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Anxiety Strikes Boys of Summer

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SUMMER DEPRESSION

Unless one is a discerning fan, one can lose track of some athletes on the playing field. Football players can get lost in a jumble of helmets, while basketball and hockey players can sometimes be hard to differentiate in a swarm to the net. But baseball players, because of their spatial separation on the ballfield, are always visible, and as such, when they fail, they fail as individuals in a much more public, identifiable fashion than do basketball, hockey and football players.

There are noted cases of baseball players who have grappled with performance anxiety in the field and at the plate (Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch and Jimmy Piersall, to name a few), but the most tragic examples tend to be those of pitchers. This may not be surprising as pitchers are the most visible of all the players on the field. The focus is always on the pitcher until the ball is released. If a pitcher gives up a winning run in a critical game, he is often remembered more for this failing than for all the good work he has done throughout the season.

Consider former Red Sox hurlers Mike Torrez and Bob Stanley, two solid pitchers over their careers, who many recall for their parts in losing, on the one hand, to the Yankees in a divisional playoff game and, on the other, to the Mets in the World Series.

The onetime Pirates right-hander Steve Blass has a disorder named for him due to his inability to find the plate after the 1972 season. Former Atlanta reliever Mark Wohlers seemed to be victimized by Steve Blass disease, never regaining his control after giving up a key home run to Jim Leyritz of the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.

The suicide of reliever Donnie Moore of the Angels, who yielded a two-out, two-strike home run to Dave Henderson in the 9th inning of a playoff game against the Red Sox in 1986, was attributed by some to his failure to preserve the lead and his team's bid for its first ever pennant.

While there is never any one reason why anyone commits suicide, there is no doubt that baseball players, who are watched by millions of fans on TV and live, can experience not only performance anxiety but also depression that is so debilitating that it forces them to take time off. Some years ago, Pete Harnisch, then pitching for the New York Mets, missed several starts for this reason.

More recently, Hong-Chih Kuo, an All-Star reliever with the L.A. Dodgers, spent five weeks on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder and depression. New York Mets' rightie Taylor Buchholz, who had a shoulder injury, remained on the disabled list after his shoulder had healed because he is reportedly undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety.

What is going on here? Are baseball players, macho athletes who are accustomed to success, becoming wimps?

Not at all. Baseball players, like all people who perform before the public, have always battled nerves. The difference is that we now live in a 24/7 Internet age where all of us are under potential scrutiny all the time.

Celebrities are stalked by paparazzi. Politicians are hounded by cameramen, tracking them for every off-handed gaffe. And players have to endure constant replays of their failures, errors in the field, home runs yielded, not only on Baseball Tonight but also on YouTube and other Web sites.

It is to the credit of Bill Buckner, the former Red Sox first baseman, that he will be appearing in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm later this season. According to Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, Buckner, who is sadly remembered more for his bungling of a ground ball against the Mets in the 1986 World Series than for all his fine seasons in a stellar career, "offers empathetic counsel" to Larry David after David botches a ground ball in a softball game in episode nine.

Who knows if Buckner has battled depression over the years? Whether he has or has not, he and his fellow ballplayers deserve our compassion when they step onto the playing field. It is tough out there in the public arena.

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