I’m going to do my best here, but, as cliche as this sounds, words really can’t express how excited I am that my new book launch is almost here, and that another part of the Bullpen Gospels’ story will soon be in the hands of readers.
Nor can words properly convey how thrilled I am that I actually have readers.
When I set out to write the first book in this trilogy, there was no such thing as a trilogy. No grand design, no hope for more, no “wouldn’t it be great to write three-he-he of these?” There was mostly just fear that I’d lose my job for writing from inside the game. A fear that I’d carry with me from the moment I picked up a pen and paper and scratched out my first article for Baseball America, to the moment I finally got help for the depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide that fear drove me to.
Bigger Than The Game is different from the first two books in the Bullpen Gospels trilogy for a few a reasons. There are the normal artsy things, like wanting to expand horizons and stretch myself. And the logistical things, like life with a new team (the Blue Jays) and the new characters you meet there.
But the biggest difference in this book is its ambition. The two before it were romps in baseball that put you in the player’s world and uniform in a way I feel no other baseball book does, letting you experience what it’s like to be a fringe talent scraping and clawing to make your long shot dreams come true. Bigger Than The Game will definitely pick up where that wild ride leaves off, but it also squarely and unmistakably levels a criticism against an institution that is terrified of change, slow to progress, and fiercely enforces unspoken rules that injure more of its players than it helps.
I was told by a psychologist that works for MLB teams that if you walk into any major league clubhouse you could, simply through observing the behaviors of the players within, easily diagnose 20% of them with some combo of ADHD, obsessive/compulsive personalities, aggression issues, anger issues, addiction issues, anxiety issues, and a slew of other things I can’t begin to explain since I’m no doctor myself.
Those are the players that aren’t hiding it, or haven’t learned how to yet. If you had a chance to sit down and conduct a study, it would most likely be closer to 50%.
This probably comes as no surprise to you, but almost everyone on a major league team drinks. Not just because it’s on trend, and masculine, and part of the culture, but because it helps players calm down, relax, and forget.
Many of the players also take pain medication long after it’s needed. Not just because of the wear and tear on their bodies, but because they like they way it makes them feel, mellows them out, helps them sleep.
Many of the players outright abuse sleeping pills. Not just because the travel is hard, but because they become unable to sleep with out them, which leads to mixing them with booze, then pain killers, and so on.
Many of the player abuse ADHD drugs, because they create effects similar to uppers, and if you get a prescription for the drug, it’s a legal boost.
The list goes on, with some players abusing more than others, but many players taking part in something. All of it done because the end result—success at the top—justifies the means.
A byproduct of life at the top, where narratives are built around who you are based on something as arbitrary as how you play, or how healthy you are, is stress, fear, anxiety, and depression. It is—if we can just take a moment to think about it pragmatically, forgetting the “endure for the dream” narrative—a mental issue breeding ground for all but the strongest or oblivious of minds.
But we can’t forget the “dream job” narrative. If you do, you’ll be eaten alive. If not by the fans, then by the guys beneath or next to you. When you make millions a year, or at least have the chance to, you are forbidden to be mentally infirm. “Feeling sad? Cry me a river you pampered baby—I’ll show you something to feel sad about!”
Mental issues are just too complicated to put out there in the media. Too radiative to float around the organization, always looking at your makeup in a risk/reward filter. Too disgusting to ask the fans to swallow. Too human for a superhero in uniform to confess aloud. In other words, if you aren’t enjoying yourself, then get the fuck out of the locker room.
Mental issues of any kind are taboo in our society, doubly so in prestige professions. People who don’t have them (or think they don’t have them because they’re currently in a lifestyle where it goes unnoticed) don’t understand what it’s like to be a person who does have them, or how hard it is being open about having them.
But what makes things more complicated, at least in the pro-sports scenario, is that most of the things I listed above—ADHD, aggression, anger, obsessiveness, etc… those are the very reasons why athletes make it.
They push harder, they last longer, they want it more (for healthily or unhealthily reasons). They will go to greater lengths and take bigger risks. The abuses and tendencies that might destroy them in another career make them capable of reaching the top of their sport. And none of it has to be dealt with. Indeed, some of it is celebrated, right up to the point that players break.
How often do you hear an athlete say that injury is the hardest thing they’ve ever had to face? Not because of the physical pain, but because the adulation goes away. The crowd is gone, the competitive mechanism shuts down. Then, for the first time, they face the most powerful addiction in their life, the one that has been silently forming and compounding for years: the one they’ve formed with competition as the source of their identity.
Withdraw hits. Questions of who you are, what you’re worth, where you’re going, why you are alive—They come at you incessantly, with no home run or but smack or strikeout to make them stop.
While other folks in other professions may be able to address these fresh fears without an internal or social narrative of weakness plaguing them, the player cannot. The culture is one of survival of the fittest. Endure or relinquish the power. Shut up and put up or get out.
Even now I’m sure there are some of you who feel your inner vomit meter reaching it’s limit. But that’s just it. Some people can have some problems in some professions, other people cannot. It’s a matter of perception and occupation that all too often decides who is “allowed” to feel what. And so, in sports, where one is often not allowed to feel many things as the cost for experiencing others, a cycle starts: find ways to cope (or fail to cope) with taboo struggles by using what’s available, acceptable, discrete and legal.
Bigger Than The Game is a humorous, albeit darkly humored, expose of this. It is my most important work, and most likely my last in the Bullpen Gospels series. As I’ve done with the others, I put you in the uniform to feel the experience as best I can. I won’t lie, some of this particular tale will make you uncomfortable. But it also has a more powerful healing payoff than anything I’ve done before it, and that’s what I’m most proud of, and that’s why I hope you’ll read it.