Rob Whalen’s retirement an example of how some MLB teams are failing to address mental health issues

Yahoo Sports

Rob Whalen was ready to go to spring training.

Ready in the sense that he had a flight booked and his bags packed. Lately his bullpen sessions had been going well, and he was feeling healthier than he had in a long time. Plus, he had a new plan: The 25-year-old pitcher in the Seattle Mariners’ system was hoping to remake himself into a reliever after a couple successful major league relief stints.

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But Whalen was not ready to go to spring training because whenever friends and family asked if he was excited — excited for the start of the season, excited to put the new plan into practice — it felt like a lie to tell them that he was.

“I couldn’t look them in the eye, and I felt like I was just telling them what they wanted to hear,” Whalen told Yahoo Sports. “I was trying to convince myself that I was excited.”

Which is how he found himself at the 11th hour, literally about to head out the door for his flight, calling Jerry Dipoto to tell Seattle’s general manager that he was retiring from baseball. Dipoto didn’t answer, so he called Andy McKay, the Mariners director of player development. McKay didn’t pick up either, but he did text back.

“Just wanted to call and let you and the organization know that I’ve decided to retire from playing and transition into a new chapter in my life,” Whalen explained over text. “This decision has been weighing on me heavily the last little while but I know that my heart is in a different place.” He thanked them for the opportunity to play baseball and for “dealing with a lot of my b.s.

“Wish I could’ve been in a better season of my life during my time with Seattle,” he concluded, which was true. But also, as Whalen later explained to Yahoo, “the situation with [the Mariners] was definitely a driving force in why I lost love for the game … they really put the nail in the coffin for me.”

***

Rob Whalen was drafted in the 12th round out of high school in 2012 by the New York Mets. After multiple knee injuries and a trade to the Atlanta Braves, everything started to click in 2016. He posted a 2.49 ERA in Double-A, pitched well during a brief stint at Triple-A, and got promoted for his major league debut at 22 years old — a moment that should have been the happiest of his life.

“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Whalen said. “I didn’t get that huge rush of fulfillment. I felt like, wow I just accomplished my lifelong goal of getting to the big leagues, and all I could think about after that was how hard it was gonna be to stay there. I was panicking already, so I never got to enjoy it.”

Growing up, Whalen had been a self-described insecure kid, but he’d always assumed he’d grow out of it. Now, “everything I did was under a microscope, and the feeling that there’s always people coming after your job and you’re just trying to stay up there.”

Prior to the 2017 season, Whalen was traded to the Mariners. That offseason, he struggled to get out of bed and started the year in Triple-A feeling out of shape and unmotivated. Talking to the team’s mental skills coach helped a little, but Whalen was battling more than on-field jitters. The anxiety — the nights before his starts spent in a cold sweat, running scenarios of everything that could go wrong on the mound — started to consume him, and soon the catastrophizing spread beyond baseball.

He invited his then-girlfriend to join him for a series in Las Vegas. “That was maybe four months removed from the [Las Vegas] shooting, and that was all I could think about,” Whalen said. “There’s this huge crowd, people that could create a problem at any point in time, and I’m thinking, ‘How do I exit this? If something goes down, how do I get away from this?’”

Rob Whalen worked his way back to the majors in 2018 but was sent back down to the minors after one appearance. (AP Photo)
Rob Whalen worked his way back to the majors in 2018 but was sent back down to the minors after one appearance. (AP Photo)

At a Halloween party on the streets of Orlando, he couldn’t stop thinking about how any one of those masked revelers could commit a dangerous crime, and no one would ever know who it was. “That’s just how I felt all the time,” Whalen said. “I always found a bad situation in my mind that I was trying to prepare for. I wasn’t enjoying what was happening.”

Mariners mental skills coach Derin McMains recommended Whalen seek professional treatment beyond what the team was providing. He started seeing a psychologist in Tacoma, Washington, but by June the situation felt untenable. He reached out to McKay, who Dipoto once called "one of the more well-respected sports psychologists in the country” and whose hiring as head of player development had earned the Mariners plaudits for “creating a better culture for players to flourish.”

According to Whalen, McKay offered him a week off to deal with his anxiety, but after just a few days, Whalen received a text message from McKay explaining that he would be replaced on the roster if he didn’t return to the team immediately.

“I didn’t get the full week, and I think that was the worst decision I made,” Whalen said. “But [McKay] promised that the organization would help me through that time because I said, ‘I don’t think I can do both, play and get the help I need.’ And he was like, ‘We absolutely can help you while you play, we’re going to be there for you every step of the way.’ But that never happened. I never got a phone call, never got a conversation.”

Whalen didn’t save those text messages so Yahoo Sports wasn’t able to confirm the exact exchange. In addition to addressing Whalen’s departure from the team, the Mariners provided a statement on their “Employee Assistance Program” which offers confidential assistance on “a wide variety of personal issues.” The statement notes, however, “many, if not most or all, staff and players would not want to disclose an issue to a Mariners employee. Rather, they would be more comfortable discussing sensitive issues with an outside professional.”

The Mariners declined to make anyone available for an interview.

A few weeks later, after struggling through several disappointing starts, Whalen gave up five runs in five innings in Reno and something snapped. After he got pulled from the game, he packed up his locker, returned to the hotel, and booked a flight home for the following morning.

Whalen and the Mariners disagree on exactly what happened next. In a statement provided to Yahoo Sports, the Mariners said that a staffer was on the phone with Whalen for over four hours to ensure his safety and that “the team worked to connect him to our [Employee Assistance Program] program. Further, the team worked to find, recommend and connect Rob with an outside professional that specialized in his issues and had experience with professional athletes.”

Whalen says that the conversation was much shorter than that, less than an hour, during which he told them, “I need to get help, I need to do this for me, I’m not in a good place mentally, baseball is secondary to this. If I’m ever going to enjoy this game again, I need to figure this out.”

He was placed on the restricted list for the final two months of the 2017 season. During that time, he requested and received the contact information for a clinical counselor near his hometown in Florida but even still, he felt largely abandoned. “That whole offseason, I never got a text from a coach, never got a call, text from a player,” he said. “Nobody ever reached out to me.”

Together with his therapist, Whalen decided not to take anti-anxiety medication, in part because he was concerned about MLB’s restrictions on prescription drugs and the process of applying for an exemption. After months of therapy and reconnecting with his church, Whalen was feeling better, and 20 pounds lighter, when he reported to camp in 2018. That spring, he started talking publicly about his struggle with anxiety, and so did the Mariners.

"I'm probably as proud of him as I am of any of our players," manager Scott Servais said in February 2018. “He stepped back and made some adjustments, not just physically, but mentally. It's nice to see the smile back on his face."

He worked his way back to the majors, and on June 15 gave up one hit and no runs in four innings of relief in a game against the Boston Red Sox. After the game, Servais told reporters, “You gotta tip your cap to everybody in our player development system. A player goes through what he went through last year, hitting the lows, the things he went through off the field, our organization wrapped our arms around him and really allowed him to turn it around.”

That was his last major league appearance. Three days later, he was sent back to Triple-A.

Those public comments still gnaw at Whalen because it certainly hadn’t felt like the Mariners wrapped their arms around him. It felt like baseball didn’t care, and beyond that, like he’d compromised his career by seeking help. After leaving a road trip early to return to Tacoma to address his anxiety, he was demoted to Double-A for the remainder of the 2018 season. Maybe that’s just baseball — he’d spent three weeks on the DL earlier that season with shoulder discomfort and had posted a 5.16 ERA in 20 starts for Tacoma — but to Whalen, it seemed like the Mariners were saying that he wasn’t welcome in the game.

“I just thought I was very open and vulnerable with a lot of people in that organization the last two years, and in some ways I felt like that was used against me,” Whalen said.

***

Whalen is doing better these days. He spent a few weeks staying with his old travel ball coach in Pennsylvania, helping around the house and coaching youth baseball. He wants to get his degree back in the Orlando area. There’s scholarship money that MLB set aside when he signed out of high school that he can use, but he’ll be looking for online classes that he can complete while holding down a job — after all, there are still bills to be paid. And now that he’s not playing competitively, Whalen and his therapist are going to reopen the conversation about prescription medication.

But he isn’t ready to close the door on baseball forever, he still tosses a ball to himself as he watches television. “Whether it’s a year or two years from now, or maybe never, if I get the love again for it,” Whalen says, and then he catches himself. “I mean, obviously I love the game — but that desire to go work and grind it out and maybe get back up there someday ... I definitely think there’s unfinished business on that side.”

Despite his frustrations, Whalen is quick to stipulate that what he experienced as a problem with the Mariners would have likely been true with most, if not all, organizations. “I’m not trying to create drama or bash the teams, it’s just the truth,” Whalen said. “I was doing a lot of this alone the last two years, just trying to find peace off the field on my own.”

Rob Whalen isn’t ready to close the door on baseball forever. (AP Photo)
Rob Whalen isn’t ready to close the door on baseball forever. (AP Photo)

Mike Majarma, a former player in the Mariners’ system who was also open about his mental health struggles before retiring out of Triple-A and who overlapped with Whalen in the minors, agreed. He didn’t have the same litany of grievances and insisted the Mariners front offices as he knew it was well-intentioned. But asked if they handle mental health issues well, he was unequivocal. “They don’t,” he said. “I don't think they knew how to handle it,” noting that it was an industry-wide problem.

And even if the Mariners had provided more hands-on assistance accessing treatment, there still would have been the scorn from other players — like the time he overheard a well-respected veteran talking about him in the locker room and calling him a “psycho” when he thought Whalen wasn’t around to hear it. “It’s just really where we’re at now in sports; it’s a global society problem. It’s that stigma: ‘You’re fragile; you’re a headcase.’”

Ultimately, there’s no smoking gun toprove whether or not an organization sufficiently cares about the well-being of its players — or even whether it acted like a caring organization for the sake of getting an appreciable return on its investment.Whalen’s feelings of mistreatment aren’t enough to indict the Mariners, either as an organization or on an individual level. And yet, they’re all that really matters here. If we take as a given that a certain segment of the professional baseball playing population struggles with serious mental health issues, then it’s worth listening when one of them says the recourse in place for those people is an alienating experience and that remaining in the system is incompatible with getting healthy.

That societal stigma makes it difficult for anyone to speak up when they’re struggling — especially in a hyper-masculine environment, especially in an industry where your market value is tied to your perceived health. And the best thing baseball can do, as a cultural force and as a vast employer of hundreds of young men who spend their early adult years completely engulfed in the system, is ensure that when guys do open about mental health issues, that they don’t fall through the cracks.

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