The County Ground in Taunton will host a “baseball spectacular” on Saturday as Marcus Trescothick’s Bangers take on the Great Britain national team as part of the former England batter’s benefit year. To describe someone as a “former” international tends to be a kind way of saying that they are a spent force, seeing out their final days on the county circuit. That’s not true in this case. Trescothick would undoubtedly be opening the batting for England in the upcoming Stanford matches had he not retired from international cricket due to his battles with depression. It’s rare to see a top sportsman admit to mental health problems, but the story of Royals pitcher Zack Greinke means that it’s not so unfamiliar to baseball fans.
While Trescothick had established himself as a proven international player before his problems surfaced publicly, Greinke was only at the beginning of what looked to be a promising pitching career. He impressed as a twenty-year old rookie in 2004, but his 2005 season was little short of miserable. On a Kansas City team that saw losing as their birth right, Greinke finished with a 5-17 record and his ERA ballooned from a 3.97 mark to 5.80. During the off-season that followed, questions were raised over how he might respond to such a chastening experience. When he “walked out” of the Royals’ Spring Training camp prior to the 2006 season and missed all but three games at the tail-end of September, obituaries for his pitching career were being drafted.
Both players have admitted to suffering from depression, but their exact illnesses differ slightly. Trescothick has described his condition as “separation anxiety” and it was the specific scenario of being overseas, away from his family, for months on end that gradually made it impossible for him to continue his international career. Greinke is learning to live with “social anxiety” and he even thought about becoming a hitter at one stage to reduce the amount of down time he had to negotiate as a starter.
Their problems did not arise from out of nowhere once they became professional sports stars. In an interview in March 2007, John Donovan of Sports Illustrated revealed that Greinke’s illnesses “had plagued him for much of his life” and that he had considered quitting baseball, “a game he had grown to despise”, during his period in the minor leagues. Trescothick even traced his feelings of anxiety back to when he was a child, noting that they would lay dormant for a while until exhaustion “weakened” his resistance.
However, it would be understandable if the pressures that come with being a high-profile sportsman made living with their conditions all the more difficult. Many find it difficult to discuss mental health issues, not least due to the stigma still attached to depression that it’s not a ‘real’ illness. Trescothick himself admitted that his initial reaction to somebody claiming to be depressed would have been ‘Cheer up,’ followed by: ‘Pull yourself together’” before he came to terms with his own illness. Considering the intense public scrutiny sportsmen are under, not to mention the brainless comments that they have to endure from certain spectators, the thought of revealing their conditions to the world must have filled Trescothick and Greinke with dread.
This view is reinforced by the way news of their troubles was initially reported. When Trescothick was reduced to uncontrollable tears in the England dressing room in Baroda, India, the then head coach Duncan Fletcher explained that his departure from the tour was due to “family, personal reasons”. In a TV interview, Trescothick subsequently blamed it on a bug he had picked up, a scarcely believable response that simply created even more rumours about what had really happened. With typically brutal honesty, Trescothick stated in his autobiography that he had “ducked the question because I was ashamed to admit I was suffering from depression”.
In Greinke’s case, the then Royals’ manager Buddy Bell and GM Allard Baird explained that his sudden departure from Spring Training related to “personal matters”. Ignoring that notoriously vague term, all fans had to go on was the Royals’ awful performance in 2005 and Greinke’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, which led to a conclusion that he was simply in a sulk. His team was hopeless, so Greinke wanted out. It tallied neatly with the perception of sportsmen being spoilt brats, but was a long way short of the truth.
In defence of Fletcher, Bell and Baird, their actions were the result of trying to do what was best for the individuals at the time. Trescothick and Greinke didn’t need intimate details of their private health conditions being tossed around on radio talk shows while they were at their most vulnerable. It was deemed better to let people say what they liked while the players went to seek professional help.
After spending most of 2006 on the sidelines, Greinke made fifty Major League appearances in 2007 (fourteen as a starter) before pitching brilliantly in the Royals’ starting rotation this season. It looks like Zack is back on track and only the most hard-hearted baseball fan would wish him anything but the best for the future.
Trescothick tried to resume his career with England a couple of times after his exit from India in 2006, before deciding that his only choice was to retire from international cricket so that he was no longer putting himself in the position of spending months away from his family. It would be natural for Trescothick to sit back every now and then and lament the fact that he is largely missing out on the Twenty20 gravy train, but his autobiography suggests he is more than happy with his lot. As he puts it: “nothing is worth what I went through during those black days”. His illness is under control, he has a loving family around him and he is now enjoying his cricket once again with Somerset.
And, of course, enjoying baseball with his ‘Bangers’.
“Cricket hero Marcus Trescothick reveals the crippling ‘black wings’ of depression that destroyed his career” – The Daily Mail online (a serialization of Trescothick’s autobiography).
“BFR: The Mysterious Case of Zack Greinke” – A post from February 2006 by Mark T.R. Donohue at Baseball Toaster.com
“Being Zack Grienke” – a post from Feburary 2007 on Baseball Musings highlighting an article from the Kansas City Star (the original of which is no longer available online as far as I can see)
“A long way to go” – an article by John Donovan on Sports Illustrated.com.