It was cool and chilly on May 24, 2008, the day of my first ballgame — Red Sox at A’s playing at the Oakland Coliseum. We left late, I remember. My dad didn’t want to go. I was 16 and without a car, let alone a license. My parents had to take me and my kid brother to Oakland.
We didn’t get to the Coliseum until the third inning. I was annoyed—an angsty teenager with a newfound love of baseball and parents who didn’t understand how I got into baseball, thinking it was because of my best friend at the time. It wasn’t, though. Baseball had become an escape from reality and for 162 days and nights and the off days in between, I could relax from my senior year of high school.
Justin Duchscherer was on the mound for Oakland that night. I wasn’t there for that; I was cheering on the Red Sox for whatever reason I had then. Only years later when I realized I was there, did I also realize the impact that game had had on me.
The Red Sox lost 3-0 that night. My brother became an A’s fan then because of Duchscherer’s masterful performance. I was still angsty and annoyed, but I developed what I call a pitcher crush on Duchscherer. Eight innings pitched, no runs allowed, struck out four, no walks. Only two batters got on base that night—Jason Varitek in the 6th because of a hit by pitch and a base hit by David Ortiz in the 7th. My first ballgame had a perfecto going into the 6th and a no-hitter into the 7th. I don’t know how I managed to luck out with a cool first game story like that, but I did and years later, now not caring for the team I originally went to see, I appreciate it more.
But Duscherer stood out in my mind. I was maybe two and a half years removed from a severe episode of clinical depression. I still had bouts of it, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been. 2009, Duchscherer missed the entire season to seek treatment for his own depression. I thought that was one of the most courageous things he could do, coming from a girl who was still trying to figure out her own mental health at the time.
When you’re saddled with a mental illness that prevents you from going about your daily life, asking for help becomes a struggle. In 2010, I started my first year of college after taking a year-long break from school. Somehow, I fell—a year-long struggle with depression that I thought I’d never get out of. I tried and tried and tried, and struggled just as much. For whatever reason, I printed out a picture of Justin Duchscherer and taped it to my wall. If he could fight back somehow and come back to pitch, even for five games in 2010, maybe I could do that.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes depression as the following: “Everyone occasionally feels sad or blue. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.”
No one is exempt from major depression disorder—not the everyman, the Wall Street mogul, or the ballplayers. In an interview with Men’s Journal in 2011 (via Hardball Talk), Duchscherer described just that: “People think if you’re rich, you must be happy. They can’t understand why you’re not. I feel guilty making so much money playing a game. If I pitch a shutout, it doesn’t make me happy. I think of the guys I struck out, how they’re going home, depressed, to their families.”
Dr. Douglas Barba, a sports psychologist in Carlsbad, Calif., said that the number of athletes he’s seen with a mental health diagnosis is not out of the norm with the rest of the population.
The NIMH states that major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States.
“Each year about 6.7% of U.S adults experience major depressive disorder,” according to the NIMH. “Women are 70 % more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime. Non-Hispanic blacks are 40% less likely than non-Hispanic whites to experience depression during their lifetime. The average age of onset is 32 years old. Additionally, 3.3% of 13 to 18 year olds have experienced a seriously debilitating depressive disorder.”
Depression isn’t necessarily easy to understand if you’ve never experienced it or had the training to actively work with people diagnosed with it. For some, there’s no pinpointed reason why they’re depressed; for others, there are reasons for their episodes. A person could have everything in the world and still be unhappy—that’s what depression does.
A person experiencing this may or may not be appreciative of what they have. There’s no standard mold for depression. It can be caused by a host of reasons and generate a host of reactions. A person can actively search for what makes them happy, but they can still spend their whole life searching for it.
Barba noted that a lot of athletes are now looking at mental performance enhancement as a way to help them on and off the field.
“I think athletes are looking at every way they can to increase their performance,” Barba said. “In the last few years, with the issues of drugs, people are identifying performance enhancing as a legal way to enhance their performance.”
In a culture where athletes are expected to be masculine to the nth, hiding something that the athletic culture considers a weakness is important. Mental health care gets buried below the fold and swept under the rug.
“My problem is I’m a soft guy in a profession of hard guys,” Duchscherer said in the interview with Men’s Journal.
Duchscherer is not the only ballplayer diagnosed with depression. The Atlanta Braves’ Evan Gattis spoke to the media about his diagnosis of depression and anxiety.
“Gattis was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety six years ago and, through medication, therapy and time, eventually discovered what he wanted out of life,” USA Today Sports wrote in 2013.
In addition to those diagnosed with depression, there are those diagnosed with anxiety, such as Khalil Greene, Zack Greinke, and Dontrelle Willis. Barba said that athletes have gotten better at talking about their mental health over his 30 year career, though it’s been a slow progression.
“They’re starting to understand that there’s a connection,” Barba said about athletes and their performance and mental health.
From the perspective of a fan with a mental illness, baseball can be a way to escape from the reality.
Lindsey Adler, a BuzzFeed sports intern, noted that the unpredictability of baseball holds her attention as she has anxiety and depression. The simplicity of the game keeps it stress free for Adler.
“I’ve found baseball to be really effective in curbing my anxiety/depression,” Adler said. “Watching upwards of 150 games over the course of the season serves as a major distraction from my anxieties. It creates a routine for me, in which I spend approximately four hours every night focusing almost solely on the game.”
The case is similar to Neil Weinberg, an associate managing editor at Beyond the Box Score. Obsessing over an issue is something that people with anxiety might know well. Weinberg experiences this himself, and baseball was a way to curb that.
“I’m really introspective and analytical and so every minute of every day was spent trying to solve this problem that I had, but mental health struggles are almost never something you can think your way out of,” Weinberg said.
Baseball’s statistics, history, and, in general, information rich components are things that Weinberg and Adler both say help them with their anxiety.
“Baseball was great and I improved more and more as baseball returned because instead of thinking about the tightness in my chest I would be thinking through how Verlander was going to approach the Royals’ lineup,” Weinberg said.
Adler looks at another side of baseball that helps her: everything surrounding the game.
“There is also so much to learn outside of games, and that can fill as much time as I choose,” Adler said. “I’m not a sabermetrics wizard, but I can read and analyze stats, and hope to deepen my understanding slowly over time. There’s also, of course, team gossip and rumors; I get really wrapped up in the personal lives of players. Most of what I know about the players lives off the field means nothing, but it serves as a distraction.”
Months without baseball in the offseason is a cruel fate for many, but it’s particularly tough for those who use the game to cope with their anxiety.
“There were weeks [during the] offseason [after the 2011 season] where I couldn’t imagine a future in which I wasn’t in a constant state of anxiety and everything about the future just seemed depressing,” Weinberg said. “But as baseball came back, it was easier to put those concerns away and enjoy things.”
That’s not saying that baseball is the most important thing in Weinberg’s life, as he thinks he would’ve been able to overcome the worst of his anxiety regardless of the presence of the game in his life.
“I’m fortunate to have a good support network and I have friends and family who have dealt with mental health issues, so I’m confident I would have made it out the other side with or without baseball,” Weinberg said, “but baseball made it easier and faster, certainly.”
Adler, on the other hand, has another sport on hand when baseball enters the dreary months of winter: football.
“The baseball offseason is hard, duh, but I have maybe even more of an emotional investment in football,” Adler said. “I use baseball to numb and distract from the petty worries and fears that plague my daily life and make it hard to function as a person, but I use football as an emotional outlet for more reality-based traumas.”
Nonetheless, baseball remains a large part in their lives.
“I started writing about baseball to cope with the parts of life I didn’t enjoy so much, which I think has probably played a major role in avoid any serious anxiety or panic attacks during the last two and half years,” Weinberg said, writing at New English D, Beyond the Box Score, Gammons Daily, and TigsTown.
Being able to use baseball as an excuse to get out of anxiety inducing situations is something Adler has been able to utilize as a baseball fan. An offday for the Giants could become one of the most stressful things, however.
“I notice a distinct difference in my mental stability on nights when the Giants are off,” Adler said. “The last time they had an off day, I wound up sobbing face down into a pillow for upwards of a half-hour.”
2008 was a banner year for Duchscherer. He was named an All-Star that year; I remember being so happy at that because I got to see him pitch live and I got to see him take a no-hitter deep into the game. 2.54 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 4.17 xFIP. So maybe his xFIP wasn’t the best. Maybe it was just average. But my god, was he fun to watch, especially with a cutter that entranced me. Not that great of a K/9 — 6.04, but a good BB/9, at 2.16. A .235 BABIP and some other numbers, all seemingly average.
During my own mental health struggles, I’ve always kept Duchscherer as an inspiration that, hey, maybe I could make my own comeback after I take care of myself. Maybe I could be above average in a league of the best, the ones who made it to the big leagues.
For whatever reason, I printed out a picture of Justin Duchscherer and taped it to my wall. If he could fight back somehow and come back to pitch, even for five games in 2010, maybe I could do that. Maybe I could rise from something, turn something average into spectacular.
I have a support system made up of people who I’ve met through the internet because of baseball. I watch a lot of games to get my mind off of anxiety; games can give me anxiety—when your team has the bases loaded and no one out and the opposing team’s best reliever is in to close out the game as you’re rooting for a rally—but it’s nothing like the things that go through my head. It ends with the game because tomorrow is another day, another game, another chance to start again. A chance to redeem yourself.
I’ve lost count of how many episodes I’ve had with my mental illnesses. I know I’ve made it out on the flip side stronger and healthier than when I went in. Sometimes, I keep Duchscherer in mind as I try to fight my battles.
I still have that photo of Duchscherer, tucked away in my college box somewhere that contains everything I carry to my campus once August rolls around. I still taped it to my wall during sophomore year. Out of habit, maybe. I forgot about it my junior year. I didn’t even think about Duchscherer’s story at all until a random mention of him to a friend.
I haven’t heard anything about Duchscherer in years, about his depression, about whether or not he would attempt another comeback or if he’s retired now. I just know that in a game that’s already multifaceted on the field, there’s more to baseball off the field.