This story includes graphic descriptions of a suicide attempt. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Early in the 2021 season, Anthony DeSclafani threw a regular bullpen session. There was nothing particularly special about it, except DeSclafani donned a black “End The Stigma” t-shirt. On the back: “You are not alone.”
The scene was otherwise as nondescript as scenes can be. Yet it stuck with Gabe Kapler.
Kapler doesn’t remember exactly when the moment, one of his favorites of 2021, happened. He thought he took a photo on his phone, but he couldn’t find it. The image is lost in a sea of thousands of similar moments sprinkled throughout the 2021 season.
To Kapler, the DeSclafani memory showcased the marrying of physical and mental strength. As much as anything, that combination — and the mindfulness of it — led to a historically great season on the shores of McCovey Cove.
As the Giants racked up win after win, Kapler was asked ad nauseum what he and the largest coaching staff in MLB were doing differently than the other 29 ball clubs. Their miraculous overachieving that resulted in a franchise record 107 victories naturally generated disbelief. But the presumptive NL Manager of the Year always demurred, saying good teams approach games, strategy, and organizational development similarly. San Francisco wasn’t reinventing the wheel.
But there was one invisible area the Giants seem to be revolutionizing: mental health care and awareness. In a sport where every Ivy League-laden front office is searching for market inefficiencies, every God-gifted player desperately seeks an edge, any edge, the Giants may have discovered a secret.
Kapler is convinced mental and physical health are equally important in baseball, and should be treated as such. The staff’s handling and understanding of their player’s mental health — and sometimes vice versa — resulted in real-life baseball wins, he says.
“In baseball, I think we tend to have the physical health and well being of players on one level and the mental health and well-being of players on a much, much lower level,” Kapler told KNBR. “This is industry-wide, it’s sports-wide. And I think that our players and our staff have made a concerted effort to have mental health be on the same level as physical health. Not only because we think it’s the right thing to do, not only because we want to set an example and use our platform to raise awareness for mental health, but also because we think it’s a performance thing.
“When players are struggling with things off the field, we think that’s going to affect their performance off the field. So it is the right thing to do to care for our players when it comes to mental health, but it’s also competitively the right thing to do.”
Soaked in beer and champagne, with many still donning ski goggles, the Giants celebrated on the Oracle Park field. They hugged each other and then their families, rejoicing on Oct. 3 as National League West champions.
Among them was Drew Robinson. He initially was hesitant to join the celebration. It was a hard-earned, “sacred,” moment for the team. Robinson wasn’t with the club every day, and he didn’t want to overstep.
But the Giants egged him on. “Get in here!,” they urged. There were plenty of NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST DIVISION CHAMPS shirts. Plenty of love to go around.
So Robinson emerged from the dugout and exulted in the joyous scene.
“It was just another side of the culture, just how embracing they are of everybody,” Robinson told KNBR. “Obviously I pictured myself doing that as a player at some point. But I think everything I’ve been through, being there in the role I was, was almost more fulfilling. Because it shows how important the work that we’re all doing as a team and myself has proven to be.”
Almost 18 months before the celebration, Robinson shot himself in the head. He tried to kill himself, but survived, spending 20 hours alone in his Las Vegas home with a hole in the right side of his head.
Robinson’s suicide attempt on April 16, 2020 was the height of his depression, anxiety and self-doubt. When he survived, Robinson vowed to get help and help others. To love his family and himself. He was meant to be alive.
Doctors were forced to surgically remove Robinson’s right eye, but that didn’t stop the former fourth round pick from trying a comeback. Through physical therapy and determination, he somehow re-trained his mind and body after the trauma. The Giants invited him to minor league spring training in 2021. He started in right field for the Sacramento Rivercats and homered in his fourth game.
But success was fleeting at the Triple-A level, and some of the dark sides of dealing with baseball’s hardships crept back. Robinson retired from baseball on July 16 and joined the Giants’ front office as a mental health advocate.
Hiring Robinson wasn’t a PR stunt. It offered support to Robinson and showed a commitment to the cause. And Robinson, whom Kapler called a “central figure,” has made a real impact on the organization’s culture of mental health awareness.
“(Robinson) has really led the way in our organization over the last calendar year because the experience that he had, I think, has made a lot of people around the sport and in society feel less alone,” Kapler said. “He’s been so open. He’s been so vulnerable. And for me, Drew is as tough as they come. He’s literally the toughest dude I know.”
Robinson views his role as the bridge between the Giants’ players and professionals — director of mental health and wellness Shana Alexander, the training staff, or other resources. He’s always open about his experiences, and is there to talk.
This winter, Robinson’s offseason project is designing a peer-to-peer mental health support system. He envisions designating a few players at the beginning of the year as resources that everyone should know to feel comfortable coming to with struggles. The peers could even get mental health first aid certified, Robinson said.
The benefit of that system is making it even easier to be forthcoming about mental health issues. The key can sometimes be starting conversations, Robinson said. Someone might be more willing to talk to his teammate than his “superior” on the coaching staff or in the front office.
“As a player, I was just so closed off to those things,” Robinson said. “Any additional support that is offered, who knows? That might be a tipping point for someone maybe like me who was so closed off.”
Robinson also hopes to eventually encourage the organization to adopt service dogs for the Giants and their minor league affiliates. He noticed when he brought along his goldendoodle, Ellie, many players gravitated toward her for emotional support.
Robinson’s first year with the organization culminated in a “special moment” he’ll never forget on the field and in the clubhouse with the Giants. His journey’s not over.
It seems so obvious. Of course an athlete won’t be on the top of their game if they’re dealing with off-field crises that can cause anxiety or stress. Of course mental “injuries” should be treated with the same care as physical ones.
Acknowledging mental health has become more prominent in sports recently, with increased awareness due to outspoken stars like Naomi Osaka, Soimone Biles, Kevin Love and Robinson.
But it’s still rare for teams to take the issue seriously. Kapler is right to believe the Giants are becoming an industry outlier.
Sean-Kelley Quinn, the director of mental conditioning for the Moawad Group — a mental health coaching and consulting group that works with elite athletes across sports — said he thinks there are 26 or 27 MLB teams with at least one mental health professional on-staff, but a majority of clubs aren’t doing enough.
“I think there’s still room for growth as far as doing it the right way and developing infrastructure,” Quinn said. “You have that organization, 200, 250 guys playing at all levels. If you look at that, are you able to individually impact everyone? Probably not.”
Quinn said the “infrastructure” should allow players to seek help for their mental skills just like they would go to a hitting coach if they didn’t feel right at the plate. Some of the clients Quinn works with tell him they don’t have people they can trust.
Among those surveyed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.5% of adults reported symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder during August 2020 to February 2021 — the throes of the pandemic. The most front-facing and successful athletes aren’t immune to the country’s mental health crisis, with 35% of elite athletes suffering from disordered eating, burnout, depression or anxiety, according to data from American College of Sports Medicine.
“In the past, we’ve seen kind of like a ‘suck it up’ approach to mental health,” Kapler said. “That’s not specific to baseball, but probably translates to other sports as well. It isn’t conducive to getting the best out of people.”
Teams don’t need a Drew Robinson to commit resources to mental health support. The New York Yankees, for example, have hired Chad Bohling as their full-time director of mental conditioning for over a decade.
“It’s something that’s not happening everywhere,” Robinson said. “It’s just a matter of time before this stuff is taken seriously, because it is very serious. And it’s very important.”
The Giants have created an atmosphere in the clubhouse unlike any Anthony DeSclafani experienced prior to signing with SF for the 2021 season. The seven-year veteran said the laid back attitude of the players prevented “added pressure” and made everyone comfortable.
The loose environment helped SF through the grueling season, DeSclafani said. He believes it showed in pressurized situations (SF hit the most pinch-hit home runs in MLB history) and when a player stepped up in place of an injured teammate.
Even as the Dodgers remained hot on their tails all season, the Giants stayed even-keeled to stave them off. SF became the only National League team to play at least .600 ball every month since baseball’s integration.
Having calm veterans like Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford in place helps. As do mindful, approachable people like Kapler and Robinson. But creating such an atmosphere requires care, openness and action.
“I’ve been around players, as a player myself, where guys come into the clubhouse just wrecked, Kapler said. “They’re just exhausted, potentially dealing with some stuff at home. At times, very emotional. So for me, that might be a compromised player. And so the question that the players and staff are asking is how can we help a compromised player heal, get stronger, be ready to perform, but also be healthier in their lives?”
In mid-July, Kevin Gausman’s wife Taylor was hospitalized with pregnancy complications. The Giants placed Gausman on family emergency leave and gave him time to be with his wife in Louisiana. Gausman left the Giants for three days, in the middle of an intense pennant race, with full support of his team.
“Professional athletes aren’t robots,” Quinn said. “They have emotions like we all have. Their personal lives can weigh on their professional lives, and their professional lives can weigh on their personal lives. But if you have a guy that’s dealing with something in his personal life where that can impact him out there — is he going to be 100% to go out there and throw a pitch, or is he going to be worried about his life like anyone would?”
Off-field drama, albeit not always to the level of Gausman’s, happens all the time. “You really have to be behind the curtain to understand it,” Kapler said. He added the Giants have made it clear that if a player needs to take a workout off or spend more time with their family, that’s “totally fine.”
The staff needs their players to be honest with them in order to provide support. Just as Kapler wants to know if Tommy La Stella’s Achilles is bothering him to the point where it could limit his range at second base, he wants to know if something’s going on between the ears.
“As a team and as an organization, we are working on ways to understand those things better so we can better support players and put them in better positions to succeed,” Kapler said.
A day before Game 5 of the NLDS, Brandon Belt ran sprints in the outfield. Recovering from a fractured left thumb, the first baseman was dying to get back on the field. On his back, whipping in the San Francisco wind as he ran, were the words “You Are Not Alone.”
It was October 13, and the Giants were still wearing the shirts. It’s not just a slogan.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.