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Why I can empathize with Dexter Fowler

(If you haven’t gotten a chance to read Bruno’s piece on his own experience with depression, I encourage you to do so. This piece will be different but there will be some overlap on the Venn diagram between the 2. If you’ve only got it in you to read one, I understand.)

When it was pointed out last summer that Dexter Fowler had retreated from all social media, I immediately thought to myself, “this could be really good or this could be really bad.” Just to be clear, I never speculated publicly whether Fowler was suffering from depression but, as someone who has suffered from depression, I can sometimes recognize some of the signs. (Indeed, Bruno’s experiences mirror some of my own.) Fowler, though, was always known for being so outgoing and gregarious. He was always smiling and posting positive, uplifting stuff on social media. He would get a wild hair in the middle of the day and figure out some way to offer up some free tickets to the game that night to some lucky follower or retweeter or whatever. I don’t know Fowler personally, but he strikes me very much as an extrovert, a person who gets a charge from being around others and from engaging with others. And then he decided not to.

Last season was going badly. As cold as Matt Carpenter was to begin the season, Fowler was even colder, and it wasn’t as if the team was motoring along despite him. The team was struggling and he was struggling. His team had already moved him from the position he had played for so long in the center of the outfield and he had already been dropped from his spot at the top of the lineup. Fans were frustrated and were lashing out publicly. Twitter was seemingly inundated with posts talking about how bad Fowler was, how overpaid he was, and how he shouldn’t be playing. There were reports about him not getting along with his manager and his general manager may or may not have called him out publicly. There were racist posts on Twitter. His wife got involved and then she started bearing the brunt of some of it. And then he was gone.

Maybe he needed to get away from all the criticism, I thought to myself, or maybe he is retreating from the world that gives him so much of his energy. I looked at Statcast and his numbers were bad. Exit velocity was down and so was his sprint speed. His sprint speed!!!! How is that possible? That makes no sense whatsoever. And then I remember him dropping that fly ball in right field. If anyone needed to catch a fly ball, if anyone ever needed anything to go well for them, Fowler did…and then that ball fell to the ground. Twitter went ballistic. (I’m pretty sure that was the night I got blocked by one of Twitter’s most outspoken Fowler critics.)

When I read Derrick Goold’s article about Fowler and I saw that he had been battling depression I was immediately drawn into the article. “Depression” is a term that can be misused, sort of the way people often misuse the term “migraine” for a bad headache. People often misunderstand depression for sadness and think, “well, we all get sad.” Yes, we all experience sadness. It is a natural human emotion but depression takes place in the brain.

I don’t know how long I’ve suffered from depression but I do know that there are 2 times in my life when it has really sucked me down into a hole and I know that I am so fortunate to be here today and to be living the life that I’m living. The first time was when I was 14 and lost. Depression doesn’t go away but I began to learn how to adapt to it. I didn’t know I was “depressed” or even what depression was at the time.

Then a few years ago I fell down into that hole again. Today I can recognize the signs – at least in how it affects me. It’s definitely in my brain and I start thinking bad thoughts. I don’t know how else to describe it. I take everything personally. Every little slight, or perceived slight, seems deliberately directed at me personally. And then everything begins to spiral. I push those I care about, and who care about me, away. I get insulted by things that aren’t meant to be insulting. And then, when people insult me, I think it’s about me and not about them. I get tired and want to lay around or sleep…a lot. People ask me if I want to go do something and I decline. I stay at home lost in my own brain.

When my depression reached its nadir a few years back I pushed my wife away and we split up. I was on my own without her or my kids. My daughter who was 10 or so at the time was having anxiety issues – no doubt brought on by the fact that her parents split up – and went into therapy herself. As is customary for me (and probably many with depression) I blamed myself. It was my fault, of course, but I attributed it to me “being bad.” I was a bad husband, a bad father, a bad person…or I believed that I was. I was rotten to the core and that’s what made me bad at everything that mattered in life and there was nothing I could do about it. Most importantly, not only was I screwed up, but it was my fault that my daughter was screwed up, too. I fell into this rabbit hole where anything bad was my fault or because I was bad and anything good was just luck.

I was taking 2 anti-depressants every day and was in individual therapy for about a year. The medication helped and the therapy did, too. I got to the point where I realized that not everything is about me. If I say “hi” to someone and they don’t say “hi” back, maybe that’s just them. Maybe they’re having a bad day or maybe they’re just an asshole. It’s not necessarily because I’m terrible. I had to realize that everyone is carrying all this stuff around with them and none of us ever know what it is. So if someone disrespects me it doesn’t mean that I deserve disrespect. Some of you reading that may think, “well, duh! I learned that a long time ago.” Maybe we all did but I have to make a conscious effort to have those thoughts to keep me out of that hole. It’s not natural or intuitive or instinctual for me. It’s sort of like how we have to think to ourselves, “I need to get to the gym today” in order to stay in shape. I have to have the same conscious thoughts to keep my brain and thoughts healthy.

So I got down to 1 anti-depressant and progressed to group therapy and I could see that there were others in worse shape than me. They were where I was a few months ago! And I had learned some stuff and could provide some insight to help them. And I was alive. And I decided that I wanted my wife back. I had missed her terribly and of course it was my fault that my marriage had fallen apart but I wanted to put it back together. And because I have the greatest wife in the world – and maybe partly because she, too, has battled depression – she allowed me to apologize and gave me the chance to win her back. Not everyone is so lucky, however.

When things started to spiral seemingly out of control for Fowler last season, I saw a lot of me in him. To someone fighting depression, this is what it might look like. He’s struggling at the plate and so he gets in his head about it. He knows he’s getting older and he’s starting to think this might be the end. Every swing and miss, every weak out gets replayed in his head over and over and over. Every hit…well, that one just luckily fell in! He lacks confidence which, of course, makes it harder to succeed at that level. He’s moved from center field to right field – even his manager is starting to lose faith in him. Now he’s being benched. “They know I suck, too” he might think. Social media – it’s not that everyone’s criticizing him. It’s that they’re right! He does suck. He is overpaid. He is hurting the team and may be the one keeping this team from making the playoffs. “And now I need my wife to fight my social media battles for me? What good am I?” And then that fly ball hits the ground in right field.

That misplay in right field was sort of the culmination of an avalanche of bad things that had happened to Fowler in 2018. Mind you, I’m not trying to say that it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t catch that ball. It absolutely was. But every single one of us knows that people make mistakes and they miss balls they should catch…whatever. You make mistakes. I make mistakes. Mike Trout makes mistakes on the baseball field. To a baseball player battling depression, that ball he took his eye off of for just a second – as he undoubtedly had done a thousand times before – was just one more sign that he’s not the person he thought he was or the person he used to be.

To a large degree, we are defined by what we do and I can imagine that’s doubly true for professional baseball players. Fowler loves the game and has been defined as a baseball player probably for 20 years now. If he’s no longer able to do it, this cuts directly to the core of who he is as a person. Most people would think, “everyone’s time comes when they can’t play baseball anymore. He’s had a great career. Now it’s time to go into coaching or broadcasting or baseball management or anything else in the next chapter of his life.” A player battling depression is not likely to see it that way. If it was me at my depths, I would have seen myself as being worthless. If it was me…I was a baseball player and now that I’m not that, what am I? Maybe nothing. That’s what depression does…or at least, that’s what it does to me.

So put yourself in Fowler’s shoes. He’s been asked to move positions because he’s not as good at his position as he used to be. He’s not contributing to the team. He’s demoted in the batting order and ultimately removed completely. He and his manager aren’t on speaking terms. The fans who have always loved him now hate him. If it was me, I would have believed they were all right – Matheny, Mozeliak, the fans…everyone. I suck and I’ll never be worthwhile again. It would have been harder and harder to go to the park every day and when I did manage to get in the game, I'd have less energy. Who wants to go someplace where they are terrible and are going to be continually reminded how terrible they are? Imagine going to work every day and everything that happens reminds you of how inferior you are, how worthless you are and knowing that bad things are going to happen. When I was in my pit, I was good at work and terrible at home so I worked a lot. And when I was at home, I worked some more.

It’s important to understand I’m not blaming Matheny or Mozeliak or anyone else for any of this. They have jobs to do as well and, in fact, Matheny was obviously fighting to save his job just as Fowler was fighting to save his. People have to make tough decisions. Teams can’t afford to play inferior players just because they’re battling depression. It’s incumbent on the player, the person, to get treated. It seems like Fowler has finally gotten the treatment he needed.

It also seems like Fowler was at least a little more successful with his family than I was with mine when I was in my crater. Great for him. It’s progress if he can see himself as a husband and a father first and a baseball player second.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here today to tell you the Cards shouldn’t sign Bryce Harper or that some combination of Fowler and Tyler O’Neill can be as good as Harper. I’ve been an outspoken advocate of signing Harper. But I can see a way in which Fowler and O’Neill can avoid being a black hole in right field for the Cards in 2019. When I was in my depths, I was pretty bad at everything. But just as people and players recover from physical injuries, we can also recover from emotional injuries. Stephen Piscotty had a pretty good year for the A’s last year after not being very good for the Cards the year before and, if he’s healthy and gets off to a good start, I can see the same being true for Fowler.

Last May an acquaintance of mine – a guy my age with a wonderful wife and 2 fantastic kids – disappeared. Friends and family searched for him for days. It was so unusual. He was always on top of everything, so organized, so meticulous. He just didn’t come home one day and he was gone. He was responsible for a lot of things and a lot of money but the money wasn’t missing. He and I had emailed back and forth about 5 days before he disappeared.

My fear at the time was that he, an avid runner who liked to run in the hills around San Antonio, had gotten out on one of those trails and had a heart attack. I went to the gym and was literally scared to get on the treadmill because we were the exact same age. I did it but I was checking my heart rate every couple of minutes.

After being missing for 9 or 10 days searchers found his body. He had gone out into those woods and hanged himself from one of those old oak trees that are ubiquitous in the San Antonio area. He left a note for his family. Literally hundreds of people showed up for the funeral. To a person, everyone was stunned, shocked…what’s the strongest word for stunned?! He had everything…a great job; a rich, fulfilling life; an unbelievable family; the respect and admiration of EVERYONE with whom he ever came in contact. He had touched countless numbers of people through the school where he taught, the church he and his family attended, and the baseball organization he founded and led. He had everything…except that he didn’t.

You never know what anyone else is going through. You never “have it all.” Money, wealth, power, fame, respect, love…none of that is a salve if one’s brain isn’t right. None of that can pull you out of that morass if your brain keeps pulling you in.

The article Goold wrote about Fowler’s depression led me to believe that he’s figured out how to climb out of that hole. The one thing I learned is that no one can do it for you. You’ve got to do it yourself. You may need help – from those you love, from those who are trained, from medicines, and from others experiencing the same things you’ve experienced – but they can’t pull you out of that chasm if you won’t grab the rope. I hope Fowler returns to being the solid baseball player he was prior to last season but, more importantly, I hope that he gets his brain right. He’s a great person, a great husband, a great father and, though he’ll not be a great baseball player forever – and may never be again – that doesn’t define his utility to this world. He is more than what he is in that uniform and I’m sure his wife and his girls know that. What matters, however, is that he knows it.

It’s not easy for me to talk about my bouts with depression. I’ve spent too much time in my life mistreating those I care about and who cared about me and I’m embarrassed about some of the things I’ve done. I’m still embarrassed about what I did to my family and I know I can’t ever undo it. All I can do is try each day to be a better person and to show some sympathy and empathy for those who are going through some of the things I’ve gone through in my life. I never want to go back down into that hole and I’ve learned to do a pretty good job of catching myself when I start to slip. I have skills now I didn’t always have. Sometimes I think about that 14 year old kid who once told what he thought was his only friend that he was thinking about killing himself and I am so thankful that she responded with, “that’s stupid!” (Probably not really the best way to respond, by the way, but it worked.)

I don’t know what Fowler’s been battling but no one else does either, except him and anyone else he’s let inside. But I can tell you that, whatever it is, it’s real. And it can drag every piece of you down as farther than you can imagine but it also doesn’t have to be forever. You can recover. I did. Countless others can. Bruno and I deal with it every day just like others deal with diabetes or arthritis or anxiety or celiac disease. It doesn’t define us. It’s not who we are. We just have to learn how to treat it. I’m glad that Fowler seems to have gotten the treatment he needs.


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