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Major League Stress Test

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On March 29, I read a snippet of news that I had never seen before. This was a rare piece of baseball-related information that truly shocked me. The headline read:

Dontrelle Willis on DL with Anxiety Disorder

What?

I had never heard of an athlete being deactivated for any type of anxiety disorder before. According to WebMD, a social anxiety disorder arises from "a fear of being closely watched, judged, and criticized by others." Doesn't seem like a reach to believe that a high-profile athlete could suffer from that.

However, I, like many others, figured that Willis' atrocious physical performance was the true cause for his trip to the DL and that the Tigers were just trying to find a nifty way to clear a roster spot.

But then it happened again. This time it was Khalil Greene, the troubled St. Louis Cardinal shortstop who missed the second half of last season when he punched a dugout wall out of frustration. He too was sent to the Disabled List for similar, vague, "stress related issues." Again, people were skeptical.

Finally, lightning struck a third time on May 30, when Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds made his way to the DL because of a social anxiety disorder. However, unlike the cases of Willis and Greene, which still remain mysteries, it has recently come to light that Votto was suffering from extreme depression while trying to cope with the death of his 52-year-old father. For the sake of this post, we will leave Votto's case alone as a separate issue.

So, what to make of all this? Baseball players having anxiety issues on the field is well documented, perhaps more so than in any other sport. Former Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch got so freaked out throwing the ball errantly to first base that by the end of his career he had to be moved to the outfield.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel famously imploded in the 2000 playoffs after throwing five wild pitches in one inning against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. However, neither Ankiel nor Knoblauch was ever sent to the DL or deactivated due to stress-related issues.

To get some answers, I contacted the injury-expert at Baseball Prospectus, Will Carroll. Carroll confirmed that Willis was indeed the first player to be DL'd for an anxiety disorder. However, he said that Willis was not the first player to de-activated because of mental health issues. That distinction would go to Jimmy Piersall, who suffered from bipolar disorder while playing for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1950s.

So if mental and anxiety disorders have been around in baseball for at least the last half-century, then why are players just this year starting to go on the DL for them? According to Carol Singer, a Gestalt Therapist in Columbus, Ohio who treats people with anxiety and stress disorders, the answer may lie in new brain imaging technologies.

With recent advances in neuroimaging, doctors can light up parts of the brain and see firsthand which areas are causing anxiety. Whereas in years past, when players may have belittled these disorders (heck, Jimmy Piersall didn't know about bipolar disorder--he just thought he was crazy) they can now see the medical diagnosis of the illness they have.

This technology is coupled with an increasing public awareness and acceptance of mental illnesses, which likely makes players feel more comfortable about going public with their disorders.

Since I started writing this, another player, Ian Snell of the Pittsburgh Pirates, has announced that he is struggling with depression, and Khalil Greene has gone back on the DL a second time because of his social anxiety disorder.

This seems to confirm what Ms. Singer spoke of when she said that mental disorders can actually become "trendy" over a period of time. The basic reasoning behind this is that once enough people come out publicly with a disorder, more people will feel comfortable telling others that they have it, and some will even falsely diagnose themselves with this "trendy" disorder.

It is clear that there is a newfound problem throughout baseball that will need to be addressed if this trend continues at its current rate. Whether more teams choose to employ team psychologists or other mental health professionals remains to be seen. Either way, it will be fascinating to see where this trend goes and if it spreads into other sports in the coming years.