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Rethinking how we talk about athletes

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There’s more to athletes than their statistics and on-field performances.

MLB: New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s note: This post deals with some discussion of mental health struggles and references a recent sexual assault story.

I have to start this off with a super quick personal story. I’ll keep it short, I promise.

I’m one of the unfortunate many who live with one of the world’s most annoying mental cocktails: a combination of depression and anxiety. To quote Chidi Anagonye of The Good Place fame, “You know the sound that a fork makes in the garbage disposal? That’s the sound my brain makes all the time.” It’s about as fun as it sounds.

Conveniently for me, I’ve also been a fan of baseball for as long as I can remember. Because of my lifelong love for the game, baseball has become a weird coping mechanism of sorts for me. The relatively slow pace of play somehow distracts my brain from the garbled mess that’s going on up there pretty much all day, every day, and the fandom aspect of the sport gives my depressed self a sense of community I typically struggle to find in “real” life.

Okay, now that you know a little bit about the context I’m coming from, let’s talk about why you’re seeing this discussion on a Yankees blog.

Last week, Clint Frazier made a few ripples on his way out of New York. While I have no interest in talking about a joke he made on Twitter at the expense of a troll, I do want to discuss something he said he dealt with during his time with the team.

On the Short Porch podcast, Frazier discussed, amongst a host of other topics, the concussions he suffered while with the Yankees and how both he and the organization tried to work through them. During the interview, he also admitted to struggling mentally while trying to cope with his physical injuries. Here are some quotations Ryan Morik pulled from the interview for Yahoo! Sports last week:

“I never understood the whole mental health stuff until like recently,” said Frazier. “When you go through something for so long, and you just feel the same way every single day, it’s really hard to move forward. And the way that I was feeling was affecting my quality of life. I was severely symptomatic with some of these past issues that I was having. I was like, ‘we gotta pick the pace up. I need help. I need serious fu**in help.’

“I needed to separate baseball and my health because, like I said, it was about quality of life at this point. I was severely struggling with this stuff. ... It just drug out because we didn’t have the diagnosis.”

Because of his revelations about his head injuries and his dealings (or lack thereof) with Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone, this part of the interview isn’t getting quite as much airtime. To anyone paying attention, though, those quotes should be a cause for concern, especially as 2021 marked Drew Robinson’s return to professional baseball after his own mental health struggles. I think it’s time we talk about how we talk about athletes.

I don’t know how else to say this, so I’m going to state it as bluntly as I can: as fans and writers, we have to remember that there are actual human beings behind the on-field performances we watch religiously and comment on for six months of the year. Baseball players are more than the numbers that fill up their stat sheets; they are real people with real lives and interior worlds that we know very little about. What might seem like harmless trolling to a fan has the potential to be damaging to people who might be in the midst of a private battle with their own brains.

In any public-facing role, the worker is ultimately going to face their fair share of criticism. That’s just an unfortunate fact. From a fan’s perspective, though, that criticism should never be mean-spirited in nature. I don’t think I need to spell it out for you, but here’s the difference. To me, there is nothing wrong with picking apart Frazier’s swing mechanics or looking at his Statcast data to discuss why or how he had a rough season. That constructive criticism ends, however, when these discussions turn to unnecessary comments about Frazier, the man, and not Frazier, the baseball player. Baseball does not exist in a vacuum. No matter what way you spin it, what we see on the field will never be the entire story.

We saw another example of this overly harsh external criticism rearing its ugly head in the NHL earlier this year when former top prospect Kyle Beach, who was widely mocked as a bust, came forward as a survivor of sexual assault while a member of the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Though Beach’s story is, of course, very different than Frazier’s, it should serve as another worthwhile reminder to fans and writers alike that every single athlete that will take the field next season are fighting their own battles that we potentially know nothing about. As such, we should ensure that we discuss them with the respect and dignity they deserve. While it has been particularly encouraging to see athletes from pretty much every major professional sport speak openly and honestly about their own mental struggles, the truth of the matter is these athletes and these stories represent such a tiny portion of the sports world.

I can go on about this stuff forever, but word counts exist so I’ll leave it at this: as a baseball fan and writer who struggles with my own mental health, I think we owe it to each other and to the athletes we follow to discuss their performances in a respectful manner that acknowledges the fact that the players are more than their slash lines and Statcast data. Encouraging the internet not to be terrible for once might be a bit much, but a guy can try, right?