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Psychological issues are no longer taboo

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

In a rage the night before, Prince Fielder(notes) had tried to storm the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse and confront the pitcher who'd hit him in the thigh with a fastball.

By the following afternoon he'd sat at his locker, smiling gently at the absurdity of his quest for vengeance but not dismissing its cause, the inherent stresses in a game that can fell even the most regular of guys.

The game can be so unyielding, he said, and so seem so unfair.

The grin ran off.

"It can really suck at times," Fielder said.

Twenty-one years earlier, Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) swallowed enough aspirin to kill himself, or so he might have hoped. He was 18, famously talented and little more than a year from playing in the major leagues.

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Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw: “Failure, does creep into your head.”
(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

By this summer, more than 600 home runs later, he sat at a locker in Seattle and insisted he was always ready for this life, that his ballplaying father made sure of it and he went willingly. But, the pills …

"Sometimes you have too many people talking to you, trying to help you," he said. "I didn't want people yelling at me anymore."

On a different weekend this season, Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw(notes) had shut out the Cardinals for eight innings. He'd been 21 for four months, was 42 starts into his big-league career, and was carrying an ERA under 3.00.

Then he wouldn't get an out in the fifth inning against the Brewers, and he'd walk six batters, and none of it made much sense anymore. He sat at his locker, slumping glumly.

"Failure," he said, "does creep into your head."

They are the emotionally stable ones, or so they seem and so they say. They represent the three phases of the typical baseball career – Kershaw in his infancy, Fielder in his prime, Griffey Jr. nearing the end – and they represent early success, early expectations, early fame.

Just as Khalil Greene(notes), Dontrelle Willis(notes), Zack Greinke(notes) and, in some ways, Joey Votto(notes) once did, as Justin Duchscherer(notes) presumably always hoped for.

Baseball projects itself as a game of failure, but it doesn't look like that when you're the starting shortstop for the San Diego Padres at 24 or a 14-game winner for the Florida Marlins at 21.

It can't feel like failure when you can throw a baseball within a few inches of where you intend it to go, from 60 feet away, and always could, and people are calling you the future of the Kansas City Royals.

Then it's a game of prosperity. It's a game of healthy competition. It's where a guy gets his self-esteem and his wealth, not where he loses it. So we always believed.

Now, three years after Greinke took social anxiety disorder into the baseball mainstream, it is not uncommon to find those suffering from it or from depression on the game's disabled lists. The latest, Duchscherer, the A's right-hander, announced a week ago he was clinically depressed and would sit out the rest of the season.

Greene, whose production tumbled in 2008 before being traded from the Padres and who since has acknowledged a crippling fear of failure, has treated the malady twice on the disabled list. He's pinch-hitting and playing some third base, a role far reduced from what the Cardinals had planned. Votto took time on the Reds' disabled list to grieve the loss of his father, who died a year before.

And Willis, the affable, iconic left-hander who'd been one of the league's best pitchers with the Marlins, seems caught somewhere between the pursuits of taming his anxiety demons and reacquiring his fastball command with the Detroit Tigers. What Willis most wanted people to know, what he told them right off, was, "I'm not crazy," a protest that puts us back in the days when the only disorders we were certain of presented themselves in wild pitches and wilder throws from second base.

While Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch and Mackey Sasser and Rick Ankiel(notes) and Steve Blass and Mark Wohlers seemingly had no way out and nowhere to heal, if indeed it's possible to completely heal, Willis and Greene and Duchscherer do.

"The phenomenon is not new," said Harvey Dorfman, the longtime and reputable sports psychologist currently employed by the Scott Boras Corp. "The response to it is new."

That is, presumably, sensitivity. The knowledge that others out there feel the same pressures, and fight the same battles. The option to rebuild in private, and the right to a little compassion.

"The ordeal of facing those demons, confronting the monster, takes great strength," Dorfman said. "Ultimately, you might not get your career back. But, you'll get your dignity back."

Doug Glanville, who played for three organizations over nine big-league seasons, wrote in The New York Times that he believed the game could help its emotionally fragile, "as long as they don't suffer in silence."

That others followed Greinke, that the Royals did the right thing and for their compassion they have a well-adjusted employee in the clubhouse and a dominating pitcher on the mound, makes for progress. Baseball is a tough game played by tough men, and it is a relentless game, and now maybe an understanding game.

Those afflicted, Dorfman said, have company, and that's a good thing.

"So you don't think you're a freak," he said. "The stigma has diminished."

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Ken Griffey Jr. in 1990.
(Getty Images)

Would it be a surprise to discover there are many more like them, just holding on, standing in the glare, scared to death, talking themselves through it, looking for a way out? Is the money so big and the media so pervasive (and invasive) and the thirst for more so unquenchable that you can't be plain old Khalil anymore, and you can't fail anymore?

Griffey grew up to become the nearly perfect ballplayer.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "Failure is failure. You feel it in Little League."

So he did.

As Dorfman said, the monsters show up, and then the innocence is gone. Yours and the game's.

A young man with a young family and one of the more ferocious power swings in the game, Fielder said he's made progress emotionally. His children have grounded him. The public outing of the feud with his father almost certainly provided adult perspective. And yet, there's still a baseball to put in play, and a game to be won, and a contract to be lived up to, and those things can pile up.

"Sometimes it feels like life and death," Fielder said. "I was really hard on myself.

"I mean, when you have talent, you know you're going to be all right. But, in all honesty, it can really get you down. It's tough to hold inside. Sometimes it gets the best of you."

Sometimes it's not enough to be young and gifted and beloved. Sometimes, in fact, those are the problems. It's all too much.

The answer, Kershaw said, "Think as little as possible."

He smiled but did not laugh. Honestly, he said, that's it.

"I'm blessed to have the opportunity," he said. "Now, step one of it is to keep everything in perspective. You're going to fail some. You can't feel sorry for yourself. There's no time for that. You have to handle the failure.

"This game never stops and that can be a great thing. But, what people don't understand, when you're going bad, it never stops. The main thing that helps me – more than anything else – when you're playing the game, just don't think about it."

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