Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Zack Greinke: Depression is still a four-letter word, for now

There was a time fairly recently when you wouldn't have heard about Zack Greinke and his depression, so having it out in the open is a step forward.

It is curious, though, that the Sports Illustrated cover story on the Kansas City Royals ace, get this, omits the word "depression." Greinke's condition is referred to only as "social anxiety disorder." Two years ago, when Greinke was making his comeback, the same publication referred to his "debilitating case of depression."

That speaks to how depression is a touchy topic. The mere mention strikes at the heart of the way society has been going for the last 30 years. It is understandable to look at Greinke and see this as an upbeat story about a pitching phenom who has an 0.00 ERA heading into his start tonight vs. the Toronto Blue Jays. No one is expecting sports journalism to save the world, but at the same time, that goes to show why a best-selling book about male depression was entitled, I Don't Want To Talk About It. Like it or not, you live in this world, you have to see how this world contributes to depression.

It is progress that the Kansas City Royals were sensitive to Greinke's condition (it's beside the point that they had a lot of money tied up in him). Like Joe Posnanski says:
"Baseball is not a game known for understanding or compassion. The gentle relief pitcher for the Royals, Dan Quisenberry, wrote a poem about his manager Dick Howser, the refrain being Howser's quote for every occasion: 'Piss on it.' That was Howser's answer for losses, for slumps, for bad pitching performances, for anything gone wrong. Piss on it. Get 'em tomorrow.

"And that's the image of the big league game: cold, hard, rub some dirt on it, walk it off, there's no crying in baseball, Texas manager Billy Martin once telling Mike Hargrove that Hargrove could not take off to attend his father-in-law's funeral because "that's not immediate family."

"That's the game (then-Royals GM Buddy) Bell and (then-GM Allard) Baird grew up in. But on that February morning, they saw a young pitcher in pain, and they told him to go home and stop thinking about baseball. 'There's business and there's personal,' says Baird, now a special assistant with the Boston Red Sox. 'And most times in the game, business comes ahead of personal. But I think in this situation, we were talking something bigger than business. There's right and wrong, and I don't think there was any gray area here.' "
At the same time, though, only seeing this in terms of Greinke fighting through the mental health equivalent of Tommy John surgery smacks of stopping halfway.

As Sharapova's Thigh noted, Greinke dealing with depression should command more attention than Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton overcoming drug addiction. Who's the bigger underdog, really? The young man who overcomes a genetic predisposition toward depression, which will be one of the world's top five public health problems by 2050, or the one who overcame addiction? Maybe that is apples to plantains, but it's clear whose story the public would prefer to hear, since drug addiction has a higher tsk-tsk factor. Most sports likers know about Hamilton, while many are only now hearing about Greinke.

This is just a layperson's understanding, but 21st-century life is a major exacerbator of depression, and that really wasn't in the article. There are a lot of factors: Diet, poor sleep patterns, social isolation (the contradiction that the more people who live in cities, the more cut off from each other we feel). The biggest might be the focus on the individual (the "You Sell," as it's called), which has eroded our social bonds. When everything is MySomething, that can be scary if you have problems. It's reasons like that which mean, although it sucks if you're unemployed, that a recession is not something to be completely feared.

It is curious that Greinke, as Poz detailed, is that he was often "talked with friends and family about becoming a full-time position player so that he could get to hit," so he wouldn't have to be out there alone on the pitcher's mound. It was like he wanted to disappear into a more group setting, being in the dugout with the boys sizing up the opposing pitcher.

Again, it's complicated. Greinke is not the first young athlete who needed time away before coming back, although this was more than simple burnout. Hall of Famer Robin Yount toyed with ditching baseball for golf when he was 21 years old and as Bill James once argued, that was part of him making a commitment to baseball. Greinke had to make a commitment to being a pitcher.

The point today is that there is a lot which has to change about the way we're leading our lives in order to meet the challenge of depression head-on. It was a well-written SI cover story, a perfectly good read on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, but leaving out the D-word was a bit of a downer.

Zack Greinke Is In Total Control; The rise of the young Royals ace has been as spectacular as his fall was chilling. His anxiety disorder now in check, he's unleashed the full range of his remarkable talent (Joe Posnanski, Sports Illustrated)
Greinke to appear on this week’s cover of Sports Illustrated (Kansas City Star, April 27)
Greinke Has Been Perfect, but He Is Trying to Do Better (The New York Times, April 23)
Zack Greinke Has The Admirable Story, Not Josh Hamilton (Matt Clapp, Sharapova's Thigh)


Dennis Prouse said...

Great post, Neate. This is a subject that deserves a lot more attention, and understanding, than it has received in the past.

You could, though, view this as progress. Social anxiety disorder is getting a lot more specific, whereas simply calling it, "depression" might be a bit of a catch all phrase. The very fact that they are talking about it so openly is definite progress.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Interesting stuff, Neate. Greinke's story is a valuable one, for sure, and it speaks well of the Royals that they seem to have been compassionate towards him. I'm not sure that the omission of "depression" necessarily is problematic, though. I'm not a psychiatrist, but the Wikipedia article on social anxiety disorder says that it "often occurs alongside low self-esteem and clinical depression," which would suggest to me that there's a distinction between the disorder Greinke dealt with and depression (although there appears to be some overlap between the two). It's interesting that SI changed how they referred to it, but perhaps they received more accurate information this time around. Also, I appreciate Clapp's praise of Greinke, but I don't think you have to trash Hamilton to appreciate what Greinke's gone through. Both have overcome a lot and are valuable stories; it doesn't have to be an argument about who's overcome more adversity.

sager said...

Thanks Andrew, with all due respect, I don't think anyone trashed Josh Hamilton. The point wasn't who's overcome more, it was whose struggle people are more comfortable hearing about.

People can understand a guy doing drugs because they see that as a choice. Mental health is more fraught because it's not a choice, no matter what Tom Cruise says.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

That's a good point, but I still think Clapp's piece wasn't entirely fair to Hamilton. I'd rather that we could just accept both players for what they've overcome instead of trying to promote one as a better and more acceptable comeback, which is what Clapp seems to be trying to do. Your piece was fine in my mind, though.

sager said...

Fair point, sorry to go compliment-fishing. Yeah, I'm not much for those comparisons. It's like the opening of the short-lived show Popular: "I'm tired of being ... compared."

(And then Carly Pope and Leslie Bibb mouth, "bitch" to each other. Brilliant.)