Pitcher Rob Whalen quietly retired from baseball after last season. He started the year with Triple-A Tacoma, made one appearance in the majors, holding the Red Sox scoreless over eight innings on June 15, and was sent back to the minors shortly thereafter. The reason for Whalen’s retirement? Mental health issues, as Hannah Keyser of Yahoo Sports reports.
Keyser’s reporting is long and detailed, so I urge you to click through and read for the whole story. The summary: Whalen was dealing with anxiety while with the Mariners in 2017-18. He reached out to the Mariners for help. Though he did get some help, the team allegedly prioritized his being in uniform over dealing with his mental health issues. Whalen said he felt “abandoned” by the team, though he says he doesn’t wish to condemn the Mariners specifically since it is a structural problem. Mike Majarma, another former Mariner who also retired due to mental health issues, shared Whalen’s sentiment. Majarma said, “I don’t think [the Mariners] knew how to handle it.”
The Mariners did make an attempt to help Whalen, but their efforts were inadequate, as he tells it. Whalen said the organization offered him a week off, but director of player development Andy McKay called him just three days into the break and told him to report to the team immediately or else he would be replaced on the roster.
Whalen spent most of July and all of August 2017, through the end of the minor league season, on the restricted list to address his mental health issues. Describing his feeling of abandonment, Whalen said, “That whole offseason, I never got a text from a coach, never got a call, text from a player. Nobody ever reached out to me.” Whalen also said that his teammates were disrespectful about his seeking help. Some players referred to him as a “psycho.” Whalen said, “It’s just really where we’re at now in sports; it’s a global society problem. It’s that stigma: ‘You’re fragile; you’re a headcase.'”
Although it certainly sounds like the Mariners could have done a lot more to help Whalen, this is indeed a league-wide problem. Really, as Whalen said, it’s a societal issue. We take physical issues, which we can easily see, seriously. Mental health issues, which are a lot less visible, are not taken nearly as seriously. Hopefully, Whalen’s speaking out and Keyser’s reporting help get the ball rolling on improving teams’ responses to players’ mental health issues across the board. This should happen simply because the people who help run baseball teams have empathy, but it is also smart strictly from a business perspective as well. Players who successfully deal with their (mental) health problems will become more productive, and will have the added benefit of showing other players they don’t have to hide their issues to maintain job security. Rather than having one player publicly struggling and many others suffering in silence, hundreds of players across the league could reliably get the help they need and deserve. They will then return quicker and hopefully flourish.