It was Roger Maris’ 27th birthday, Sept. 10, 1961, and to Milton Gross he looked 10 years older. They were sitting in front of Maris’ locker, the Post columnist and the slugger who had hit his 56th home run the day before.
“It’s hard,” Maris told Gross. “You can’t know how rough it gets. It’s a long year, a tough one. It gets you down.”
Gross asked Maris if the pursuit of Babe Ruth’s sacred record of 60 homers in a year was worth it.
“Each one I hit is more exciting,” Maris said, “but it gets to you.”
The next day, Maris would visit a barber shop near the Stadium to get his crew-cut trimmed, and that’s when the stress he was eating every day became apparent. There were bare patches visible, even amid Maris’ high-and-tight.
“It was only when Roger started losing his hair that we understood what kind of pressure he was under,” his teammate, Clete Boyer, would say many years later.
The world’s top athletes get where they get because they aren’t just highly skilled and devoted to their craft, but because they exhibit a single-minded focus that can seem otherworldly. But even that doesn’t guard them from stress, from pressure, from anxiety. Not always.
We see that now, more visibly, because athletes are more willing to admit their frailties now. Tuesday it was Simone Biles, the highest-profile gymnast in the world, bowing out of the team competition at the Tokyo Olympics because she wasn’t in, her words, “the right headspace.” This comes a few months after tennis player Naomi Osaka cited mental health as a reason for bypassing post-match press conferences.
With all the strides we have made, we are still a society who’s default response to mental-health issues is, often, to wish them away – especially among high-performance, high-achieving athletes. They are the very best of the very best. It is often difficult to understand or relate to their struggles.
Yet Michael Phelps – the greatest swimmer who ever lived, who amassed 23 golds and 28 medals in five different Olympics from 2000 to 2016 – eloquently described the unique difficulties all high-end athletes endure – some with aplomb, some less so – in an HBO documentary he recently narrated titled, “The Weight of Gold”:
“For me, I don’t want to say I would have done anything differently if I could do it all over again. I was competitive. I was hungry. I loved it. I chose it. But the truth was that my focus got incredibly narrow and intense really quickly which would have ramifications later in life. Even if it wasn’t possible to realize that at the time.”
The theme of that documentary is “It’s OK to not be OK,” and even many of us who can’t relate to the struggle of a world-class athlete have been touched by the unique challenges of mental illness – in ourselves, in our families, among our friends.
But it is still a difficult boulder to reverse. “Choking” is a term we use readily in sports, and this isn’t to say it isn’t a real issue. In the same day, Sunday, I wrote columns about the U.S. men’s basketball team blowing a late seven-point lead to France and the Yankees bullpen kicking away a late four-run lead; you’d better believe the theme of both was similar.
That’s part of the game, yes. But so is this inconvenient fact: human beings do the choking, and do the competing, and actually put themselves, willingly, in the arena. Sometimes that leads, directly or indirectly to dire consequences.
Donnie Moore, the Angels pitcher who wound up killing himself and shooting his wife three years after serving up a key home run in the 1986 ALCS, is one notable tale (though he had issues beyond that one fateful pitch). Drew Robinson, a Giants prospect, shot himself in the head in April 2020 and survived; later he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan of the tortures coursing through him: “Who would care if I’m gone?”
But these things affect different people differently. A few years ago I called up Ryan Bucchianeri when he was running for Congress. In 1993, Bucchianeri was a freshman at Navy who missed an 18-yard field goal – the shortest possible field goal – that blew the Army-Navy football game.
While many civilians were touched by his modesty – “I tried my best, sir,” was one postgame response – many of his teammates and classmates never forgave him. He was shunned. He was taunted. And he didn’t make the travel squad either of his final two years at the Academy when a new coach came in and wanted to flush the bad karma.
“I was asked a lot, ‘How do you survive that?’” Bucchianeri told me. “But I wasn’t wired that way. But I’ve known others … maybe it would have been different. Every case is different.”
That complex wiring system is more visible now than ever. Sometimes you are wired like Roger Maris and Ryan Bucchianeri. Sometimes you aren’t. We learn that more each day.
“We just have to change the perception that problems with mental health are something to hide,” Phelps says in the HBO documentary. “And in a world where Olympians are leading the way forward to breaking down that stigma, the impact could be massive.”
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