Fantasy Baseball, Zack Greinke, and Social Anxiety

MLB: All Star Game

My first introduction to fantasy sports was in 2009 when I joined a fantasy baseball league. I finished in second place that year and have loved fantasy sports ever since. 2009 was also Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke’s breakout year. He made the All-Star team, won 16 games, had 205 strikeouts, led the American League with a 2.16 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, and won the Cy Young Award. He wasn’t on my fantasy baseball team that year, and I wasn’t a Royals fan, but I was rooting for Zack Greinke’s success because I learned that, like me, he had social anxiety disorder.

Greinke was only 25 years old in 2009, but it was his sixth year in the major leagues. A former first round draft pick, (6th overall) Greinke was expected to be a star in Kansas City, but his first few years in the majors were uneven. He had a promising rookie season as a 20-year-old with a 3.97 ERA and finished 4th in the rookie of the year voting. Greinke was so good at pitching he sometimes played games with himself to keep interest on the mound. Even though he could throw close to a 100 MPH fastball, he once threw a 50 MPH curveball just to fool the batter. Greinke had all the talent in the world, and it seemed the sky was the limit. In Greinke’s second year, however; his ERA shot up to 5.80 and he led the league with 17 losses. Then in 2006, he left his team and quit baseball.

Why would someone so young and talented walk away from the game and a million dollar contract? The word from Greinke himself at the time was he was bored of pitching and didn’t want to play baseball anymore. Fans and people around the league called him crazy, selfish, and stupid. It wasn’t until after Greinke returned to baseball a year later in 2007 that the truth of the situation began to emerge. During his season off, Greinke saw a sports psychologist and was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression.

Greinke later described how he felt at the time. “That was kind of my thought: Why am I putting myself through torture when I don’t really want to do it? I enjoy playing, but I didn’t enjoy anything else about it, so I was like, I’ll go do something I want to do, that I have a passion for and that was my thought process when I left.” It’s natural for people with social anxiety to avoid the situations that cause them anxiety, and in Greinke’s case, that happened to be professional baseball.

Greinke said his social anxiety started in high school and got worse as his baseball career progressed. ”It was like having anxiety every day,” Greinke said, but social anxiety, “Never really bothered me on the mound,” even when pitching in front of thousands of people. The social anxiety got to him more so off the field, before and after the game.

Greinke had trouble interacting with his teammates in the clubhouse as well. “I like learning stuff, but I don’t want to talk about nothing or less than nothing. If it’s something important, I’m fine with it, but if it’s hey Zack, how was your day? ‘My day was good.’ That’s going to be my answer. I don’t know how it gets any deeper than that. Does someone ask that and they actually tell them how their day went, what really happens? I have no interest in that.” I know exactly how he feels and have had similar difficulty making small talk with co-workers.

All professional athletes have to face the media after games, and the spotlight is even bigger when you’re the starting pitcher of a Major League baseball team. Imagine having social anxiety and having a dozen reporters shove microphones into your face, asking you questions. And you have to answer them. It’s part of the job. I could understand Greinke wanting to quit professional baseball for that reason alone.

greinke-reporters

Social anxiety even bothered Greinke at home. “The thing that I was always worried about was that when I went home in the offseason I didn’t want to be followed around everywhere I go.” Imagine random strangers coming up to you in the street or at a store or restaurant, and they start talking to you like they know you even though you’ve never met. And they expect you to be friendly and talk back, and take a picture with them or sign an autograph. That must be a nuisance for the average celebrity, but for a celebrity with social anxiety, it must be a nightmare.

After speaking with the sports psychologist, Greinke said, “I realized there was something abnormal about my feelings and there was a way to get rid of them.” He was prescribed an antidepressant medication, Zoloft. “The medicine was the greatest thing ever,” said Greinke. “I may have gotten lucky and found the right one. The only problem I have with it is that it makes me a little tired, but not real tired. That’s the only complaint I have. I know it’s not always that easy, but for me it was. I was lucky with that.” I would be hesitant to believe it was really that simple for him, but Greinke insisted, ”For me, it’s just the medicine, it really was. Talking to people about it doesn’t help me at all. It is just straight medication; it changed everything.” I personally tried Zoloft myself, and I was excited and hopeful in part based on Greinke’s claims, but the medication didn’t work for me and my social anxiety. Perhaps depression was always the bigger issue for Greinke, and antidepressants might work better in treating that. Or maybe I’m just unlucky.

Since Greinke started taking medication in 2007, he has seemingly never looked back. He signed an extension with Kansas City, had his Cy Young year in 2009, was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, won a playoff game for them, then was traded again in 2012 to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In 2013, as a free agent, Greinke signed a six-year $147 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Greinke has since helped lead the Dodgers to the playoffs in back to back seasons, made another All-Star team in 2014, and is now one of the top starting pitchers in the game… He’s even helped me win a couple of fantasy baseball leagues. Greinke may still not be talkative with teammates or the media, but he is coping in the dugout and thriving on the mound.

As the 2015 season of fantasy baseball begins, I’ll be trying to get Zack Greinke on my team, and so will millions of other fantasy baseball nerds players around the world. Whether you’re a baseball fan or not, there’s a lot to learn from Greinke and his experience with social anxiety. First of all, it shows that every case of social anxiety is different. The disorder can effect each individual person to different degrees, in different ways, and in different areas of their lives. Zack Greinke could pitch in front of a stadium full of people, just fine, but speaking to a reporter or two would fill him with anxiety. Second, medication and treatment effects people differently. Zoloft apparently worked like a charm for Greinke, but it didn’t help me that much. Finally, perhaps the greatest thing we can learn from Zack Greinke is to never give up and know that social anxiety is beatable. Greinke almost gave up and quit baseball because of his social anxiety, but instead, he worked through it. If Zack Greinke could overcome social anxiety and become a multi-millionaire star baseball player, then you and I can overcome social anxiety to achieve our goals as well, no matter how big or small they may be.

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