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Baseball needs to examine mental health challenges in the time of COVID

Ryan Sherriff stepped away from the game. He’s far from the only one

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Tampa Bay Rays Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Illustrated ran important piece today about baseball and mental health. It highlights Ryan Sherriff’s decision to take a break from baseball, as well as his decision to come back.

Though things had not been right with him for a while, the long simmering issues boiled over as he took the mound for his first appearance of the ‘21 season.

“As soon as I toed the rubber, I felt nothing,” Sherriff says. “No emotions. No adrenaline. Nothing. I thought, Wow, what am I doing here if I don’t feel a damn thing? We’re winning 2–0. It’s the seventh inning. That’s when I knew: ‘I need to leave.’ ”

Sherriff gave up a run-scoring double and a two-run single before getting the third out. After the game he telephoned his agent, Lonnie Murray, while still at the ballpark.

“I’m done,” Sherriff told her. “I have to retire. I can’t do this anymore.”

Sherriff is far from the only player to struggle with mental health issues during the COVID era. He’s not even the only one on the team, as we read earlier this year about Ryan Thompson’s struggles following the playoffs last year. Ty Buttrey, Chris Devenski, Adam Haseley, and Taylor Ward have all either taken time away, or walked away completely.

Combined with the public struggles of respected veterans like Andrelton Simmons and Ian Desmond, and baseball is having something of a mental health epidemic.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Minnesota Twins David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The stressors players face are numerous already. Add in other factors from the article, like:

  • The isolation and curbs on personal freedom created by COVID-19 protocols.
  • The lack of minor league baseball for the past 18 months.
  • The elimination of more than 700 professional roster spots because of the downsizing of the minor leagues.
  • The ease and proliferation afforded by social media to direct hatred toward ballplayers because of their public profile; publicly known salaries.

One of the concerning things brought out in the article is the way baseball treats these absences, as players with mental health issues are not guaranteed or required to receive pay, as time on the restricted list does not accumulate service time.

As for Sherriff, we do not know if the Rays withheld his paycheck, but now that he’s working his back, he is hoping to be an advocate for mental health in the game:

“I would want other players and people to reach out to me. I’m glad that I was able to pave the way for other athletes to do this, by stepping up and talking about it, and to let them know there is more to life than baseball games. Your happiness is what matters more.

“Something that I can tell people is, ‘Reach out.’ I should have reached out sooner when I was feeling this way right after the World Series. Reach out to your team. They will be behind you.

There’s much more in the complete piece — and it is well worth your time.