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The Kid and the Hall of Mirrors

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A Different Kind of Griffey Story

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It doesn’t feel like you think it would, wanting to die. Like so many things, it’s nothing like movies or books say it will be like; it’s more mundane than that. It’s less swelling Elliott Smith song as you stare at your countenance in a broken mirror, fingertips gripping the white sides of the sink; it’s more like sitting at the DMV on a crowded Saturday while people press by you and speak loudly in languages you can’t understand and someone jostles your knee and upsets your coffee cup and the numbers crawl by but it seems impossible yours will ever be called. If there is any grand death drive moment, it’s the sudden realization of how incredibly tired you are. It’s one simple, clear thought that somehow emerges from the underwater Victrola masquerading as your brain: I don’t want to do this any more.

“I got out of bed/on two strong legs./It might have been/otherwise.” begins Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise.” In language as sparse and lovely as a New England winter, the poem chronicles her day: caring for her dog, doing the work she loves, eating dinner with her husband, before ending: “…one day, I know/it will be otherwise.” Jane Kenyon struggled with depression all her life, managing to keep it at bay enough to do her work, and be good to those she loved and who loved her. Then cancer won the bidding war for her body. This isn’t a happy story, but it is a true one.

The first sound your body makes is one of protest: you greet the world with a battle cry and join your fellow comrades in arms against the common enemy of death. The primary objective is to survive, until one day it isn’t. One day it is otherwise.

This past weekend, we celebrated Ken Griffey, Jr.’s induction into the Hall of Fame. It might have been otherwise. In January of 1988, the man who has been elected to baseball’s most select group of superstars was a boy of seventeen who swallowed a large bottle of aspirin because he no longer wanted to live.

Falling into a depression, like falling in love, is subject to the laws of gravity, gaining speed as a body falls, further and faster. But depression is tricky, because people outside of the object—and that is how your body feels, sometimes, a particularly bulky backpack you have to drag down the hallway of your life—don’t always see the health crisis in front of them, because it’s happening on the inside, like swallowing a car crash. Much like cancer, depression doesn’t care about your age or your relationship status or your job. This is what mystifies well-meaning outsiders who say things like, “but you seem fine!” or encourage the sufferer to make their own happiness, like happiness is a DIY craft and if you just scan enough Pinterest boards you’ll be able to cobble some together with popsicle sticks and kitchen twine.

So imagine you are seventeen years old and scouting reports have been written calling you the best prospect in the game, a generational talent. There’s pressure and expectation before you even take your first swing in MLB, the swing that will later become iconic. But that’s later. Depression has a way of funneling down everything so it’s like looking at the world through a pinhole viewer; all you know is the here and now, the pain of it. Not all depressives are suicidal; not all of those who attempt suicide are depressed. Suicide requires action, while depression often saps sufferers of the energy necessary to complete basic tasks like brushing one’s teeth or taking a shower. If suicide is demolishing a building, depression is neglecting it into ruin. As Andrew Solomon writes in his seminal text on depression, the Noonday Demon: “it is a willful act to liberate oneself of oneself. The meekness of depression could hardly imagine suicide. It takes the brilliance of self-recognition to destroy the object of that recognition.” Transitioning from the life of a carefree kid to a quasi-adult, Griffey was depressed; he was also in the position of never being able to not recognize himself. Being a star means someone always has a claim on you; it forces an externalized view of the self, which makes that self easier to annihilate.

It’s possible we would have never know about Griffey’s suicide attempt if not for how much he loves kids. Junior was well-known for always being willing to sign autographs for kids, even when he told adults no. He was generous with his time and his spirit, granting dozens of wishes to Make-a-Wish kids, so much so that he’s earned a chapter in Wish Granted, a book celebrating athletes who have made significant contributions to the Foundation. In the easy joy of children, maybe Junior saw part of himself, the practical jokester who once put a cow in his manager’s office and used to tickle Ichiro pregame. Griffey has spoken of his desire not to be remembered as the greatest, but for people to say, “He had a lot of fun playing, and we enjoyed watching him.” Ken Griffey Jr. made seeking joy his prime directive, and he spoke about his suicide attempt as a way to ensure others could seek joy as well.

A body at rest remains at rest, and a body that’s falling keeps falling until something—drugs, or therapy, or just the ground—intervene. It is hard to change the mind of a person who is bent on their own destruction. The suicidal brain is a dazzling combination of the utterly logical and the breathtakingly illogical (Virginia Woolf’s suicide note is probably the best example). But what Griffey did in speaking openly about his suicide attempt was still revolutionary. De-stigmatizing mental health issues is an ongoing battle in this country, and as it is with other engines of social change, sports is slower to adapt than most. The stigma of mental illness is also especially prevalent in the African American community, where cultural valuations of strength against adversity and a reliance on faith-based support rather than medical support can conflict with health needs. Only 25% of African Americans seek help for mental illness, compared with 40% of whites. In 2009, the Tigers placed struggling pitcher Dontrelle Willis on the DL for mental health issues, although Willis insisted he was fine and the problem was just “something in his blood.” He continued to struggle once off the DL and was eventually released. 2009 also marked the year that Joey Votto and Khalil Greene went on the DL for mental health issues. Yet despite the New York Times article painting mental skills coaches as the new market inefficiency, the number of players going on the DL for mental health issues has dropped since the league first codified the procedure with a memo in 2009. And yet the number of people affected by mental illness has not declined: statistics show one in five people suffer some form of mental health issue per year, and one in twenty-five live with a serious mental health condition, such as chronic depression. The conversation has been opened, by courageous men like Evan Gattis and Zack Greinke and Votto and Griffey; the onus is on MLB to make sure that conversation continues. It’s great if individual teams recognize the importance of addressing mental health by employing mental skills coaches, but MLB as a whole needs to renew its commitment to caring for the whole player in a way that both legitimizes and normalizes mental illness—not only for the players themselves but as a reflection of the greater culture that baseball represents.

Being a superstar must do a number on one’s sense of self. Posters, bobbleheads, t-shirts—your likeness reproduced in miniature, again and again, a hall of mirrors reflecting a fractured identity. While much is made about the Kid’s impact on the game, his subtle shaping of the interior landscape of baseball is equally important. In 1992, mental illness was still part of a shadowy world, in turns romanticized and fetishized in its most extreme versions in popular media. The Noonday Demon wouldn’t be published for another ten years. But Ken Griffey Junior found his way through the sadness and into the joy, and was able to bear witness to how he got there. It could have been otherwise; blissfully, it wasn’t. This is a happy story, and somehow—impossibly, wonderfully—it is a true one, and it is part ours.