I've quit baseball a couple of times now, and I've come close on a number of other occasions, but the first time I left was in 2010. At the time, I was playing for the Sacramento Rivercats, who were then the AAA affiliate for the Oakland Athletics. The A's claimed a player off waivers and sent him to AAA, which created a trickle-down effect. I knew that I was getting demoted, or at least I assumed I was, because my .238 batting average was the lowest on the team. When I was called into the manager's office, I was indeed sent down to AA, but my poor playing never came up. They told me the reason was simply a business decision. Don't be alarmed, they said, you're only twenty-two years old. Look at this as an opportunity to go back to AA, where you've always had success and, before you know it, you'll be back in AAA. I was anxious and vulnerable, and not mature enough to separate the business from the game, so right then and there I quit.
Fortunately, Keith Lieppman, the director of player development for the A's, suggested that I take a week off to mull my decision over. During that week, I thought of the passions I had sacrificed to dedicate my life to baseball, which in turn put more pressure on me to succeed. My years of classical-piano training came to a halt; my aspirations to travel to Cuba to conduct research for fictionalizing my parents' immigration stories were put on hold; my desire to get a degree in creative writing and philosophy had to wait. It was during that week that I applied to New York University. I was accepted shortly afterward, and school subsequently became the alternative mental environment that helped me deal with my failures as a ballplayer.
It didn't matter that making the world of academia a part of my life—and putting it in competition with the world of sports—cut down the time that I spent thinking about baseball. It didn't matter that, on one of my few days off, after being promoted again to AAA that same year, I secretly took the red-eye from Sacramento to attend my first class at N.Y.U. and insure enrollment. Balancing both worlds was a necessary part of my development; it was what I felt I needed to do in order to stay sane. Consequently, my most successful years were those in which I balanced baseball and school: during this time I reached the major leagues.
Baseball is a ruthless game. As the narrator in Chad Harbach's novel "The Art of Fielding" rhetorically asks, "What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?" Cruel, also, in that players spend their entire lives perfecting their craft, yet the best in the world still fail seventy-five per cent of the time. All baseball players handle failure differently, but sometimes outside pursuits aren't enough to help someone cope. The same month I quit baseball for a week, in 2010, Pablo Torre reported in Sports Illustrated about a number of high-profile players coming forward about their mental-health issues. Torre's piece described the beginning of a slow movement away from baseball's predominantly alpha-male, "any emotional distress equals mental weakness" culture, as players like the American League Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who was suffering from social-anxiety disorder and depression, sought help. Major League Baseball began requiring teams to offer employee-assistance programs for personal issues in 1981, but it took almost thirty years for open discussions like these to really start.
This offseason, a few ball clubs announced new initiatives to support their players' mental health. The Red Sox created a new department of behavioral health, headed by Richard Ginsburg, the co-director of the PACES Institute of Sports Psychology, at Massachusetts General Hospital. The Washington Nationals began spring training with a new position known as "life skills" coördinator. The former player Rick Ankiel was hired for the job, and will work specifically with the club's minor-league teams—where such a position is arguably needed the most. Most minor-league players earn less than two thousand dollars a month and have to cover their own housing and living expenses. Insufficient funds and relatively few days off during a five-month season—which extends well beyond that if you consider spring training and winter ball—separates players from their families and loved ones for long stretches of time. And, after you've dedicated your life to the game, there's the pressure that comes from the belief that you've only achieved success if you make it to the majors—a dream that, even for a player in the minor leagues, will likely never be realized.
Ankiel will use his first-hand experience with failure on and off the field to help mentor players in the Nationals system. He won't replace a sports psychologist but rather will serve as a less formal outlet for coaches, managers, and players to vent. And yet, there will still be issues of trust and of showing weakness. While quitting in baseball is discussed among players, often disguised as empty rhetoric—"If I don't start hitting the ball out there, I might as well just quit"—there can still be issues of trust and concerns about showing weakness, even for people with more promising careers than mine was. Shortly after his M.V.P. performance last year in the World Series, the San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner admitted that while in the minors, "I contemplated going home and not choosing to have this lifestyle." During batting practice, he said, he'd stare at airplanes as they flew by, imagining himself in a seat. His mom, Debbie, said, "It was awful. He called all the time. He didn't like baseball. He didn't like nothing." In the same interview, Bumgarner said, "I've never told anyone this story before," but Bumgarner clearly talked to his mother; by "anyone" he was likely referring to anyone in a position to control his professional future.
I understand Bumgarner's hesitation. In 2011, my .314 batting average in AAA led the team and I committed only nine errors all year. Still, I was not promoted to the major leagues when rosters expanded in September. From that point on I kept my mouth shut, no matter what mental struggles I was experiencing. There could have been a slew of reasons why I didn't get the call up, of course, but I suspected that my quitting for a week the year before raised some red flags about my commitment to the game. In 2012, I made my major-league début; that was also the year that I walked away from the game for good.
A player is often aware of the possibility that a team employee—doctor or not—may divulge information to management that could put his job at risk. This "possibility problem" will not necessarily change overnight. Players will continue to cope with stress and failure in a variety of ways. I started by befriending reporters who recommended books and talked about literature with me before or after a game. Eventually, that wasn't enough, so I enrolled at N.Y.U.; I took classes during the season and Skyped with professors for my midterms and finals. But what if you'd rather not balance school with sports? Building an organization where a player feels comfortable talking about such topics is the best way to help promote a healthy environment, and one that is conducive to winning. Baseball is a mentally taxing game, and even though players are tough, they are also human.