vision-closing-in, heart racing, blood-run-cold angry about a sports story, but this one did it. And it’s an outgrowth of the same kind of ill-informed, Eisenhower-era, rub-some-dirt-on-it nonsense that tells us that Greinke “can’t handle the pressure” or “wouldn’t do well in a place like New York or Boston or Philly.” The kind of nonsense that gets “head case” thrown around like it’s some kind of psychological term of art.

This is entirely speculation, but I can’t believe the current composition of coaches and analysts helps. Those ranks are filled largely not with professional administrators and experts, but professional athletes and people trained to get information from professional athletes. So when Royce White goes AWOL, or Zack Greinke goes on the 60-day DL to get therapy, we don’t hear from an M.D. who’s spent his adult life as a neurologist or a counselor. We hear from someone with a B.A. in journalism from Mizzou or Syracuse or Northwestern, or someone with 250 career home runs who looks good in pinstripes, either one of which has spent his adult life in a locker room, being washed over with a professional athletic culture that was had a barbaric conception of masculinity when it was created generations ago.

Considering the prevalence of depression and anxiety in American culture, it scares the shit out of me that we’re routinely entrusting the future of potentially vulnerable young people to men like Billy Gillispie, Jerry Kill and Mike Leach. Because at best, college and professional coaches are ill-qualified to help a young man deal with mental illness, but at worst, they are martinets and bullies with a set of expectations straight out of the Parris Island scenes in Full Metal Jacket. 

As tempting as it is to view athletes dispassionately as lines on a statistical or financial ledger, as we often do, sometimes they turn into what they are in real life: young men in their early-to-mid-20s who often have uncertain futures and have been trained from the cradle not to show any outward signs of weakness. And when that atmosphere contacts one of the 8-to-12 percent of Americans who will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives, or the 7-to-13 percent who will do the same with social anxiety disorder, the combination is toxic and dangerous.

I don’t consider Greinke’s struggles with mental illness as part of his baseball portfolio, because I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t speak intelligently on the subject. I can speak intelligently on that situation I described above: dealing with depression as a guy in his early 20s, uncertain future, lifelong discouragement from seeking help. It’s not fun. Even in relatively mild cases, it’s hard to sleep, hard to deal with panic attacks that come without a pattern or warning. It’s hard to wake up in the morning and get out of bed, and when you do, it’s hard to come up with a reason to deal with the source of your anxiety.

And being told that asking for help is a sign of mental weakness, or brands you as a head case, or a complainer, or somehow defective is hardly a compelling incentive to get the medication or therapy you need, or to at least know what’s wrong with you so that, through your own awareness you can overcome it on your own. It’s a shame, too, because for many people, the difference between being able to function and considering taking one’s own life is a prescription, or an hour a week with a shrink, or at the very least, the support of friends and family. Just as with addiction, the stigma against mental illness makes life immeasurably harder on those who could be treated and saved with relatively little effort.

The worst part is that people who spout the “well just get over it” or “head case” lunacy, or even in some cases, just joke about it, are negatively impacting the lives of those around them. Because I guarantee that you know someone for whom depression and/or anxiety is a major struggle. It’s that common, and the gulf between treated and not cannot be overstated.

That’s why I was so encouraged by the maturity of discourse around Greinke by the time he reached free agency. That’s why, for me, the best thing to happen in baseball this season wasn’t Mike Trout’s unbelievable season, or the Giants’ remarkable run to the playoffs, or the Phillies resigning Cole Hamels. It was that when Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff went on the disabled list with anxiety in April, the media reaction was one of overwhelming support.

That’s why this isn’t really about Zack Greinke or Royce White. I’m not worried about them so much. What I am worried about is this: there’s some college junior sitting in the dark somewhere who gets panic attacks or can’t be bothered to go to class, but is scared to death that people might think he’s crazy or weak if he sees a therapist. That’s what this is about, because we deal with mental illness in young men, as a society, with nothing short of criminal neglect. And the more athletes come forward and address this issue publicly, as something to be dealt with but not ashamed of, the more helpful we’ll be as a society. I am emboldened to write to you now because this summer, several writers I look up to talked openly about their struggles with anxiety and/or depression. And the more maturely we discuss Zack Greinke’s history, or Joey Votto’s, or Royce White, the more young men who struggle with mental illness can do the same.

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22 comments

  1. Ryan

    November 26, 2012 01:08 PM

    Good article–can’t say that I’m a big fan of your “funny” posts.

  2. The Citizens Banker

    November 26, 2012 01:16 PM

    Excellent, excellent article. Strong points and coming from someone whose dealt with and overcome Social Anxiety Disorder, I can say that everything in here is absolutely accurate and very well stated.

  3. K

    November 26, 2012 02:13 PM

    Thank you for this article and addressing a very important issue. Those who struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are not just the Josh Hamilton’s and Zach Greinke’s and Junior Seau’s of the world, but people all around us. Often, we are totally unaware of other people’s struggles because we sit back from a distance and discredit people with mental struggles, adding to the stigma and discouraging them from getting help. It does no good to mock and criticize someone’s behavior when you don’t have a damn clue what they are really going through. Everyone can, however, play a role in helping someone overcome their issues.

    I recently lost my younger brother to suicide and have had to confront the very real, very painful issue of depression. Please, make a difference and listen to people.

  4. Andrew Cleveland Alexander

    November 26, 2012 03:10 PM

    Nice, thoughtful article. I’d just raise one point, respectfully: if we’re going to acknowledge that substance abuse and social anxiety disorder/depression are real illnesses, and as valid a reason for missing games as a bad knee or any other physical condition, doesn’t that mean that fans should be able to discuss the acknowledged issue openly, just as they would, say, a history of hamstring problems in a player who relies on speed? I take your point about not wanting to stigmatize athletes for admitting mental health issues, and I recognize that it’s difficult to open up a discussion about these issues without opening the door to ignorant opinions (“He’s weak!”) But at the same time, it seems like placing discussion of these real issues out of bounds for public discussion is saying, in a way, that these issues are inherently shameful–otherwise, why treat them differently? If a player has dealt with a crippling addiction in the past, and has spoken openly about the challenges of maintaining his sobriety, isn’t it only right to frankly acknowledge that there is some risk of relapse–even if we ultimately come to the conclusion that the risk is acceptable in an economy where players routinely risk career ending injuries by running into walls, sliding into bases, and standing 60 feet away from some dude with uncertain control over a fast-moving projectile?

  5. Bryce

    November 26, 2012 03:14 PM

    Great article. Every word of it. I suffer from bipolar disorder, rapid swings between ups and downs. The hardest thing to do is admit that’s not all in your head. Admitting that the conversation needs to be had and openly. Because if it’s not, trust me on this, the hole just gets deeper.

  6. Andrew Cleveland Alexander

    November 26, 2012 03:20 PM

    Wait, on second reading, I see you wrote: “So if you’re going to talk about Josh Hamilton’s addiction as part of the calculus that determines his value as a ballplayer, I don’t have any problem with that.” My fault–poor reading comprehension skills there.

  7. Michael Baumann

    November 26, 2012 03:22 PM

    ACA-

    Absolutely. I tried to make the distinction between judging and intelligent discussion in the column, and if that wasn’t clear, that’s on me. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to talk about mental health issues among athletes–often, it’s constructive. I just think it should be done constructively.
    But to your specific point, totally fair game in my mind. I linked to a post from Matt Klaassen at The Score that makes precisely that point, but in case you missed it, here’s the link again.
    blogs.thescore.com/mlb/2012/07/26/fogging-the-measure-greinke-hamels-and-risky-histories/

  8. Andrew Cleveland Alexander

    November 26, 2012 04:03 PM

    I hadn’t clicked that link. Interesting. I wonder if in some ways whether an athlete who was subject to depression, admitted it, and sought treatment–including the kind of talk therapy that often leads to self-awareness that is sorely lacking in professional athletes–might actually be *better* able to manage themselves and their emotions in a high-pressure media environment. I mean, part of becoming a successful athlete is figuring out how to get past failure, and for those who lack the kind of supreme self-confidence that (I find) often comes as a product of complete stupidity, learning to deal with those feelings in a professional setting might actually be beneficial. Steve Carlton, who clearly had some mental health issues, apparently used psychological techniques to his benefit. Earlier generations obviously did a whole lot of self-medicating–Mickey Mantle comes to mind, but there were many others. Of course, one part of self-awareness is recognizing your boundaries, and it seems like Greinke, to his credit, has made a judgment call that he wants no part of the merciless environment of Philly, New York and Boston. Can’t say I blame him on that.

  9. Eddie Yost

    November 26, 2012 04:34 PM

    I hope this article reaches a broader audience.

  10. Dan K.

    November 26, 2012 06:04 PM

    Great article. My stance on both of them has always been in a vacuum I’d love to have both on my team. But both of these things are real problems that may (probably will for Greinke) cause some missed time. Utley has his bum knees, Greinke has his anxiety, and Hamilton has his struggle with dependence (unfortunately he also has other health issues, too). Just like Utley is awesome for fighting through his injuries, though, these two are also awesome for fighting through their respective problems.

    As for the “regular” folk out there dealing with these problems, hopefully this article goes to show they aren’t alone. There’s always someone willing to listen if you are willing to talk.

  11. Frank Reynolds

    November 26, 2012 10:18 PM

    Great Article. Gave me a new presepective on masculinity and mental health. I don’t look at Royce White or Zack Greinke as being weak. If I was a GM of a pro team I would give their mental health a second thought when drafting or signing them. However, I do have an issue with Hamilton. I don’t think it’s wise to give him a long term contract and part of the reason is history with drugs and alcohol. In my life I have a lot of exposure to both mental illness and addiction. Yes I am more sympathic to those who battle depression or anxiety than I am to those who battle drugs or booze. I guess I should be more understanding or at least try. Being around drunks my entire has influenced my feelings about them.

  12. KH

    November 27, 2012 11:31 AM

    Royce White deserve a lot of the abuse he is getting. He has not dealt with his situation well at all. I agree about Hamailton and Grienke though. Royce White is a whiner who does not want to ocnfront his issues.

  13. LTG

    November 27, 2012 02:19 PM

    FWIW, I would like to express my whole-hearted agreement with MB here. I have recently been dealing with an anxiety-disorder related tragedy. She was not my mentee but we worked together in the same program. From the second-person perspective, one can only feel helpless when the afflicted refuse to communicate their afflictions. I hope that revising the norms surrounding mental health problems will lead to fewer cases like this one.

    dailynorthwestern.com/2012/11/26/campus/friends-family-hope-weavers-death-will-raise-mental-health-awareness/

    KH, what on Earth makes you think you have enough facts to pass judgment?

  14. Zach

    November 27, 2012 02:36 PM

    Fantastic article, Michael. I find myself drawing a loose parallel between these disorders and concussion related-problems. In a macho sports world, problems with the brain (or anything unquantifiable for that matter), are met with indignation. I can only hope this raises the issue enough so that other seek help if they want it.

  15. John

    November 27, 2012 04:09 PM

    @ KH – People like you, who do not have all the facts or are involved in the situation at any level, are who Micheal is writing about. You are entitled to your opinion but as an alcoholic myself who has had to face the stigma of being the “drunk” or the guy who drinks to much because he’s depressed, that the fact that Royce White admitted he had a problem publicly is impressive and proof that he is in fact, not a whiner. The people with these problems are just as injured in their performance as people with a physical injury and for someone to speak out about their issue, whether it is physical or mental does not make them whiny, it makes them brave. So fuck you.

    Micheal, it is very refreshing to read an article like this. Stigma is a huge, huge issue and one that I personally deal with on a daily basis. Personally, I avoid telling people that I’m an alcoholic because I am painfully aware that unless you have had to deal with a family member or friend or personally gotten sober, the public generally writes you off as weak and a major liability. Personally, it is a great source of pride and strength, things I can only take away from myself if I relapse. Addiction is a disease and relapse is always possible but that doesn’t make me weak or a head case, so thank you for this article, thank you for sharing this and I too hope this will reach a broader audience.

  16. Matt

    November 27, 2012 05:19 PM

    Very insightful article. I completely agree that the media (especially sports media) will go to great lengths to find something to talk about. Even if it the most minute detail. Anyways, great article, I’ll be following your site.

  17. Phillie697

    November 27, 2012 06:26 PM

    Jesus MB, this is what you write to scare me after all them Friday posts?

    But in all seriousness, while the stated substance of your article of course, is spot on, I focused on this particular section in your article:

    “Don’t believe me? Our political media, for instance, borrows much from sports media, from a troubling strain of anti-intellectualism and innumeracy to the struggle to find meaning in minutiae. So how we talk about and think about Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton has an impact on how we think not only about other public figures, but more importantly, about each other.”

    This notion that we should measure others guided only by our own experiences without regard for any other information, the frog-in-the-well phenomenon, if you will, is prevalent on so many levels of society that it’s downright sickening. The other day I had a close friend bashing Obamacare (bear with me, this is not a post espousing the virtues of any political view; I’m not that dumb) by saying that it gives the “food stamp people who did not work for it” benefits that they don’t deserve, while at the same time being upset that it lowered the healthcare benefits her retired father now receives through Medicare. When I calmly pointed out that all she’s merely complaining about is that government decided to shift its handouts from her father to these “food stamp people,” she had a fit and said that I insulted her family and hurt her feelings by even implying that they are looking for government handouts. Nevermind that the entire premise of her argument basically boils down to that her and her father are just “better” than the “food stamp people” since they “obviously” worked harder than those people, so they deserve healthcare more than the “food stamp people”; as if that wasn’t insulting enough.

    The smugness that people seem to have a need to feel when helping others by thinking of said help as “charity,” and that by virtue of being helpful, they have a right to look down on these very same people, is the reason why people make fun of Hamilton, of Greinke, of Royce White, and of the “food stamp people.” The unwillingness to acknowledge their own capacity to fail, so therefore wanting to trash others for failing, is one of the most, if not the most, ridiculous phenomenon of our society that we almost seem happy and eager to propagate. Perhaps more than any other, that might be the biggest weakness of them all.

  18. livescore

    November 27, 2012 06:38 PM

    fantastic article, had to give it to you. on a side note one person involved in the Greinke talks believes there is a good chance he beats CC Sabathia’s record of 7/$161m. That’s jaw dropping!

  19. Jake

    November 27, 2012 11:57 PM

    This is the best article I have read in awhile. Awesome post, and it really ties real life to the sports world, and it is an honest article that everyone should take the time to read. I am very impressed.

  20. Dubs

    November 28, 2012 08:22 AM

    Baumann,

    Great article. Guys like Hamilton and Greinke struggle through their owns personal issues which are forced into the public eye. And you’re right that many of these coaches like Mike Leach think they’re coaching tactics are “pushing” their athletes to work harder, play better. But a player too afraid to speak up or a player that doesn’t realize they may suffer from depression may just buckle under the pressures.

    When you’re talking 9 figure contracts for these guys, fans and probably teams, look at them thinking we’re going to hand them this massive guaranteed contract and he will probably have an anxiety attack or relapse.

  21. geo

    November 28, 2012 11:57 AM

    @ Dan K -

    Why do you think say that his issues “probably will” caused missed time for Greinke? Other than when he stepped away from the game entirely in 2006, to date it hasn’t done so. During his time away, he faced the issue, dealt with it in the way it needed, and got help. His treatment hasn’t stopped, it continues every day of his life. There’s been no hint of a problem, and no reason to think there will be.

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